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.

Where to now?

There can be little doubt that March 2020 will go down in history. I fear that April 2020 will bring more pain and suffering across this little planet of ours. I have, like I am sure you have also, looked on in horror as events unfolded over the past weeks and felt emotions I never thought possible as I fear for family, friends and communities. We have to hope that medical science will come to assist us with treatments to take some of edge off this insidious pandemic until we can mass produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID19.

Until recent days, I have not had the stomach to sit down and try to read up on how this nightmare may end. The data, both medical and economical, that will come out in April will likely shock but will hopefully at least help us to figure a route out of this. Right now, I doubt we will ever go back to the world we lived in just a short few weeks ago. The price that will have to be paid for this human tragedy once the virus is conquered will, I fear, include destroyed businesses, unemployment, financial hardship for many and a debt crisis (both corporate & sovereign). If things get really bad, I would fear for social cohesion in the months and years ahead in many communities and countries. So, in trying to start to figure out where we go to now, the exhibits below are those I have taken from some recent reports (as credited) that I thought worth sharing.

Notwithstanding these fears, I do think it’s important to have hope and there are many things happening during this crisis that point to hope. Families getting stronger through adversity and a focus on what is important for us all are just two positives. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring….

Stay Safe.

Deloitte US GDP Forecasts

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.

Betting Battles

The sports betting and online gaming sector is going through transformative times. Firms like William Hill (WMH.L), GVC (GVC.L) and Flutter (FLTR.L), the new name for Paddy Power Betfair, are grappling with greater regulatory restrictions, more taxes, and the need to be seen to take the issue of problem gambling seriously (some of which are outlined in this previous post). Many of these issues are having a direct impact on revenues and margins. At the same time, they are trying to build a presence in the newly opened US gambling market. The exhibit below, from a recent GVC presentation, shows the players by revenues, both in the physical and the online market.

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A look at the operating margins of these firms show the impact on profits for the largest firms, with the pure online players Bet365 and The Stars looking the most lucrative (although it will be interesting to see the results for Bet365 to March 2019 when they are released in November).

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The future size of the US market is impossible to forecast, although all the firms are highlighting the potential. As per this post (when I had time to do proper research for my posts!!), its unlikely that the US market when it matures will be as profitable as the European or Australian markets. As Flutter/Paddy Power Betfair is the best public firm in the sector (Bet365 is private) and the one I am most familiar with, and have posted on many times (here, here and here for example), I had a shot at estimating the results to 2020 and came up with an EPS of £3.54 for 2020 compared to just over £3.00 for 2019, as below. These estimates are very rough and ready, based primarily upon a doubling of US revenues and a reduction of EBITDA losses in the US to £20 million in 2020 from £55 million in 2019.

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Based upon today’s price, I estimate a PE ratio for Flutter (hate the name by the way) for 2019 and 2020 of 22 and 18.8 based upon the EPS estimates above. Given the risks in these business models and the uncertainties over the development of the US market (plus my negative macro outlook), that’s still too rich for my liking. For others, given there was takeover rumours a few months ago in this ever-changing sector, it may be worth the gamble.