Oh AIG, where art thou?

In my last post on AIG, I expressed my doubts about the P&C targets outlined in their plan. After first announcing a $20 billion retroactive reinsurance deal with Berkshire covering long tail commercial P&C reserves for accident years prior to 2015 in January, AIG just announced another large commercial lines reserve charge of $5.6 billion principally from their US business. The graph below shows the impact upon their 2016 pre-tax operating income.

click to enlargeaig-pretax-operating-income-2012-to-2016

The latest reserve hit amounts to 12% of net commercial reserves at end Q3 2016 and compares to 7%, 8% and 6% for previous 2015, 2010, and 2009 commercial reserve charges. Whereas previously reserve strengthening related primarily to excess casualty and workers compensation (WC) business (plus an asbestos charge in 2010), this charge also covers primary casualty and WC business. The accident year vintage of the releases is also worryingly immature, as the graph below shows. After the 2016 charge, AIG have approx $7 billion of cover left on the Berkshire coverage.

click to enlargeaig-reserve-strengthening-accident-year-distribution

Although AIG have yet again made adjustments to business classifications, the graph below shows near enough the development of the accident year loss ratios on the commercial book over recent times.

click to enlargeaig-commercial-pc-accident-year-loss-ratios-2011-to-2016

It is understandable that AIG missed their aggressive target against the pricing background of the past few years as illustrated by the latest Marsh report, as the exhibits below on global commercial rates and the US and European subsets show.

click to enlargeglobal-insurance-market-index

click to enlargeus-europe-insurance-market-index

All of these factors would make me very skeptical on the targeted 62% exit run rate for the 2017 accident year loss ratio on the commercial book. And no big reinsurance deal with Berkshire (or with Swiss Re for that matter) or $5 billion of share buybacks (AIG shares outstanding is down nearly a third since the beginning of 2014 due to buybacks whilst the share price is up roughly 25% over that period), can impact the reality which AIG has now to achieve. No small ask.

Some may argue that AIG have kitchen-sinked the reserves to make the target of accident year loss ratios in the low 60’s more achievable. I hope for the firm’s sake that turns out to be true (against the odds). The alternative may be more disposals of profitable (life) businesses, possibly eventually leading to a sale of the rump and maybe the disappearance of AIG altogether.

Tech Treks

One lesson from the internet bubble is that big is beautiful in tech. But longevity is another lesson, think Yahoo! So one must be fickle in ones tech affections and one must never ever pay too much. After much patience, I was lucky enough to eventually get into Apple in early 2013 when sentiment was particularly sore. I didn’t manage to heed my own advice on getting into Google at a reasonable price in December 2014 when it was trading around 60% of its current value, as per this post on internet relative valuations (more on that post later). Since 2013, I have watched sentiment gyrate on AAPL as the standard graph I use below illustrates (most recent AAPL posts are here and here). I used the current $135 price high as the most recent data point for the Q12017 valuation.

click to enlargeaapl-forward-12-month-pe-ratios-q1-2017

Investors and analysts seem giddy these days about the impact of Trump tax changes and the iPhone 10 year anniversary on AAPL and have been pointing to Berkshire’s position increase in AAPL as confirmation bias of more upside. I, on the other hand, have been taking some of AAPL off the table recently on valuation concerns and will likely again be a buyer when the inevitable worries return along the “one trick iPhone pony” lines. God bless gyrating sentiment! Even Lex in the FT was saying today that the current TTM PE ex net cash of 13 is reasonable (eh, a TTM PE ex net cash of 7 a year ago was more reasonable)! AAPL still has be a core holding in anybody’s portfolio but prudent risk management requires trimming at this price in my opinion.

