The New Normal (Again)

I expect that next week’s reinsurance jamboree in Monte Carlo will be full of talk of innovative and technology streaming-lining business models (as per this post on AI and insurance). This recent article from the FT is just one example of claims that technology like blockchain can reduce costs by 30%. The article highlights questions about whether insurers are prepared to give up ownership of data, arguably their competitive advantage, if the technology is really to be scaled up in the sector.

As a reminder of the reinsurance sector’s cost issues, as per this post on Lloyds’, the graph below illustrates the trend across Lloyds’, the Aon Benfield Aggregate portfolio, and Munich’s P&C reinsurance business.

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Until the sector gets serious about cutting costs, such as overpaid executives on luxury islands or expensive cities and antiquated business practises such as holding get togethers in places like Monte Carlo, I suspect expenses will remain an issue. In their July review, Willis stated that a “number of traditional carriers are well advanced in their plans to reduce their costs, including difficult decisions around headcount” and that “in addition to cost savings, the more proactively managed carriers are applying far greater rigor in examining the profitability of every line of business they are accepting”. Willis highlighted the potential difficulties for the vastly inefficient MGA business that many have been so actively pursuing. As an example of the type of guff executives will trot out next week, Swiss Re CEO, Christian Mumenthaler, said “we remain convinced that technology will fundamentally change the re/insurance value chain”, likely speaking from some flash office block in one of the most expensive cities in the world!

On market conditions, there was positive developments on reinsurance pricing at the January renewals after the 2017 losses with underlying insurance rates improving, as illustrated by the Marsh composite commercial rate index (example from US below).

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However, commentators have been getting ever more pessimistic as the year progresses, particularly after the mid-year renewals. Deutsche Bank recently called the reinsurance pricing outlook “very bleak”. A.M. Best stated that “the new normal for reinsurers appears to be one with returns that are less impressive and underwriting and fee income becoming a larger contributor to profits” and predicts, assuming a normal large loss level, an 8% ROE for 2018 for the sector. Willis, in their H1 report, puts the sectors ROE at 7.7% for H1 2018. S&P, in the latest report that is part of their Global Highlights series, also expects a ROE return for 2018 around 6% to 8% and estimates that “reinsurers are likely to barely cover their cost of capital in 2018 and 2019”.

S&P does question why “the market values the industry at a premium to book value today (on average at 1.24x at year-end 2017), and at near historical highs, given the challenges” and believes that potential capital returns, M&A and interest rate rises are all behind elevated valuations.  The recent Apollo PE deal for Aspen at 1.12 times book seems a large way off other recent multiples, as per this post, but Aspen has had performance issues. Still its interesting that no other insurer was tempted to have a go at Aspen with the obvious synergies that such a deal could have achieved. There is only a relatively small number of high quality players left for the M&A game and they will not be cheap!

As you are likely aware, I have been vocal on the impact the ILS sector has had in recent years (most recently here and here). With so-called alternative capital (at what size does it stop being alternative!) now at the $95 billion-mark according to Aon, A.M. Best makes the obvious point that “any hope for near-term improvement in the market is directly correlated to the current level of excess capacity in the overall market today, which is being compounded by the continued inflow of alternative capacity”. Insurers and reinsurers are not only increasing their usage of ILS in portfolio optimisation but are also heavily participating in the sector. The recent purchase by Markel of the industry leading and oldest ILS fund Nephila is an interesting development as Markel already had an ILS platform and is generally not prone to overpaying.

I did find this comment from Bob Swarup of Camdor in a recent Clear Path report on ILS particularly telling – “As an asset class matures it inevitably creates its own cycle and beta. At this point you expect fees to decline both as a function of the benefits of scale but also as it becomes more understood, less of it becomes alpha and more of it becomes beta” and “I do feel that the fees are most definitely too high right now and to a large extent this is because people are trying to treat this as an alternative asset class whereas it is large enough now to be part of the general mix”. Given the still relatively small size of the ILS sector, it’s difficult for ILS managers to demonstrate true alpha at scale (unless they are taking crazy leveraged bets!) and therefore pressure on current fees will become a feature.

