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.

AIG: Better Days

It’s been 2 years since I posted on AIG and it has been an eventful 2 years. A new management team (again) has been installed, led by industry veteran Brian Duperreault, to try to turn this stubborn ship around. The results, as below, show the scale of the task. Reduced investment returns, reducing legacy and asset balances, and poor reinsurance protections are just a few of the reasons behind the results, in addition to the obvious poor underwriting results.

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Oversize risks from the previous Go Large strategy have been disastrous for both the catastrophic losses and reserve strengthening on the commercial P&C business, as the results below show. Duperreault and his team have been busy working on refocusing the underwriting philosophy, modernizing systems and analytics, bringing in talent (including buying Validus), redesigning reinsurance protections and reshaping the portfolio.

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In their latest quarterly call, the new management team is boldly predicting an underwriting profit on the general insurance business (commercial and consumer) in 2019, assuming a catastrophe load of less than 5% and reductions in loss and expense ratios, which will require a +10% improvement in the 2018 result. In a sector where competitors have long since evolved (some use AI to optimise their portfolios and returns) and the alchemy of low return capital providers is ever present, they have set themselves an aggressive target.

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Given the current share price just below $42, its trading around 76% of the adjusted book value. If all things go well, and some recent headwinds (e.g. reserve strengthening) are tamed, I can see how a pre-tax income target of $3.5 billion to $4 billion and an adjusted income diluted EPS of $4.00 to $4.50 is achievable. These targets are roughly where analysts are for 2019, returning to EPS results achieved over 5 years ago. I concur on the targets but think the time-frame may be optimistic, another year of clean-up looks more likely.

It will be interesting to see how the year progresses.

Risk-O-Meter

As is now customary ahead of Davos week, the latest World Economic Forum report on global risks was released and the usual graphic of the top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood and impact are reproduced below. Environmental risks and technology risks again dominate the likelihood list which is indicative of the current consensus. As this post highlights, the likelihood of irreversible climate change within the next 10 to 20 years is the short, medium and long-term issue of our times.

Although the report does state that “geopolitical and geo-economic tensions are rising among the world’s major powers” and that these “tensions represent the most urgent global risks at present”, I was somewhat surprised to see that geopolitical risk did not make the top 5 likelihood list this year. Despite the current market (wishful in my view) thinking of a kick the can down the road fudge outcome, Brexit in 2019 may result in a constitutional crisis in the UK or the possibility of a large portion of the population being alienated by a possible rushed outcome this Spring (e.g. hard Brexit or permanent custom union). His Orangeness and his ability to flame division, whether internally in the US after a bad Mueller report or against China to deflect from his pitiful negotiating style, are ever present possibilities for 2019 (if not hopefully remote ones). Although maybe somewhat alarmist, I can’t but help worry that his reign may end with some form of violent turmoil, he will not go quietly!

As an aside, the wonderful TV show “Brexit: The Uncivil War” from the UK’s Channel 4, which I think is on Netflix now, does raise the issue of how democracies will operate in a world where all sides can use technology to manipulate a (potentially decisive) disengaged minority to the political extremes. If the long-term success of democracy is dependent upon compromise, then we may be in trouble. Pundits say the implications of Brexit politics is a break from the traditional left/right or conservative/liberal divide, into a much more complex mixture of differing tribes. In fact, I would highly recommend this video from Dominic Cummings, the main subject of the show, who ably explains the parameters of the new political landscape (if you don’t have the time to watch it all, watch a few minutes after the 15-minute mark on how they did it).

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One other item that caught my attention in the WEF report, in section 6 called Open Secrets, was the assertion that when “the huge resources being devoted to quantum research lead to large-scale quantum computing, many of the tools that form the basis of current digital cryptography will be rendered obsolete”. The article further asserts that “public key algorithms, in particular, will be effortlessly crackable” and, under certain scenarios, “a collapse of cryptography would take with it much of the scaffolding of digital life”. Do I hear a new arms race approaching? The report predicts “as the prospect of quantum code-breaking looms closer, a transition to new alternatives—such as lattice-based and hashbased cryptography—will gather pace” although “some may even revert to low-tech solutions, taking sensitive information offline and relying on in-person exchanges”. Imagine having to rely on people meeting other people to get things done……..unthinkable!

A naughty or nice 2019?

They say if you keep making the same prediction, at some stage it will come true. Well, my 2018 post a year ago on the return of volatility eventually proved prescient (I made the same prediction for 2017!). Besides the equity markets (multiple posts with the latest one here), the non-company specific topics covered in this blog in 2018 ranged from the telecom sector (here), insurance (here, here, and here), climate change (here and here), to my own favourite posts on artificial intelligence (here, here and here).