In my search for new ideas whilst I await some divine sense to emerge from the Trump & Brexit fog, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the post referred above on internet valuations. First off, I took the graph showing forward PEs to projected EPS growth using analyst estimates from December 2014 and inserted the actual change in share price from then to now. Two notable exceptions, at the extremities, from the graph below are Amazon and Twitter with share price changes of 173% and -56% respectively.

click to enlargeinternet-multiples-dec14-as-at-feb17

Although every company is different and has its own dynamics, my simplistic take from the graph below is that high PE stocks (e.g. > 40) with high EPS projections (e.g. > 35%) can easily run aground if the initial high growth phase hits harsh reality. The sweet spot is decent PEs with EPS growth in the 15% to 35% range (again assuming one can get comfortable that the EPS growth projections are real) indicative of the larger established firms still on the growth track (but who have successfully navigated the initial growth phase) .

A similar screen based upon today’s values and analyst estimates out to 2018 is presented below. This screen is not directly comparable with the December 2014 one as it goes out two years rather than one.

click to enlargeinternet-multiples-feb2017

Based upon this graph, Google and Netease again look worthy of investigation with similar profiles to two years ago. Netease has the attraction of a strong growth track record with the obvious Chinese political risk to get over. Expedia looks intriguing given the strong growth projected off a depressed 2016 EPS figure. Ebay and Priceline may also be worth a look purely on valuation although I have a general aversion to retail type stocks so I doubt I’ll bother look too deeply. All of the data used for these graphs is based upon analyst estimates which also need to be validated.

Valuations currently are juicy, generally too juicy for me, so this exercise is simply one to determine who to investigate further for inclusion on a watch-list. Time permitting!

Bad education

I have been neglecting this blog as the soap opera that is American politics has been playing out. Trump’s decision to go for it full throttle straight from the off looks like resulting in political war in the US which will no doubt result in a messy few weeks, if not months, ahead. The jury is still out on whether this new form of extreme politics can survive indefinitely, or whether one of Trump’s skeletons will come crashing out of the closet, or whether Trump gets catch out dealing with an unexpected event. For the Democrats, there is the depressing thought that if Trump messes up big time, the option of impeachment requiring their consent to a two third majority in congress, would only result in President Pence!

My instinct is telling me to reduce equity exposure currently, on valuation concerns rather than political ones, and my hard fought for risk management discipline means I am acting on that instinct. I also distrust the neatness of the market consensus that markets will rise on stimulus hopes to mid year before falling back to sustainable valuations by year end. Reality is never neat, especially I suspect in Mr Trumpland. Notwithstanding this environment, one of my new year’s resolutions was to try and get some new equity ideas to track and maybe pick up if valuations get more attractive.

The disappointing results from Pearson Plc two weeks ago reminded me of my last post on the technological changes disrupting the education sector. I thought I would have a quick look over some of the firms mentioned in that post three years on. The trends at Pearson are not pretty, as the graph below shows. Particular poor results in the US higher education sector mean the firm is selling off Penguin Random House and “taking more radical action to accelerate our shift to digital models and to keep reshaping our business”. Pearson’s stock is down over 50% since my last post three years ago and another shakeup in management, if not strategy, looks inevitable.

click to enlargepearson-plc

In fact the hope that the juicy margins of the old world text book business can be transferred to the new on-line world is looking fanciful. The shift to on-line education looks like another example of technology gutting the margins of yesteryear’s reliable business models. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMHC) has a younger school focus and was the main education stock featured in my 2014 post. HMHC too is down considerably over the past three years, approx 42%. The graph below shows the downward trend in its core revenues and margins.

click to enlargehoughton-mifflin-harcourt-2011-to-2016-revenue-ebitda-margin

So it looks like hoping established education firms can transition with seamless profits into the digital world is not a place to look for new investment ideas. Of course, there have been big successes in the online sphere from newer firms and business models. TAL Education (ticker TAL), the Chinese K12 after school online tutor, is one and it’s up approx 250% over the past three years. It’s outside of my risk appetite as I prefer large diverse established firms with a clear market advantage, an understandable reason for upside and a management team I can believe in to entrust my optimism.