A.M. Best articulated my views on ILS succinctly as follows: “The uncorrelated nature of the industry to traditional investments does appear to have value—so long as the overall risk-adjusted return remains appropriate”. The graph below from artemis.bm shows the latest differential between returns and expected cost across the portfolio they monitor.

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In terms of the returns from ILS funds, the graph below shows the underlying trend (with 2018 results assuming no abnormal catastrophic activity) of insurance only returns from indices calculated by Lane Financial (here) and Eurekahedge (here). Are recent 5 year average returns of between 500 and 250 basis points excess risk free enough to compensation for the risk of a relatively concentrated portfolio? Some think so. I don’t.

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Whether reinsurers and specialty insurers will be able to maintain superior (albeit just above CoC) recent returns over ILS, as illustrated in this post, through arbitrating lower return ILS capital or whether their bloated costs structures will catch them out will be a fascinating game to watch over the coming years. I found a section of a recent S&P report, part of their Global Highlights series, on cat exposures in the sector, amusing. It stated that in 2017 “the reinsurance industry recorded an aggregate loss that was assessed as likely to be incurred less than once in 20 years” whilst “this was the third time this had happened in less than 20 years“.

So, all in all, the story is depressingly familiar for the sector. The new normal, as so many commentators have recently called it, amounts to overcapacity, weak pricing power, bloated cost structures, and optimistic valuations. Let’s see if anybody has anything new or interesting to say in Monte Carlo next week.

As always, let’s hope there is minimal human damage from any hurricanes such as the developing Hurricane Florence or other catastrophic events in 2018.

Broken Record II

As the S&P500 hit an intraday all-time high yesterday, it’s been nearly 9 months since I posted on the valuation of the S&P500 (here). Since then, I have touched on factors like the reversal of global QE flows by Central Banks (here) and the lax credit terms that may be exposed by tightening monetary conditions (here). Although the traditional pull back after labor day in the US hasn’t been a big feature in recent years, the market feels frothy and a pullback seems plausible. The TINA (There Is No Alternative) trade is looking distinctly tired as the bull market approaches the 3,500-day mark. So now is an opportune time to review some of the arguments on valuations.

Fortune magazine recently had an interesting summary piece on the mounting headwinds in the US which indicate that “the current economic expansion is much nearer its end than its beginning”. Higher interest rates and the uncertainty from the ongoing Trump trade squabble are obvious headwinds that have caused nervous investors to moderate slightly valuation multiples from late last year. The Fortune article points to factors like low unemployment rates and restrictions on immigration pushing up wage costs, rising oil prices, the fleeting nature of Trump’s tax cuts against the long-term impact on federal debt, high corporate debt levels (with debt to EBITDA levels at 15 years high) and the over-optimistic earnings growth estimated by analysts.

That last point may seem harsh given the 24% and 10% growth in reported quarterly EPS and revenue respectively in Q2 2018 over Q2 2017, according to Factset as at 10/08/2018. The graph below shows the quarterly reported growth projections by analysts, as per S&P Dow Jones Indices, with a fall off in quarterly growth in 2019 from the mid-20’s down to a 10-15% range, as items like the tax cuts wash out. Clearly 10-15% earnings growth in 2019 is still assuming strong earnings and has some commentators questioning whether analysts are being too optimistic given the potential headwinds outlined above.

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According to Factset as at 10/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE of 16.6 is around the 5-year average level and 15% above the 10-year average, as below. As at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE is 16.8.

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In terms of the Shiller PE or the cyclically adjusted PE (PE10), the graph below shows that the current PE10 ratio of 32.65 as at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, which is 63% higher than 50-year average of 20. For the purists, the current PE10 is 89% above the 100-year average.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 as at 21082018 S&P500 high

According to this very interesting research paper called King of the Mountain, the PE10 metric varies across different macro-economic conditions, specifically the level of real interest rates and inflation. The authors further claim that PE10 becomes a statistically significant and economically meaningful predictor of shorter-term returns under the assumption that PE10 levels mean-revert toward the levels suggested by prevailing macroeconomic conditions rather than toward long-term averages. The graph below shows the results from the research for different real yield and inflation levels, the so-called valuation mountain.

