Tag Archives: share buybacks

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.

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.

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…..

Reluctant Bulls

There was a nice piece from Buttonword in the Economist where he concluded that despite all the indicators of the equity market being overvalued that “investors are reluctant bulls; there seems no alternative”. This seems like a rationale explanation for the relatively irrational behaviour of current markets.

He highlighted indicators like the high CAPE, figures from the Bureau for Economic Analysis (BEA) on the profit dip in Q1, high share buybacks, figures from SocGen’s Andrew Lapthorne that the ratio of corporate debt to assets is close to its 2009 peak, and a BoA Merrill Lynch poll which shows that 48% of institutional investors are overweight equities whilst a net 15% believe they are overvalued.

Despite the bearish indicators everywhere, investors seem frozen by central bank indecision on whether economies still need help by remaining accommodative or that the recovery has taken hold and monetary policy needs to start to tighten.

Andrew Lapthorne released some analysis earlier this month highlighting that a significant amount of the previous year’s earnings growth was down to M&A from Verizon and AT&T and concluded that EPS growth by M&A and from share buybacks is a classic end of cycle indicator. Lapthorne produced the graph below of historical peaks and troughs in the S&P500 and noted that the average historical 1% down days is 27 per year since 1969 an the S&P500 has only had 16 in the past 12 months and that we have gone through the 4th longest period on record without a market correction of 10% or more.

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SocGen peak to through

Albert Edwards, also at SocGen, points to the difference in the BEA profit statistics and those reported being down to the expiration of tax provisions for accelerated depreciation and he concludes that “the bottom line is that the U.S. profits margin cycle has begun to turn down at long last“.

Even the perma-bull David Bianco of Deutsche Bank has cautioned against overvaluation calling the market complacent and moving into mania territory using their preferred measure of sentiment, namely the PE ratio divided by the VIX. The graph below from early June illustrates.

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DB Price Earnings VIX Ratio

From my point of view, I think the chart of the S&P500 for the past 10 years tells its own story about where we are. As Louis Rukeyser said “trees don’t grow to the sky“. Nor do equity markets.

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S&P500 Past 10 Years