The search for new ideas goes on…

PS – Any ideas out there would be greatly welcome!

Risky World

The latest World Economic Forum report on global risks is out today and, as usual, it reflects current concerns rather than offering any predictions for 2017. To be fair to WEF, the top risk for 2012 to 2014 inclusive in their survey was income disparity which is commonly viewed as one of the factors behind the rise in populism.

click to enlargewef-global-risks-2017

The report states the obvious about the impact on global risks following 2016, specifically that “societal polarization, income inequality and the inward orientation of countries are spilling over into real-world politics” and that “decision-making is increasingly influenced by emotions” due to the increase in nationalism. Where this year’s report is spot on, in my view, is in relation to the top 5 global trends that will determine global developments over the next 10 years, as below.

click to enlargewef-top-5-global-trends-2017

The report also states that “although anti-establishment politics tends to blame globalization for deteriorating domestic job prospects, evidence suggests that managing technological change is a more important challenge for labour markets” and that “we are in a highly disruptive phase of technological development, at a time of rising challenges to social cohesion and policy-makers’ legitimacy”.

Among the many risks highlighted in the report is a reduction in geopolitical co-operation which is likely to be detrimental to global growth, action on global indebtedness, and climate change.  It’s particularly depressing to think that even if the commitments under the Paris agreement were delivered, which now looks doomed after the election of Trump, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates the world will still warm by 3.0°C to 3.2°C, still far above the 2°C limit where scary and irreversible stuff happens.

Another worrying risk is the possibility of a new arms race in an era of rapid advancements in a technology which also has a retrograde feel, especially “while risks intersect and technologies develop quickly, too often our institutions for governing international security remain reactive and slow-moving”.

All pretty cheery stuff! And on it goes.

As I write this, I’m watching reports on Mr Trump’s press conference today, and although there is no doubt that our world is riskier as we enter 2017, it will be entertaining to see this guy as the leader of the free world. Hopefully good entertaining, not depressing entertaining!

Farewell, dissonant 2016.

Many things will be written about the events of 2016.

The populist victories in the US election and the UK Brexit vote will no doubt have some of the biggest impacts amongst the developed world. Dissatisfaction amongst the middle class across the developed world at their declining fortunes and prospects, aligned with the usual disparate minorities of malcontent, has forced a radical shift in support away from the perceived wisdom of the elite on issues such as globalisation. The strength of the political and institutional systems in the US and the UK will surely adapt to the 2016 rebuff over time.

The more fundamental worry for 2017 is that the European institutions are not strong enough to withstand any populist curveball, particularly the Euro. With 2017 European elections due in France, Germany, Netherlands and maybe in Italy, the possibility of further populist upset remains, albeit unlikely (isn’t that what we said about Trump or Brexit 12 months ago!).

The 5% rise in the S&P 500 since Trump’s election, accounting for approx half of the overall increase in 2016, has made the market even more expensive with the S&P 500 currently over 60% of its historical average based upon the 12 month trailing PE and the Shiller CAPE (cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio, also referred to as the PE10). A recent paper by Valentin Dimitrov and Prem C. Jain argues that stocks outperform 10-year U.S. Treasuries regardless of CAPE except when CAPE is very high (the current CAPE is just above the “very high” reference point of 27.6 in the paper) and that a high CAPE is an indicator of future stock market volatility. Bears argue that the President elect’s tax and expansionary fiscal policies will likely lead to higher interest rates and inflation in 2017 which will further strengthen the dollar, both of which will pressure corporate earnings.

