Tag Archives: economist

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

click to enlargesp-500-operating-profit-margins-by-sector

And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

click to enlargesp-500-historical-operating-profit-margins

It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…

An ice age or a golden one?

The debate on whether the US stock market is overvalued, as measured by the cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio (CAPE) as developed by Robert Shiller, or whether CAPE is not relevant due to weaknesses in comparing past cycles with today’s mixed up macro-economic world, continues to rage. I have posted several times on this, most recently here and here. In an article in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood outlines some of the bull and bear arguments on the prospects for US corporate growth and concludes that “America is an exception but not as big an exception as markets suggest”.

Bulls argue that, although the CAPE for the S&P500 is currently historically high at 26.5, earnings growth remains strong as the US economy picks up speed and that at a forward PE around 16 the S&P500 is not at excessive levels indicative of a bubble. The latest statistics compiled by the excellent Yardeni Research from sources such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that earnings, whether S&P reported or operating earnings or NIPA after tax profits from current production or based upon tax returns, continue to trend along a 7% growth projection. Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, believes that “this recovery will last several more years” and “earnings will grow”. Even the prospect of increased US interest rates does not perturb some bulls who assert that rates will remain low relative to history for some time and that S&P500 firms still have plenty of cash with an aggregate cash-pile of over $1 trillion. The king of the bulls, Jeremy Siegel recently said that “If you look at history, the bull markets do not end when the Fed starts raising interest rates. Bull markets could go on for another 9 months to 2 years“.

Bears point to high corporate profits to GDP and argue that they are as a direct result of low real wages and are therefore unsustainable when normal macro conditions return. Others point to the surge in share buybacks, estimated at nearly $2 trillion by S&P500 firms since 2009, as a significant factor behind EPS growth. Société Générale estimate a 20% fall in Q2 buybacks and (the always to be listened to) Andrew Lapthorne warns that as debt gets dearer firms will find it hard to maintain this key support to stock prices as in the “absence of the largest buyers of US equity going forward is likely to have significant consequence on stock prices”. The (current) king of the bears, Albert Edwards, also at SocGen, provided good copy in a recent report “Is that a hissing I can hear?” saying that “companies themselves have been the only substantive buyers of equity, but the most recent data suggests that this party is over and as profits also stall out, the equity market is now running on fumes“. Edwards believes that an economic Ice Age is possible due to global deflationary pressures. Another contender for king of the bears is fund manager John Hussman and he recently commented: “make no mistake, this is an equity bubble, and a highly advanced one“.

One commentator who I also respect is the author behind the excellent blog Philosophical Economics. A post last month on CAPE highlighted the obvious but often forgotten fact thatthe market’s valuation arises as an inadvertent byproduct of the equilibriation of supply and demand: the process through which the quantity of equity being supplied by sellers achieves an equilibrium with the quantity of equity being demanded by buyers”. As such, the current macro-economic situation makes any reference to an average or a “normal period” questionable. The post is well worth a read and concludes that the author expects the market to be volatile but continue its upward trajectory, albeit at a slower pace, until signs that the real economy is in trouble.

For me, the easy position is to remain negative as I see valuations and behaviour that frightens me (hello AAPL?). I see volatility but not necessarily a major correction. Unless political events get messy, I think the conclusion in a previous Buttonwood piece still holds true: “investors are reluctant bulls; there seems no alternative”. Sticking only to high conviction names and careful risk management through buying insurance where possible remain my core principles. That and trying to keep my greed in check…..

New valuation realities

As the market pulls back again this week in a much-needed dose of worry about where QE is leading us and how it will end, there is another interesting article from Buttonwood in this week’s Economist. Based upon work of analysts in investment banks BNP Paribas, Société Générale, and Goldman Sachs (Andrew Lapthorne of SG does high quality analysis and his work generally makes for insightful reading), the article highlights how valuations based upon price to book ratios have broken with pre-crisis history and currently differentiate more acutely between “quality” stocks (depending upon varying criteria as applied by the said analysts).

The article highlights the limited pool of “quality” stocks no-matter what criteria is used and Buttonwood also makes a point (which I fully agree with), namely that “investors have been flocking to equities because interest rates are so low; some, perhaps, on the naive view that using a lower discount rate on future cashflows translates into higher share prices today“.

