Top Marks

An entertaining memo on the current market from Howard Marks of Oaktree called “There They Go Again….Again”. Worth a read.

Telecoms’ troubles

The telecom industry is in a funk. S&P recently said that their “global 2017 base-case forecast is for flat revenues” and other analysts are predicting little growth in traditional telecom’s top line over the coming years across most developed markets. This recent post shows that wireless revenue by the largest US firms has basically flatlined with growth of only 1% from 2015 to 2016. Cord cutting in favour of wireless has long been a feature of incumbent wireline firms but now wireless carrier’s lunch is increasingly being eaten by disruptive new players such as Facebook’s messenger, Apple’s FaceTime, Googles’ Hangouts, Skype, Tencent’s QQ or WeChat, and WhatsApp. These competitors are called over the top (OTT) providers and they use IP networks to provide communications (e.g. voice & SMS), content (e.g. video) and cloud-based (e.g. compute and storage) offerings. The telecom industry is walking a fine line between enabling these competitors whilst protecting their traditional businesses.

The graph below from a recent TeleGeography report provides an illustration of what has happened in the international long-distance business.

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A recent McKinsey article predicts that in an aggressive scenario the share of messaging, fixed voice, and mobile voice revenue provided by OTT players could be within the ranges as per the graph below by 2018.

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Before the rapid rise of the OTT player, it was expected that telecoms could recover the loss of revenue from traditional services through increased data traffic over IP networks. Global IP traffic has exploded from 26 exabytes per annum in 2005 to 1.2 zettabytes in 2016 and is projected to grow, by the latest Cisco estimates here, at a CAGR of 24% to 2012. See this previous post on the ever-expanding metrics used for IP traffic (for reference, gigabyte/terabyte/petabyte/exabyte/zettabyte/yottabyte is a kilobyte to the power of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 respectively).

According to the 2017 OTT Video Services Study conducted by Level 3 Communications, viewership of OTT video services, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, will overtake traditional broadcast TV within the next five years, impacting cable firms and traditional telecom’s TV services alike. With OTT players eating telecom’s lunch, Ovum estimate a drop in spending on traditional communication services by a third over the next ten years.

Telecom and cable operators have long complained of unfair treatment given their investments in upgrading networks to handle the vast increase in data created by the very OTT players that are cannibalizing their revenue. For example, Netflix is estimated to consume as much as a third of total network bandwidth in the U.S. during peak times. Notwithstanding their growth, it’s important to see these OTT players as customers of the traditional telecoms as well as competitors and increasingly telecoms are coming to understand that they need to change and digitalise their business models to embrace new opportunities. The graphic below, not to scale, on changing usage trends illustrates the changing demands for telecoms as we enter the so called “digital lifestyle era”.

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The hype around the internet of things (IoT) is getting deafening. Just last week, IDC predicted that “by 2021, global IoT spending is expected to total nearly $1.4 trillion as organizations continue to invest in the hardware, software, services, and connectivity that enable the IoT”.

Bain & Co argue strongly in this article in February that telecoms, particularly those who have taken digital transformation seriously in their own operating models, are “uniquely qualified to facilitate the delivery of IoT solutions”. The reasons cited include their experience of delivering scale connectivity solutions, of managing extensive directories and the life cycles of millions of devices, and their strong position developing and managing analytics at the edge of the network across a range of industries and uses.

Upgrading network to 5G is seen as being necessary to enable the IoT age and the hype around 5G has increased along with the IoT hype and the growth in the smartphone ecosystem. But 5G is in a development stage and technological standards need to be finalised. S&P commented that “we don’t expect large scale commercial 5G rollout until 2020”.

So what can telecoms do in the interim about declining fundamentals? The answer is for telecoms to rationalise and digitalize their business. A recent McKinsey IT benchmarking study of 80 telecom companies worldwide found that top performers had removed redundant platforms, automated core processes, and consolidated overlapping capabilities. New technologies such as software-defined networks (SDN) and network-function virtualization (NFV) mean telecoms can radically reshape their operating models. Analytics can be used to determine smarter capital spending, machine learning can be used to increase efficiency and avoid overloads, back offices can be automated, and customer support can be digitalized. This McKinsey article claims that mobile operators could double their operating cashflow through digital transformation.

