Category Archives: Equity Market

Still Dancing

The latest market wobble this week comes under the guise of the endless Trump soap opera and the first widespread use of the impeachment word. I doubt it will be the last time we hear that word! The bookies are now offering even odds of impeachment. My guess is that Trump’s biggest stumble will come over some business conflict of interest and/or a re-emergence of proof of his caveman behaviour towards woman. The prospect of a President Pence is unlikely to deeply upset (the non-crazy) republicans or the market. The issue is likely “when not if” and the impact will depend upon whether the republicans still control Congress.

Despite the week’s wobble, the S&P500 is still up over 6% this year. May is always a good month to assess market valuation and revisit the on-going debate on whether historical metrics or forward looking metrics are valid in this low interest rate/elevated profit margin world. Examples of recent posts on this topic include this post one highlighted McKinsey’s work on the changing nature of earnings and this post looked at the impact of technology on profit profiles.

The hedge fund guru Paul Tudor Jones recently stated that a chart of the market’s value relative to US GDP, sometimes called the Buffet indicator as below, should be “terrifying” to central bankers and an indicator that investors are unrealistically valuing future growth in the economy.

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Other historical indicators such as the S&P500 trailing 12 month PE or the PE10 (aka Shiller CAPE) suggest the market is 60% to 75% overvalued (this old post outlines some of the on-going arguments around CAPE).

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So, it was fascinating to see a value investor as respected as Jeremy Grantham of GMO recently issue a piece called “This time seems very very different” stating that “the single largest input to higher margins, though, is likely to be the existence of much lower real interest rates since 1997 combined with higher leverage” and that “pre-1997 real rates averaged 200 bps higher than now and leverage was 25% lower”. Graham argues that low interest rates, relative to historical levels, are here for some time to come due to structural reasons including income inequality and aging populations resulting in more aged savers and less younger spenders. Increased monopoly, political, and brand power in modern business models have, according to Graham, reduced the normal competitive pressures and created a new stickiness in profits that has sustained higher margins.

The ever-cautious John Hussman is disgusted that such a person as Jeremy Grantham would dare join the “this time it’s different” crowd. In a rebuttal piece, Hussman discounts interest rates as the reason for elevated profits (he points out that debt of U.S. corporations as a ratio to revenues is more than double its historical median) and firmly puts the reason down to declining labour compensation as a share of output prices, as illustrated by the Hussman graph below.

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Hussman argues that labour costs and profit margins are in the process of being normalised as the labour market tightens. Bloomberg had an interesting article recently on wage growth and whether the Phillips Curve is still valid. Hussman states that “valuations are now so obscenely elevated that even an outcome that fluctuates modestly about some new, higher average [profit margin] would easily take the S&P 500 35-40% lower over the completion of the current market cycle”. Hussman favoured valuation metric of the ratio of nonfinancial market capitalization to corporate gross value-added (including estimated foreign revenues), shown below, predicts a rocky road ahead.

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The bulls point to a growing economy and ongoing earnings growth, as illustrated by the S&P figures below on operating EPS projections, particularly in the technology, industrials, energy, healthcare and consumer sectors.

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Taking operating earnings as a valid valuation metric, the S&P figures show that EPS estimates for 2017 and 2018 (with a small haircut increasing in time to discount the consistent over optimism of analyst forward estimates) support the bull argument that current valuations will be justified by earnings growth over the coming quarters, as shown below.

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The IMF Global Financial Stability report from April contains some interesting stuff on risks facing the corporate sector. They highlight that financial risk taking (defined as purchases of financial assets, M&A and shareholder pay-outs) has averaged $940 billion a year over the past three years for S&P 500 firms representing more than half of free corporate cash flow, with the health care and information technology sectors being the biggest culprits. The IMF point to elevated leverage levels, as seen in the graph below, reflective of a mature credit cycle which could end badly if interest rates rise above the historical low levels of recent times.

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The report highlights that debt levels are uneven with particularly exposed sectors being energy, real estate and utilities, as can be seen below.