Critics of historical PE measures like CAPE, such as Jeremy Siegel in this paper (previous posts on this topic are here and here), highlight the failings of using GAAP earnings and point to alternative metrics such as NIPA (national income and product account) after-tax corporate profits which indicate current valuations are more reasonable, albeit still elevated above the long term average by 20%-30%. The graph below from a Yardeni report illustrates the difference in the earnings metrics.

click to enlargenipa-vrs-sp500-earnings

Bulls further point to strong earnings growth in 2017 complemented by economic stimulus and corporate tax giveaways under President Trump. Goldman Sachs expects corporations to repatriate approx $200 billion of overseas cash and to spend a lot of it buying back stock rather than making capital expenditures (see graph below) although the political pressure to invest in the US may impact the balance.

click to enlargesp500-use-of-cash-2000-to-2017

The consensus amongst analysts predict EPS growth in 2017 in the high single digits, with many highlighting further upside depending upon the extent of the corporate tax cuts that Trump can get past the Republican congress. Bulls argue that the resulting forward PE ratio for the S&P 500 of approx 17 only represents a 20% premium to the longer term average. Predictions for the S&P 500 for 2017 by a selection of analysts can be seen below (the prize for best 2016 prediction goes to Deutsche Bank and UBS). It is interesting that the average prediction is for a 4% rise in the S&P500 by YE 2017, hardly a stellar year given their EPS growth projections!

click to enlargesp500-predictions-2017

My best guess is that the market optimism resulting from Trump’s victory continues into 2017 until such time as the realities of governing and the limitations of Trump’s brusque approach becomes apparent. Volatility is likely to be ever present and actual earnings growth will be key to the market story in 2017 and maintaining high valuation multiples. After all, a low or high PE ratio doesn’t mean much if the earnings outlook weakens; they simply indicate how far the market could fall!

Absent any significant event in the early days of Trump’s presidency (eh, hello, Mr Trump’s skeleton cupboard), the investing adage about going away in May sounds like a potentially pertinent one today. Initial indications of Trump’s reign, based upon his cabinet selections, indicate sensible enough domestic economy policies (relatively) compared with an erratic foreign policy agenda. I suspect Trump first big foreign climb down will come at the hands of the Chinese, although his bromance with Putin also looks doomed to failure.

How Brexit develops in 2017 looks to be much more worrying prospect. After watching her actions carefully, I am fast coming to the conclusion that Theresa May is clueless about how to minimise the financial damage from Brexit. Article 50 will be triggered in early 2017 and a hard Brexit now seems inevitable, absent a political shock in Europe which results in an existential threat to the EU and/or the Euro.

The economic realities of Brexit will only become apparent to the UK and its people, in my view, after Article 50 is triggered and chunks of industry begin the slow process of moving substantial parts of their operation to the continent. This post illustrates the point in relation to London’s insurance market. The sugar high provided by the sterling devaluation after Brexit is fading and the real challenge of extracting the UK from the institutions of the EU are becoming ever apparent.

Prime Minister May should be leading her people by arguing for the need for a sensible transition period to ensure a Brexit logistical tangle resulting in unnecessary economic damage is avoided. Instead, she acts like a rabbit stuck in the headlights. Political turmoil seems inevitable as the year develops given the current state of the UK’s fractured political system and lack of sensible leadership. The failure of a coherent pro-Europe political alternative to emerge in the UK following the Brexit vote, as speculated upon in this post, is increasingly looking like a tragedy for the UK.

Of course, Trump and Brexit are not the only issues facing the world in 2017. China, the Middle East, Russia, climate change, terrorism and cyber risks are just but a few of the issues that seem ever present in any end of year review and all will likely be listed as such in 12 months time. For me, further instability in Europe in 2017 is the most frightening potential addition to the list.

As one ages, it becoming increasingly understandable why people think their generation has the best icons. That said, the loss of genuine icons like Muhammad Ali and David Bowie (eh, sorry George Michael fans) does put the reality of the ageing (as highlighted in posts here and here) of the baby boomer generation in focus. On a personal note, 2016 will always be remembered by me for the loss of an icon in my life and emphasizes the need to appreciate the present including all of those we love.

So on that note, I’d like to wish all of my readers a prosperous, happy and healthy 2017. It looks like there will be plenty to write about in 2017…..