However, not all telecoms are made the same and some do not have a culture that readily embraces transformation. McKinsey say that “experience shows that telcoms have historically only found success in transversal products (for example, security, IoT, and cloud services for regional small and medium-size segments)” and that in other areas, “telcoms have developed great ideas but have failed to successfully execute them”.

Another article from Bain & Co argues that only “one out of eight providers could be considered capital effective, meaning that they have gained at least 1 percentage point of market share each year over the past five years without having spent significantly more than their fair share of capital to do so”. As can be seen below, the rest of the sector is either caught in an efficiency trap (e.g. spent less capital than competitors but not gaining market share) or are just wasteful wit their capex spend.

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So, although there are many challenges for this sector, there is also many opportunities. As with every enterprise in this digital age, it will be those firms who can execute at scale that will likely to be the big winners. Pure telecommunications companies could become extinct or so radically altered in focus and diversity of operations that telecoms as a term may be redundant. Content production could be mixed with delivery to make joint content communication giants. Or IT services such as security, cloud services, analytics, automation and machine learning could be combined with next generation intelligent networks. Who knows! One thing is for sure though, the successful firms will be the ones with management teams that can execute a clear strategy profitably in a fast changing competitive sector.

Strong and Stable

The impact of the Brexit vote on UK politics was far reaching and the results of the UK general election have shown just how far reaching. In a post last year following the Brexit vote I said “one lasting impact of the Brexit vote is likely to be on the make-up of British politics”. The graph below shows the political allegiance breakdown of the Brexit vote.

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The Brexit issue meant that the previous political (social class) allegiances of the UK electorate has splintered further by factors such as age and by views on immigration and/or globalisation. This has led to some extraordinary results in Thursday’s election: conservatives winning seats off the Scottish nationalists with swings as large as 16%, a significant number (reportingly 25%) of the collapsed UKIP vote going to Labour, a resurgent left wing Labour winning in some of the wealthiest constituencies in the UK are just a few examples.

Adding to the political volatility is that the Brexit referendum vote has to be implemented by politicians elected under a parliamentary system by a first past the post (FPTP) electoral construct. Given the 4% spread in the Brexit vote, the difference between the seats allocated under a FPTP electoral system as opposed to a proportional representation (PR) one can be material, as the results of the 2015 general election with spreads of +14%/-19% show.

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It is therefore highly interesting to see that the difference between the FPTP and PR systems in Thursday’s election result is significantly less with spreads of +6%/-3%.

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There can be little doubt that the earthquake that the Brexit vote set off in UK politics is far from over and there will be more tremors to come as the Brexit negotiations play out. On the plus side, this election has resulted in a closer parliamentary representation of the UK electorate than the 2015 election. On the minus side, it reflects the uncertainty over the exact type of Brexit that the British electorate wants. And that uncertainty looks set to continue. Strong and stable government in the UK looks to be more aspirational than reality in the coming years.

Ignorance in action

The last time I posted on the climate change debate was here in November 2014 on the release of the synthesis reports on the IPCC’s 5th assessment. The post asked whether the debate would now move on, away from the climate change deniers, given the weight of scientific opinion. Well, that was before Mr Trump. In his inane rationale for withdrawing from the (nonbinding) Paris climate agreement, Trump has provided a classic illustration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s quote that “there is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action”.

The Paris agreement is far from perfect. It does not however contain hard emissions targets but rather gives a framework for voluntary reductions. Admittingly previous voluntary reductions promised by many countries have been missed but even a flawed agreement is better than nothing. Recent declines in the growth in coal use in China and India were positive initial signs.

Maybe Mr Trump’s delusional thinking is that his masterful negotiations skills mean he can negotiate a global agreement with hard emission targets! More likely, he is acting politically to shore up his mid America coal loving support given the danger that some of his core support may just be realising that his healthcare and fiscal policies are not that favourable to those at lower incomes.

I recently came across this statement from January 1954 by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, a tobacco firm group representatives, in reaction to some of the initial medical research showing that smoking was linked to lung cancer. The group stated that “we believe the products we make are not injurious to health”. My favorite bit is the arguments cited by “distinguished authorities” below countering the emerging scientific evidence:

  1. That medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of lung cancer.
  2. That there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is.
  3. That there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.
  4. That statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous scientists.

Don’t these arguments sound familiar?

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.