Category Archives: Equity Market

Peak Uncertainty

As we face the peak weeks of the COVID19 virus in the major developed economies, one thing the current COVID19 outbreak should teach us is humility. As humans, we have become far too arrogant about our ability to shape the future. A new book by the economists John Kay and Mervyn King (a former Bank of England governor during the financial crisis) called “ Radical Uncertainty” argues that economists have forgotten the distinction between risk and uncertainty with an over-reliance on using numerical probabilities attached to possible outcomes as a substitute for admitting there are uncertainties we cannot know. How many one in a century events seem to be happening on a regular basis now? Their solution is to build more resilient systems and strategies to confront unpredictable events. Such an approach would have a profound impact on how we organise our societies and economies.

Currently, planning for events with a large impact multiplied by a small probability allows us to effectively continue as we have been after assigning the minimal amount of contingency. Imagine if sectors and industries were run based on been prepared for tail events. That would be a radical change. Very different from our just in time supply chains which minimise capital allocation and maximise return on investment. Our approach to climate change is an obvious case in point and how we have heretofore ignored the environmental externalities of our societies and economies. Given the financial costs this crisis is going to place on future generations, I would suspect that the needs of this cohort of our society will become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.

As many people grapple with the current uncertainties presented by this pandemic, we are currently at peak uncertainty in Europe and the US. We are only now getting a sense of how the outbreak is peaking in Europe given the lock down measures in place. How the virus reactions to the relaxation of current measures, how the outbreak will peak across the US and other continents, the economic impact of the outbreak, or the societal impact amongst many other issues are as yet unknown. We do know however that with time over the coming weeks some of these answers will become clearer. For example, as the graph below from the FT shows, we known the approximate path of the outbreak given the policies being pursued today.

A positive narrative could be that existing medications pass rushed COVID19 trials and prove they can blunt the impact of the virus thereby altering the shape of the curve. We can also speculate that once the first wave is contained, we will develop strategies on a combination of mitigation measures (e.g. reduced isolation methods, antibody and other testing to return sections of the population to work, immunity passports, etc) to slowly transition to the new normal. The logistics of such a phased return to normal will be complex and a nightmare to enforce, particularly if self-isolation measures are in force for lengthy periods and people believe any second wave can be well contained by battle hardened health systems. We can be confident that a vaccine will be developed, hopefully by early 2021, but it will take time to get the vaccine distributed and administered in bulk. Mid 2021 is likely the best we can realistically hope for.

At this stage, my rough guess at a base case scenario on the timing for European and US lockdown is 3 to 5 weeks with another 6 to 10 weeks to transition to a semi-new normal. That’s somewhere between mid-June and early August with Europe leading the way followed by the US. A more pessimistic case could be that discipline amongst the population gets more lax as the weeks drag on and a second wave gathers momentum with a second lockdown required over the summer followed by a more timid and gradual transition afterwards lasting until the end of the year. Obviously, these timings are pure guesses at this time and may, and hopefully will, prove way off base.

The economic impacts are highly uncertain but will become clearer as the weeks pass. For example, with just the first fiscal stimulus package passed in the US, the politicians are already listing their priorities for the second (and likely not to be the last either), Morgan Stanley expect the cyclically adjusted primary fiscal deficit to rise to 14% of GDP and the headline fiscal deficit at 18% of GDP in 2020, as per their graphic below. Given the unknown impact of the crisis on GDP numbers, these percentages could approach 15% to 20% with total debt of 110% to 120%. It’s depressing to note that prior to this crisis the IMF said the U.S. debt-to-GDP was already on an unsustainable path.

Although the euro zone comes into the crisis with less debt, last year it was 86% of GDP, Jefferies said in a ‘worse case’ outcome where nominal GDP falls 15% this year, the bloc’s budget gap would balloon to 17% of GDP from just 0.8% last year. They estimate in this scenario that the euro zone debt-GDP ratio could rise above 100% in 2021. As a percentage of GDP, Morgan Stanley estimated the G4+China cyclically adjusted primary deficit could rise to 8.5% of GDP in 2020, significantly higher than the 6.5% in 2009 immediately after the global financial crisis. Unemployment rates in the short term are projected to be mind boggling horrible at 20%+ in some countries. It seems to me that the austerity policies pursued after the financial crisis will not be as obvious an answer to repayment of this debt, not if we want western societies to survive. Addressing generational and structural income inequalities will have to be part of the solution. Hopefully, an acceleration of nationalism wouldn’t.

