The beginning of the end of Brexit?

Although it’s almost 3 years since the Brexit vote in the UK, in many ways it seems like an age, another era. Notwithstanding the fact that the European election in the UK is a poor match to the Brexit referendum in voter turn-out terms, high 30’s compared to over 70% respectively, both polls were singularly about one issue. Nearly 3 years ago, I attempted to estimate the split of the leave and remain votes by political party allegiance (see this post), as reproduced below.

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A similar split for the European election, with an assumption about the leave:remain split of the main Conservative and Labour parties (both of whom polled very poorly in the election), shows that the majority is likely now in favour of remain but by not much more than the leave majority in the Brexit vote.

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There is no doubt that the Brexit issue has changed British politics, likely for a generation. Whether the Brexit party, led by the little Englander Nigel Farage, will be anything other than a one issue party has yet to be seen. The tragedy is that the country looks as split as ever on the issue, the resolution of which is going to result in an embittered minority which could poison British politics for many years to come.

Goldilocks Lives

With the S&P500 off its September high and US 10 year yields well over 3% back in October, its crazy to think that just 6 months later the 10-year yield is currently around 2.6% and the S&P500 has just hit new highs. What was all the fuss about! A return to a steady US GDP non-inflationary growth as per the Q1 figures and with Q1 earnings coming in ahead of reduced expectations (with approx. half of the S&P500 reported), one could be tempted to think we have returned to the good old Goldilocks days. My predictions (here) of a rebound off the December lows followed by more volatility in Q1 were well wide of the mark with volatility across major asset classes eerily low as the market hits new highs. My record of been wide of the mark has at least been consistent with this post from January last year calling a premature ending to Goldilocks!

Some commentators are bullish on more upside for the market on the improved economic and earnings figures and cite comparisons to similar 20% drops and recoveries in 1998 and 2011. The graph below shows the comparisons, with 2 other 20% drops (although 1957 and 1990 were during recessions).

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As to what happens next, I have no idea. Some say at 17 times forward earnings; the market is not too expensive, and a wall of money will fuel this FOMO (fear of missing out) rally. Although the positive narrative from Q1 earnings will likely dictate short term trends, the market just feels like it has gotten ahead of itself to me and I feel comfortable taking some money off the table. As the graph below of monthly moves greater than +/- 3% shows, volatility is never that far away.

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A return to economic and earnings growth also raises the question of how long the Fed can remain ultra-accommodative. The arguments on raising rates and debts levels are all very déjà vu! For the moment however, unless the China trade talks fall apart, all looks surprisingly rosy.

There are always concerns. Bank of America recently highlighted that over the past five years, US firms have paid out $3.3 trillion in dividends and bought back $2.7 trillion of their own shares ($800 billion in 2018 alone) whilst taking on $2.5 trillion of new debt. The buybacks are responsible for 30% of earnings growth according to Bank of America (20% in 2018). The need to pay down this debt was a focus for many firms in the stock market rout. Bank of America predict further upside in equities to the summer before a pullback in Q3. The ever-excellent John Authers (ex-FT columnist now with Bloomberg) had an insightful article on corporate debt in March.

According to a recent report from Euler Hermes, the non-bank leveraged loan market is flattering the overall US corporate debt profile and corporate spreads are likely under estimating risk. This report from Moodys suggests that high leverage is offset by ample coverage of net interest expense. In this report, S&P estimate that “the proportion of companies having aggressive or highly leveraged financial risk has risen slightly to 61% (compared to 2009)”. Regulators also remain concerned about debt levels, particularly leveraged loans as per this recent report. The size of the leveraged loan market globally is estimated around $1.5 trillion, with the Bank of England estimates shown below.

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According to Ron Temple of Lazard Asset Management the “deterioration in underwriting standards for leveraged loans is increasingly worrisome” and the graph below shows the increased leverage in the market which combined with lax terms (approx. 80% are covenant lite loans) are a red flag in the event of any downturn.

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The buoyant private equity market is a testament to the joys of leverage, with recent PE raisings hitting records and an estimated $1.3 trillion of undeployed capital as of March. In this recent FT article, Jonathan Lavine of Bain Capital warned that private equity groups are taking on too much debt in the competition to win deals (the Bain 2019 market report is well worth a read).

Still, these are all things to worry about in times of stress. As of now, let’s enjoy Goldilocks return and keep dancing. Carefully mind you, it is late and we don’t want to wake those bears.