As readers of this blog will be aware, two sectors that I follow are the wholesale insurance and the alternative telecom sectors. In previous posts, I have presented my historical valuation metrics for both sectors (albeit from limited samples) and they are combined in the graph below (one based upon price to tangible book, the other an EV/ebitda metric). The alternative telecom sector is as far away from any “quality” stock criteria that one could imagine and would be in the lowest quintile (on volatility alone!) of any sensible criteria. Although results are volatile by definition in the wholesale insurance sector, some of the bigger names like Munich Re may get higher ratings, maybe a 2 or 3 on Buttonwood’s graph.

click to enlarge

wholesale insurer & altnet valuation metric comparison

The main point I am trying to make in this post is that relying on valuations returning to levels prior to the financial crisis for certain sectors is just not realistic or sensible. Unless the market goes into fantasy land on the upside (this may seem idle speculation given the market’s current mood but just think where sentiment was a few short weeks ago), the differentiation currently been made in the market between business models and their inherent volatility is rational. The worry, as the article points out, is that there is not enough “quality” stocks around currently to wet the appetite of hungry investors and historically that has been a negative indicator for future stock returns.

Does financial innovation always end in reduced risk premia?

Quarterly reports from Willis Re and Aon Benfield highlight the impact on US catastrophe pricing from the new capital flowing into the insurance sector through insurance linked securities (ILS) and collaterised covers. Aon Benfield stated that “clients renewing significant capacity in the ILS market saw their risk adjusted pricing decrease by 25 to 70 percent for peak U.S. hurricane and earthquake exposed transactions” and that “if the financial management of severe catastrophe outcomes can be attained at multiple year terms well inside the cost of equity capital, then at the extreme, primary property growth in active zones could resume for companies previously restricting supply”.

This represents a worrying shift in the sector. Previously, ILS capacity was provided at rates at least equal to and often higher than that offered by the traditional market. The rationale for a higher price made sense as the cover provided was fully collaterized and offered insurers large slices of non-concentrated capacity on higher layers in their reinsurance programmes. The source of the shift is significant new capacity being provided by yield seeking investors lured in by uncorrelated returns. The Economist’s Buttonwood had an article recently entitled “Desperately seeking yield” highlighting that spreads on US investment grade corporate bonds have halved in the past 5 years to about 300bps currently. Buttonwood’s article included Bill Gross’s comment that “corporate credit and high-yield bonds are somewhat exuberantly and irrationally priced”. As a result, money managers are searching for asset classes with higher yields and, by magic, ILS offers a non-correlating asset class with superior yield.  Returns as per those from Eurekahedge on the artemis.bm website in the exhibit below highlight the attraction.

ILS Returns EurekahedgeSuch returns have been achieved on a limited capacity base with rationale CAT risk pricing. The influx of new capital means a larger base, now estimated at $35 billion of capacity up from approximately $5 billion in 2005, which is contributing to the downward risk pricing pressures under way. The impact is particularly been felt in US CAT risks as these are the exposures offering the highest rate on lines (ROL) globally and essential risks for any new ILS fund to own if returns in excess of 500 bps are to be achieved. The short term beneficiaries of the new capacity are firms like Citizens and Allstate who are getting collaterised cover at a reduced risk premium.

The irony in this situation is that these same money managers have in recent years shunned traditional wholesale insurers, including professional CAT focussed firms such as Montpelier Re, which traded at or below tangible book value. The increase in ILS capacity and the resulting reduction of risk premia will have a destabilising impact upon the risk diversification and therefore the risk profile of traditional insurers. Money managers, particularly pension funds, may have to pay for this new higher yielding uncorrelated asset class by taking a hit on their insurance equities down the road!

Financial innovation, yet again, may not result in an increase in the size of the pie, as originally envisaged, but rather mean more people chasing a smaller “mispriced” pie. Sound familiar? When thinking of the vast under-pricing of risk that the theoretical maths driven securitisation innovations led to in the mortgage market, the wise words of the Buffet come to mind – “If you have bad mortgages….they do not become better by repackaging them”. Hopefully the insurance sector will avoid those mistakes!