On the monetary side, the Fed’s balance sheet is now estimated to be an unprecedented $6 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion since the start of the Fed’s unprecedented bailout on the 13th of March. Bank of America estimates it could reach $9 trillion or 40% of GDP, as per the graphs below.

As to corporates and the stock market, dividends will undoubtably be under pressure as corporate delevering takes hold and without the crack cocaine of the bull market, share buybacks as the graph below shows, I fear there will be more pressure on valuations. The Q1 results season and forward guidance (or lack thereof), although it may have some surprises from certain firms in the communication, technology and consumer staples space, will likely only compound the negativity and uncertainty.

Using unscientific guesses on my part, I have estimated base and pessimistic operating EPS figures for the S&P500 as below. Based upon a forward PE (on a GAAP EPS) of 15 (approx. 12.75 on operating EPS basis), which is the level reached after the dot com bubble and the financial crisis, the resulting level for the S&P500 is 2,000 and 1,600 in the base and pessimistic scenarios respectively. That’s a further 20% and 35% drop from today’s levels respectively.

The coming weeks will likely be horrible in terms of human suffering and death across the developed world (one cannot even comprehend the potential suffering in the developing world if this insidious virus takes hold there). There is always hope and uncertainty will reduce over time. Major decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead on the future of our societies. Learning from this pandemic to build more resilient societies and economies will be a task that lasts many years, possibility even generations. Major changes are coming after this health crisis subsides, hopefully they will be for the better.

Stay safe.

Appletastic

Investing can be cruel. Every now and again I find it useful to look back at my investment decisions and try to learn from mistakes. At the beginning of his year, I was knocked sideways about the profit warning from Apple (AAPL) and exited one of my favourite stocks, and one of the most profitable over the previous 5 years, as per this post. If I had ignored all the negative news such as China worries or the implication of the dropping of the iPhone unit disclosures, and blindly held faith, I would have been rewarded by an increase of approximately 77% in the stock since the date of that post! Just shows how clueless this bogger is, dear reader!

In my defence, the graph below of the actual results for FY2019 illustrate how the issues that confronted AAPL at that time played out (more on the estimates for 2020 later).

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As can be seen clearly by the 12-month trailing revenue split, AAPL’s iPhone revenue plateaued in Q4 2018 and went into decline over FY2019 due to the failure of its strategy to push average iPhone prices higher. Even AAPL discovered that it is not immune to price elasticity. With the introduction of the iPhone 11 and the planned iPhone SE2, AAPL has now reverted its strategy back towards an ASP for the iPhone below $700 whilst it harvests its massive installed base for services. New cheaper handsets and the possibility of a new 5G super-cycle in 2020 has meant that AAPL is once again a market darling. Taking some of the current analyst projections for 2020 and the bullish Q1 2020 guidance from AAPL, I revised my 2020 estimates as below (I, like everybody else, must make my own estimates of handset unit sales each quarter).

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In terms of valuation, if I stick with my trusted AAPL valuation methodology of the forward PE excluding cash ratio analysis, using my EPS estimates for 2020, the stock is currently trading around a 17 PE, approximately 75% above the 10-year average! If I revert to the bull thesis (held before the meltdown late last year) that the market has recognised that AAPL is not purely a hardware firm any longer and deserves a hybrid hardware/software rating to reflect its growing services business, the current price is approximately 30% above the fitted trend line (as a proxy for the hybrid valuation), as below. I will have to come up with a better hybrid valuation methodology in the future but it’ll do for now (all ideas welcome on that front!).