The most popular post (by far thanks to a repost by InsuranceLinked)) this year was on the Lloyds’ of London market (here) and I again undertake to try to post more on insurance specific topics in 2019. My company specific posts in 2018 centered on CenturyLink (CTL), Apple (AAPL), PaddyPowerBetfair (PPB.L), and Nvidia (NVDA). Given that I am now on the side-lines on all these names, except CTL, until their operating results justify my estimate of fair value and the market direction is clearer, I hope to widen the range of firms I will post on in 2019, time permitting. Although this blog is primarily a means of trying to clarify my own thoughts on various topics by means of a public diary of sorts, it is gratifying to see that I got the highest number of views and visitors in 2018. I am most grateful to you, dear reader, for that.

In terms of predictions for the 2019 equity markets, the graph below shows the latest targets from market analysts. Given the volatility in Q4 2018, it is unsurprising that the range of estimates for 2019 is wider than previously. At the beginning of 2018, the consensus EPS estimate for the S&P500 was $146.00 with an average multiple just below 20. Current 2018 estimates of $157.00 resulted in a multiple of 16 for the year end S&P500 number. The drop from 20 to 16 illustrates the level of uncertainty in the current market

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For 2019, the consensus EPS estimate is (currently) $171.00 with an average 2019 year-end target of 2,900 implying a 17 multiple. Given that this EPS estimate of 9% growth includes sectors such as energy with an assumed healthy 10% EPS growth projection despite the oil price drop, it’s probable that this EPS estimate will come down during the upcoming earnings season as firms err on the conservative side for their 2019 projections.

The bears point to building pressures on top-line growth and on record profit margins. The golden boy of the moment, Michael Wilson of Morgan Stanley, calls the current 2019 EPS estimates “lofty”. The bulls point to the newly established (as of last Friday) Powell Put and the likely resolution of the US-China trade spat (because both sides need it). I am still dubious on a significant or timely relaxation of global quantitative tightening and don’t feel particularly inclined to bet money on the Orange One’s negotiating prowess with China. My guess is the Chinese will give enough for a fudge but not enough to satisfy Trump’s narcissistic need (and political need?) for a visible outright victory. The NAFTA negotiations and his stance on the Wall show outcomes bear little relation to the rhetoric of the man. These issues will be the story of 2019. Plus Brexit of course (or as I suspect the lack thereof).

Until we get further insight from the Q4 earnings calls, my current base assumption of 4% EPS growth to $164 with a multiple of 15 to 16 implies the S&P500 will be range bound around current levels of 2,400 – 2,600. Hopefully with less big moves up or down!

Historically, a non-recessionary bear market lasts on average 7 months according to Ed Clissold of Ned Davis Research (see their 2019 report here). According to Bank of America, since 1950 the S&P 500 has endured 11 retreats of 12% or more in prolonged bull markets with these corrections lasting 8 months on average. The exhibit below suggests that such corrections only take 5 months to recover peak to trough.

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To get a feel for the possible direction of the S&P500 over 2019, I looked at the historical path of the index over 300 trading days after a peak for 4 non-recessionary and 4 recessionary periods (remember recessions are usually declared after they have begun), as below.

Note: These graphs have been subsequently updated for the S&P500 close to the 18th January 2019. 

click to enlarges&p500 q42018 drop compared to 4 nonrecession drops in 1962 1987 1998 & 2015 updated

 

click to enlarges&p500 q42018 drop compared to 4 recession drops in 1957 1974 1990 & 2000 updated

 

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which path represents the most likely one for 2019. It is interesting that the 1957 track most closely matches the moves to date  (Ed: as per the date of the post, obviously not after that date!) but history rarely exactly rhymes. I have no idea whether 2019 will be naughty or nice for equity investors. I can predict with 100% certainty that it will not be dull….

Given that Brightwater’s pure Alpha fund has reportingly returned an impressive 14.6% for 2018 net of fees, I will leave the last word to Ray Dalio, who has featured regularly in this blog in 2018, as per his recent article (which I highly recommend):

Typically at this phase of the short-term debt cycle (which is where we are now), the prices of the hottest stocks and other equity-like assets that do well when growth is strong (e.g., private equity and real estate) decline and corporate credit spreads and credit risks start to rise. Typically, that happens in the areas that have had the biggest debt growth, especially if that happens in the largely unregulated shadow banking system (i.e., the non-bank lending system). In the last cycle, it was in the mortgage debt market. In this cycle, it has been in corporate and government debt markets.

When the cracks start to appear, both those problems that one can anticipate and those that one can’t start to appear, so it is especially important to identify them quickly and stay one step ahead of them.

So, it appears to me that we are in the late stages of both the short-term and long-term debt cycles. In other words, a) we are in the late-cycle phase of the short-term debt cycle when profit and earnings growth are still strong and the tightening of credit is causing asset prices to decline, and b) we are in the late-cycle phase of the long-term debt cycle when asset prices and economies are sensitive to tightenings and when central banks don’t have much power to ease credit.

A very happy and healthy 2019 to all.