FED speak

In this time of uncertainty, we can only search for insights as we await actual Q2 figures and see how businesses fare as lock-downs are slowly relaxed. Many businesses, particularly SMEs, may hobble on for a while as demand slowly picks up and governmental support becomes due for withdrawal. Some, like hairdressers, will re-establish their businesses due to the nature of their service or product and with the support of a loyal customer base. Some may even thrive as their businesses adapt to the new normal.  Many may not. Services dependent upon crowds such as the leisure and hospitality sectors look particularly exposed. The digital transformation of many businesses will take a leap forward and the creative destruction of capitalism will take its course. Many of the old ways of doing businesses will be consigned to history in one fell swoop.

The FED this week issued their financial stability report with the following view on the current level of vulnerabilities:

1) Asset valuations. Asset prices remain vulnerable to significant price declines should the pandemic take an unexpected course, the economic fallout prove more adverse or financial system strains re-emerge.

2) Borrowing by businesses and households. Debt owed by businesses had been historically high relative to gross domestic product (GDP) through the beginning of 2020, with the most rapid increases concentrated among the riskiest firms amid weak credit standards. The general decline in revenues associated with the severe reduction in economic activity has weakened the ability of businesses to repay these (and other) obligations. While household debt was at a moderate level relative to income before the shock, a deterioration in the ability of some households to repay obligations may result in material losses to lenders.

3) Leverage in the financial sector. Before the pandemic, the largest U.S. banks were strongly capitalized, and leverage at broker-dealers was low; by contrast, measures of leverage at life insurance companies and hedge funds were at the higher ends of their ranges over the past decade. To date, banks have been able to meet surging demand for draws on credit lines while also building loan loss reserves to absorb higher expected defaults. Broker dealers struggled to provide intermediation services during the acute period of financial stress. At least some hedge funds appear to have been severely affected by the large asset price declines and increased volatility in February and March, reportedly contributing to market dislocations. All told, the prospect for losses at financial institutions to create pressures over the medium term appears elevated.

4) Funding risk. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak and associated financial market tur­moil, funding markets proved less fragile than during the 2007–09 financial crisis. None­theless, significant strains emerged, and emergency Federal Reserve actions were required to stabilize short-term funding markets.

The point about household debt is an important one and points to the likelihood that this will be a recession with characteristics more akin to those before the 2008 financial crisis, as per the graph below.

The oft highlighted concerns about leveraged loans in recent times has again been highlighted by the Fed as a worry in this crisis, as below, with default rates likely to turn sharply upwards.

However, it was the commentary in the report from the Fed’s market outreach that I thought captured succinctly the current market fears for the future:

Many contacts expressed concern that a U.S. recession brought about by the pandemic could expose highly leveraged sectors of the economy. Contacts noted that corporate default rates were likely to increase sharply, with acute stress in the energy sector. Even before the outbreak spread to the United States, concerns related to nonfinancial corporate debt were cited frequently, with a focus on the growth in leveraged loans, private credit, and triple-B-rated bonds. More recently, surveyed respondents noted that a period of renewed outflows from credit-oriented mutual funds could lead to limits on redemptions and that stressed global insurers could become large sellers of U.S. corporate bonds.

A number of contacts also raised concerns over household balance sheets, especially in low-income segments, highlighting increases in credit card, student loan, and auto loan delinquencies as well as concerns over spillovers from nonpayments of rent and mortgages. Against the backdrop of corporate, consumer, and real estate stress, several respondents noted that bank asset quality could come under severe pressure. Smaller banks with high concentrations of lower-rated consumers, small and medium-sized businesses, and commercial real estate were viewed as especially vulnerable.

Several policy-related risks were also identified, including the risk that funding designated to support small businesses would be either insufficient to address the scale of the need or not timely enough to avert a wave of layoffs and bankruptcies. Finally, a few contacts noted the prospect that state and local governments would face large budgetary gaps, with spillovers to the municipal bond market and local economies. In the euro area, some respondents noted that the absence of more expansive fiscal resource sharing or debt mutualization could underpin a return of redenomination risk in some of the monetary union’s most indebted sovereigns.

A few respondents noted that novel investment strategies and market structures could prove vulnerable in a sustained market downturn. Specifically mentioned were the growth of short-volatility strategies, the expansion of leveraged ETFs, and the reliance in some markets on sources of liquidity that could withdraw in a shock.

Finally, geopolitical tensions were cited frequently as a medium- to long-term risk. A few contacts noted that the COVID-19 outbreak could amplify tensions and accelerate a shift away from multilateralism. Respondents also highlighted the risk of heightened trade tensions and the possibility that the virus and its fallout could accelerate global leadership changes and amplify political uncertainty.

Musings on AAPL

In these weirdest of times, it is important to emphasis again Charlie Munger’s words of wisdom that “nobody knows what’s going to happen”. As developed countries across the world experiment with easing lock down measures, thoughts are moving to how economies can be re-opened. In what The Economist this week calls a 90% economy, they reflect upon a world where “the office is open but the pub is not”. A trite comment maybe but one that I think succinctly captures the new normal that those of us lucky enough to have our health can hope to be in for the next year.

Anyway, the point is that any projections in this environment are purely speculative. Add in my spotty record with AAPL, as this post in November attests to, and that AAPL have pulled guidance, highlights the likely futility of this post! Actually, I did dip my toe back in the water on AAPL around November after that post and when it shot up past $310 in January, I thanked the Gods and cashed out again (it went as high as $327 in February, daft!). The optimism about a new 5G iPhone super-cycle for next year that fed into that share price ramp has now been tempered by, well, the virus thing.