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So, the bottom line is that AAPL is richly priced currently but waiting for a perfect entry point may be a mugs game for such a quality firm with the possibility of a new iPhone cycle just beginning. AAPL has yet again shown how it can adapt and change course when its strategy is clearly not working. Still, I’ll be a mug for a while longer to see how this market and overall valuations develop (there will likely be a host of upgrades for AAPL in the coming weeks). I do admit to missing having AAPL in my portfolio, so I will likely not wait too long before establishing an initial position again. If any of the hype around 5G becomes reality as 2020 develops, I can see AAPL being a big benefactor next year.

Crazy Days

I have been somewhat out of the loop on the market over the past 2 months, partly due to work and partly due to a general apathy towards trying to understand the current market reasoning. I am very much in a risk off mode on a personal basis having moved mainly into cash since April to protect YTD gains (and take the hit on YTD losses!). At the end of April, I posted my thoughts about the equity market (with the S&P500 being my proxy for the “equity market”). Since then, the equity market has sea sawed 7% down in May and 7% up June to date, now in sight of new all-time highs. The volatility has primarily centred around the China trade talks and the economic outlook.

With the 10-year US treasury yield now just above 2% compared to around 2.5% at the end of April, clearly market expectations have changed. At its meeting last week, the Fed highlighted an increase in uncertainties to the global economy and stated that “in light of these uncertainties and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will closely monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook and will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion”. The market is loving the new Powell put rhetoric (he does seem to be overcompensating for the year end 2018 “error”) and some are taking language such aswe will act as needed, including promptly if that’s appropriate” to mean multiple cuts this year, as many as three this year have even been advocated. Equity markets seem to be missing the point that multiple rate cuts will mean the economy has deteriorated rapidly, with a recession a real possibility. Hardly a reason for all time high equity markets!

There’s also the issue of the Fed’s current benchmark rate of 2.25% to 2.5% which is not exactly at normal economic boom levels given it historically has taken cuts of 3-4% to reverse recessionary slowdowns. Powell may be counting on the shock therapy of an early and relatively large cut (50 bps?) as an antidote to any rapid worsening of the trade war with China (or the outbreak of a real war with Iran!). In such an outcome, it is inevitable that talk of QE will re-emerge, providing yet more distortion to this millennium’s crazy brand of monetary policy.

A whole host of other things are bothering me – I highlighted high valuations on the hot business software stocks (here), Slack’s valuation (now over $18 billion. It had $135 million of revenues last quarter!!), a bitcoin rally, the fantasy-land UK conservative party leadership contest (the UK used to lead the world in the quality of its political debate, how did it get to this?), and, last but not least, the Orange One and Iran and well everything else to do with Trump. Sorry, that turned into a bit of a rant.

And so, we come to the G20 meeting of the world’s greatest leaders this week. Maybe it’s my mood but I found myself agreeing with the analysis (here) of Dr Doom himself, known as Nouriel Roubini to his friends. Roubini highlights three possible scenarios on the US China talks – an agreed truce with a negotiated settlement by the end of the year, a full-scale trade & tech & cold war within 6 to 12 months, or no trade deal agreed but a truce whereby tariffs agreed to be capped at 10% to avoid escalation. The third option is in effect a slow-burn trade war or a managed trade escalation.

I would agree with Roubini that either the first (but without the settlement this year) or third options are the most likely as both sides have reasons to avoid a rapid escalation. China needs time to prepare its economy for a prolonged conflict and to see how Trump fairs politically. Trump can portray himself as the John Wayne figure his man-child self longs to be in standing up to China and can pressure the Fed to stimulate the economy from any short-term impacts. Unfortunately, a managed escalation of a trade war is exactly like a managed Brexit. Impossible. You are either in or out. Have a deal or don’t have a deal. Could a grand deal be struck with this G20 meeting proving the turning point? Its possible but unlikely in my view (I’m referring to a real deal, not a fantasy/pretend deal). I hope I’m wrong.

Against this backdrop, forgive my lack of insight into the current collective wisdom of the market but an all-time high equity market makes little sense to me. And that’s me being polite.

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.

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.