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At a real yield around 1% and inflation around 2%, the research suggests a median PE around 20 is reasonable. Although I know that median is not the same as mean, the 20 figure is consistent with the 50-year PE10 average. The debates on CAPE/PE10 as a valuation metric have been extensively aired in this blog (here and here are examples) and range around the use of historically applicable earnings data, adjustments around changes in accounting methodology (such as FAS 142/144 on intangible write downs), relevant time periods to reflect structural changes in the economy, changes in dividend pay-out ratios, the increased contribution of foreign earnings in US firms, and the reduced contribution of labour costs (due to low real wage inflation).

One hotly debated issue around CAPE/PE10 is the impact of the changing profit margin levels. One conservative adjustment to PE10 for changes in profit margins is the John Hussman adjusted CAPE/PE10, as below, which attempts to normalise profit margins in the metric. This metric indicates that the current market is at an all time high, above the 1920s and internet bubbles (it sure doesn’t feel like that!!). In Hussman’s most recent market commentary, he states that “we project market losses over the completion of this cycle on the order of -64% for the S&P 500 Index”.

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Given the technological changes in business models and structures across economic systems, I believe that assuming current profit margins “normalise” to the average is too conservative, particularly given the potential for AI and digital transformation to cut costs across a range of business models over the medium term. Based upon my crude adjustment to the PE10 for 2010 and prior, as outlined in the previous Broken Record post (i.e. adjusted to 8.5%), using US corporate profits as a % of US GDP as a proxy for profit margins, the current PE10 of 32.65 is 21% above my profit margin adjusted 50-year average of 27, as shown below.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 adjusted as at 21082018 S&P500 high

So, in summary, the different ranges of overvaluation for the S&P500 at its current high are from 15% to 60%. If the 2019 estimates of 10-15% quarterly EPS growth start to look optimistic, whether through deepening trade tensions or tighter monetary policy, I could see a 10% to 15% pullback. If economic headwinds, as above, start to get serious and the prospect of a recession gets real (although these things normally come quickly as a surprise), then something more serious could be possible.

On the flipside, I struggle to see where significant upside can come from in terms of getting earnings growth in 2019 past the 10-15% range. A breakthrough in trade tensions may be possible although unlikely before the mid-term elections. All in all, the best it looks like to me in the short term is the S&P500 going sideways from here, absent a post-labor day spurt of profit taking.

But hey, my record on calling the end to this bull market has been consistently broken….

Hindering the Hothouse

It’s been over a year since I posted on climate issues (last post here after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement). A recent study by a group of scientists warned that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of Earth entering “Hothouse Earth” conditions. A “Hothouse Earth” climate will in the long term stabilize at a global average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60 m higher than today according to the scientists.

Human emissions of greenhouse gas are not the sole determinant of temperature on Earth. Our study suggests that human-induced global warming of 2°C may trigger other Earth system processes, often called “feedbacks”, that can drive further warming – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases,” says lead author Will Steffen from the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, adding that “avoiding this scenario requires a redirection of human actions from exploitation to stewardship of the Earth system”.

The best-selling author of “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”, Yuval Noah Harari, makes the observation that “the hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices, it may fail to do anything at all about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence”. This is one of the themes he returns vigorously to in his new book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, a collection of previously published essays.

It is therefore heartening to see such an influential and intelligent financial professional as Jeremy Grantham of GMO pushing the issue as an important one for investors to consider in our daily activities. This talk from Grantham and the accommodating presentation are well worth spending some time on. His arguments are articulated further in this August GMO white paper, The Race of Our Lives Revisited, an update on his 2013 paper.