Hot Trends

This is scary…

Flying High

As the S&P 500 grapples around the 2,800 mark, it has achieved an impressive 12% year to date gain. A pause or a pull-back whilst macro events like Brexit and the US-China trade talks are resolved are a possibility given the near 17 forward PE. I thought it would be worthwhile looking at some of the high flyers in the market to search for value.

I selected a group of 12 stocks that have increased by 25% on average since the beginning of the year. The list is dominated by business software firms that are squarely in the SaaS, cloud and AI hype. Firms like ServiceNow (NOW), Workday (WDAY), Tableau Software (DATA), Splunk (SPLK), Adobe (ADBE), Salesforce (CRM), Palo Alto Networks (PANW) and the smaller Altair Engineering (ALTR). Others included in my sample are Square (SQ), Paypal (PYPL), VMWare (VMW) and my old friend Nvidia (NVDA).

Using data from Yahoo Finance, I compared each of the firm’s valuation, based upon today’s close, using their 2019 projected PE against their PEGs, using projected EPS growth for the next 3 years. The results are below.

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These are not cheap stocks (a PEG at or below 1 is considered undervalued). As per this FT article, the CEO of ServiceNow John Donahoe summed up the market’s love of some of these stocks by saying “investors value, first and foremost, growth”. By any measure, “value” in that quote is an understatement. I have never been good at playing hyped stocks, I just can’t get my head around these valuations. I do think it indicates that the market has got ahead of itself in its love of growth. I am going to focus on the two most “reasonably” valued stocks on a PEG basis in the graph above – Nvidia and Altair – by running my own numbers (I always distrust consensus figures).

I have posted on my journey with Nvidia previously, most recently here in November after their first revenue warning. Amazingly, even after a second big revenue warning in January from ongoing inventory and crypto-mining headwinds, the stock recovered from the 130’s into the 150’s before again trading into the 160’s in recent weeks following the Mellanox merger announcement. NVDA purchased Mellanox, an admired data centre equipment maker, at 25 times 2018 earnings (which seems reasonable given Mellanox is growing revenues at 25%).

NVDA’s recent quarterly results were not only worrying for its near 50% sequential decline in gaming but also for the 14% sequential decline in its data centre business, its second largest segment which was growing strongly. Despite management’s assertion that the gaming segment’s quarterly run rate is $1.4 billion (Q4 was below $1 billion), I am struggling to match analyst revenue estimates for FY2020 and FY2021. The most optimistic figures that I can get to (pre-Mellanox), assuming the crypto-mining boom is removed from the trend, is $10.3 billion and $12.8 billion for FY2020 and FY2021, 8% and 4% less than the consensus (pre-Mellanox), as below.

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Based upon management’s guidance on expenses (it is impressive that nearly 9,500 of their 13,300 employees are engaged in R&D), on the Mellanox deal closing in calendar year Q3 2019, and on 15 million shares repurchased each year, my estimates for EPS for FY2020 and FY2021 are $5.00 and $7.77 respectively (this FY2020 EPS figure is below analyst estimates which exclude any Mellanox contribution). At today’s share price that’s a PE of 33 and 21 for their FY2020 and FY2021. That may look reasonable enough, given the valuations above, for a combined business that will likely grow at 20%+ in the years thereafter. However, NVDA is a firm that has just missed its quarterly numbers by over 30% and it should be treated with a degree of “show me the money”. I think the consensus figures for FY2020 on NVDA are too optimistic so I shall watch NVDA’s progress with interest from the sidelines.

Altair Engineering (ALTR) is not the usual hyped firm. ALTR provide an integrated suite of multi-disciplinary computer aided engineering software that optimizes design performance across various disciplines which recently purchased an AI firm called Datawatch. ALTR is led by the impressive James Scapa and have built a highly specialised platform with significant growth potential. The revenue projections for the firm, including Datawatch and another acquisition SimSolid, with 2018 and prior on an ASC 605 basis and 2019 on an ASC 606 basis are below. The reason for the relatively flat Q/Q is the conversion of the Datawatch business to a SaaS basis and integration into the Altair platforms.

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For 2019 through 2021, my estimates for EPS are $0.62, $0.81 and $1.17 respectively (2019 and 2020 figures are over 10% higher than consensus). At the current share price of $38.32, that’s PE ratios of 63, 47, and 33. A rich valuation indeed. And therein lies the problem with high growth stocks. ALTR is a fantastic firm but its valuation is not. Another one for the watchlist.