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The IMF looked beyond the S&P500 to a broader set of nearly 4,000 US firms to show a similar rise in leverage and capability to service debt, as illustrated below.

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Another graph I found interesting from the IMF report was the one below on the level of historical capital expenditure relative to total assets, as below. A possible explanation is the growth in technology driven business models which don’t require large plant & property investments. The IMF report does point out that tax cuts or offshore tax holidays will, based upon past examples, likely result in more financial risk taking actions rather than increased investment.

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I also found a paper referenced in the report on pensions (“Pension Fund Asset Allocation and Liability Discount Rates” by Aleksandar Andonov, Rob Bauer and Martijn Cremers) interesting as I had suspected that low interest rates have encouraged baby boomers to be over-invested in equities relative to historical fixed income allocations. The paper defines risky assets as investments in public equity, alternative assets, and high-yield bonds. The authors state that “a 10% increase in the percentage of retired members of U.S. public pension funds is associated with a 5.93% increase in their allocation to risky assets” and for all other funds “a 10% increase in the percentage of retired members is associated with a 1.67% lower allocation to risky assets”.  The graph below shows public pension higher allocation to risky assets up to 2012. It would be fascinating to see if this trend has continued to today.

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They further conclude that “this increased risk-taking enables more mature U.S. public funds to use higher discount rates, as a 10% increase in their percentage of retired members is associated with a 75 basis point increase in their discount rate” and that “our regulatory incentives hypothesis argues that the GASB guidelines give U.S. public funds an incentive to increase their allocation to risky assets with higher expected returns in order to justify a higher discount rate and report a lower value of liabilities”. The graph below illustrates the stark difference between the US and Europe.

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So, in conclusion, unless Mr Trump does something really stupid (currently around 50:50 in my opinion) like start a war, current valuations can be justified within a +/- 10% range by bulls assuming the possibility of fiscal stimulus and/or tax cuts is still on the table. However, there are cracks in the system and as interest rates start to increase over the medium term, I suspect vulnerabilities will be exposed in the current bull argument. I am happy to take some profits here and have reduced by equity exposure to around 35% of my portfolio to see how things go over the summer (sell in May and go away if you like). The ability of Trump to deliver tax cuts and/or fiscal stimulus has to be question given his erratic behaviour.

Anecdotally my impression is that aging investors are more exposed to equities than historically or than prudent risk management would dictate, even in this interest rate environment, and this is a contributing factor behind current sunny valuations. Any serious or sudden wobble in equity markets may be magnified by a stampede of such investors trying to protect their savings and the mammoth gains of the 8 year old bull market. For the moment through, to misquote Chuck Price, as long as the music is playing investors are still dancing.

Hedge Blues

For many years Warren Buffet has been highlighting the benefits of investing in a low cost index fund over paying return sapping fees to professional “helpers”. In Buffet’s 2016 letter, released over the weekend, he estimates approx $100 billion in fees have been wasted by investors in the past decade in “the search by the elite for superior investment advice”.

The selected returns by hedge funds, specifically fund of funds, since 2008 in the letter make Buffet’s point strongly (those funds were selected by Ted Seides in the wager with Buffet). Although I have no love for the overpaid superheros of the hedge fund world, Buffet’s wager has the tail wind of a particularly bad run of returns from the hedgies of late. The graph below shows the average 10 year returns from the S&P500 (including dividends less 15 basis points for fees) against hedge fund returns, net of fees, from the BarclayHedge website (I only selected those categories with more than 99 funds included).

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Clearly, the 10 year averages for the past 5 years haven’t been kind to the masters of the universe. That may be reflective of a permanent change in markets, due to anything from more regulation to the era of low risk premia to less leverage to size. Buffet puts it down to success attracting too much capital and managers subsequent addiction to fees. I do like the explanation given by Bill Ruane from Buffet’s letter in the following quote – “In investment management, the progression is from the innovators to the imitators to the swarming incompetents.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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…..