Grantham states that “the truth is we’ve wasted 40 or 50 years since the basic fact about manmade serious climate damage became known” and “we’re moving so slowly that by the time we’ve fully decarbonized our economy, the world will have heated up by 2.5ºC to 3ºC, and a great deal of damage will have been done”.

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Grantham highlights the declining costs of alternative energy like solar and wind and the advances made in battery costs. Notwithstanding these advances, progress is too slow, as the graphs below show.

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Depressingly Grantham concludes that “in all probability we will reach our 2ºC target by 2050, and we will be fighting tooth and nail – with any luck, with carbon taxes and an improved attitude – to keep it below 3ºC by 2100”. Compounding the climate issue is continued population growth, declining agricultural productivity and increased soil erosion.

Like Harari, Grantham argues that “the greatest deficiency of capitalism is its complete inability to deal with any of these things that we are talking about even though it can handle the millions of more mundane factors that go into producing a workable economy, far better than planned economies”. Grantham makes a passionate argument for investors to divest themselves of negative climate impact firms, such as the oil producers, and to do more in our personal lives to promote green changes, like buying electric cars.

In the absence of real political leadership in our world, which looks likely to continue for some years yet as the populist and nationalistic political dead end we are currently travelling on plays out, voting with our actions seems the only thing we can do. As Grantham concludes, we all need to “get to it”.

The Queen is Dead

Long live the queen……Aretha will never die.

There are many many songs that sound-tracked our lives and will continue to do so for generations. Rock Steady is one on my favourites for its pure raw funkiness… she knew how to sock it to us!

Aretha Franklin 1942-2018 RIP.

click to enlargeAretha Franklin Rock Steady quote

 

Value Matters

I recently saw an interview with Damian Lewis, the actor who plays hedge fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod in the TV show Billions, where he commented on the differences in reaction to the character in the US and the UK. Lewis said that in the US, the character is treated like an inspirational hero, whereas in the UK he’s seen as a villain. We all like to see a big shot hedgie fall flat on their face so us mere mortals can feel less stupid.

The case of David Einhorn is not so clear cut. A somewhat geekie character, the recent run of bad results of his hedge fund, Greenlight Capital, is raising some interesting questions amongst the talking heads of the merits of value stocks over the run away success of growth stocks in recent years. Einhorn’s recent results can be seen in a historical context, based upon published figures, in the graph below.

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Einhorn recently commented that “the reality is that the market is cyclical and given the extreme anomaly, reversion to the mean should happen sooner rather than later” whilst adding that “we just can’t say when“. The under-performance of value stocks is also highlighted by Alliance Bernstein in this article, as per the graph below.

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As an aside, Alliance Bernstein also have another interesting article which shows the percentage of debt to capital of S&P500 firms, as below.

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Einhorn not only invests in value stocks, like BrightHouse Financial (BHF) and General Motors (GM), but he also shorts highly valued so-called growth stocks like Tesla (TSLA), Amazon (AMZN) and Netflix (NFLX), his bubble basket. In fact, Einhorn’s bubble basket has been one of the reasons behind his recent poor performance. He queries AMZN on the basis that just because they “can disrupt somebody else’s profit stream, it doesn’t mean that AMZN earns that profit stream“. He trashes TSLA and its ability to deliver safe mass produced electric cars and points to the growing competition from “old media” firms for NFLX.

A quick look at the 2019 projected forward PE ratios, based off today’s valuations against average analysts estimates for 2018 and 2019 EPS numbers from Yahoo Finance of some of today’s most hyped growth stocks plus their Chinese counterparts plus some more “normal” firms like T and VZ as a counter weight, provides considerable justification to Einhorn’s arguments.

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[As an another aside, I am keeping an eye on Chinese valuations, hit by trade war concerns, for opportunities in case Trump’s trade war turns out to be another “huge” deal where he folds like the penny hustler he is.]

And the graph above shows only the firms with positive earnings to have a PE ratio in 2019 (eh, hello TSLA)!! In fact, the graph makes Einhorn’s rationale seem downright sensible to me.

Now, that’s not something you could say about Axe!