For my projections, I have assumed 26 million iPhone sales in the current quarter, down 27% on 2019, and 162 million for FY 2020, a 14% reduction from FY 2019. For FY 2021, I have assumed a pick-up in yearly unit iPhone sales due the launch of 5G iPhones, some in time for the holiday season, but at 180 units for FY 2021 it’s far short of the anticipated super-cycle refresh due to depressed consumer demand as the recession plays out next year. My assumptions are shown below:

These assumptions are further illustrated in the trailing 12-month graph below.

Every great company needs an edge in the coming months and years to thrive. For AAPL, in addition to the quality of their products and their loyal installed base, their cash pile and their ability to manipulate share count through buy-backs has been a particular feature of their financial success in recent years, as the graph above clearly shows.

Although analysts were expecting a $75-100 billion increase in their buy-back programme in the Q2 quarter announcement last week, the announced $50 billion shows discipline and caution from management. I estimate that AAPL has spent approximately 130% of free cash-flow on dividends and buybacks in aggregate over the past 6 quarters, reducing their net cash balance by approximately $50 billion to $83 billion over those 6 quarters.

For the next 6 quarters to the end of FY 2021, I am assuming they return to shareholders, through both dividends and buy-backs, a similar amount of $126 billion to the previous 6 quarters, $105 billion through buy-backs alone. This shareholder return in terms of free cash-flow earned over the next 6 quarters would be an eye popping 200% according to my estimates. I further estimate a reduction in net cash on the balance sheet to approximately $40 billion by the end of FY 2021, an amount which I believe management, to be consistent with the firm’s DNA, should not feel comfortable going below for prudence sake (or to avail of further accretive M&A opportunities). One of the lessons of the COVID19 outbreak for well managed firms is surely the need for a contingency buffer against the unexpected. The resulting impact upon diluted share count and EPS of these assumptions at differing average buy-back share prices is shown below.

So, that just leaves the question of valuation. I will again warn that the subject matter in this post is based upon my assumptions which are highly speculative. I have proven myself to be hopelessly wrong in relation to AAPL at certain points in the past, so this time is unlikely to be any different! Using my preferred forward PE multiple excluding cash per share methodology, the graph below shows the forward multiples of my assumed performance over the next 6 quarters at share prices from $150 to $400, in increments of $50. The “increased love trend” is reflective of the higher multiple that AAPL has received as their service business has expanded and the hybrid hardware/software valuation has evolved.

Based upon this analysis, I would suggest that a share price below $250 should be considered as an entry point. Currently, I am uber bearish on equities and have exited 90%+ of my positions, taking advantage in recent weeks of this fairy tale rally (I mean, where is the upside from here?). Were AAPL to fall below $250, I would look closely at it again, albeit at a still heightened forward PE just below 18 based upon my estimates. Whether such an opportunity is afforded is anybody’s guess. As the man said, nobody knows.

A string of worst evers

As the COVID19 deaths peak, in the first wave at least, across much of the developed world the narrative this week has moved to exit strategies. The medical situation remains highly uncertain, as the article in the Atlantic illustrated. A core unknown, due to the lack of extensive antibody testing, is the percentage of populations which have been infected and the degree of antibodies in those infected. What initially seemed to me to be a reasonable exit framework announced by the US has been fraught with execution uncertainty over the quantity and quality of the testing required, exasperated by the divisive ramblings of the man-child king (of the Orangeness variety).

The economic news has been dismal with a string of worst ever’s – including in retail sales, confidence indices, unemployment, energy and manufacturing. The number of turned over L shaped graphs is mind-blowing. And that’s only in the US! The exhibit below stuck me as telling, particularly for an economy fuelled by consumer demand.

In the words of the great Charlie Munger: “This thing is different. Everybody talks as if they know what’s going to happen, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.” The equally wise Martin Wolf of the FT, who penned an article this week called “The world economy is now collapsing” posted a video of his thoughts here. His article was based upon the release of the latest IMF economic forecasts, as below.

The IMF “baseline” assumes a broad economic reopening in the H2 2020. The IMF also details 3 alternative scenarios:

  • Lockdowns last 50% longer than in the baseline.
  • A second wave of the virus in 2021.
  • In the third, a combination of 1) and 2).

The resulting impacts on real GDP and debt levels for the advanced and emerging/developing countries respectively are shown below.

A few other interesting projections released this week include this one from Morgan Stanley.

And this one from UBS.

And this one from JP Morgan.

In terms of S&P500 EPS numbers, this week will provide some more clarity with nearly 100 firms reporting. Goldman’ estimates for 2020 compared to my previous guestimates (2020 operating EPS of $103 versus $130 and $115 in base and pessimistic) were interesting this week given the negative figure for Q2 before returning to over $50 for Q4. The “don’t fight the fed” and TINA merchants amongst the current bulls have yet to confront the reality of this recession for 2021 earnings where the fantasy of an EPS above $170 for 2021 will become ever apparent with time in my opinion. Even an optimistic forward multiple of 14 on a 2021 operating EPS of $150 implies a 25% fall in the S&P500. And I think that’s la la land given the numbers that are now emerging! We’ll see what this week brings…..

Stay safe.


This article in the Atlantic magazine by Ed Yong is excellent. Much food for thought on the issues for the months ahead.

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.