Tag Archives: uncertainty

Peak Earnings?

With the S&P500 down 9% off its high this month after last week, the question everybody is asking is whether this is a buying opportunity or the beginning of a new phase in the market. I have no idea. Nobody really does. I suspect this week will be bumpy but will rally off Fridays’ lows as there is some cheap names who have been hit hard. I have been modestly dipping my toe in on some names but am waiting before making any big moves. I hope to post on a few of the stocks regularly mentioned in this blog in the coming weeks.

The underlying concerns about the global economy and trade, the impact of US rate increases and quantitative tightening, Italy, to name but a few, have been and continue to be real issues to consider. The fact that the market has turned on a penny and is now all worried about the issues it shrugged off a few weeks ago is, well just how markets are!

What I do know is that this bull market has all been about earnings and margin growth, nothing else matters. So, I took the latest operating EPS and sales estimates for 2019 from S&P, extrapolated them into 2020, assuming a modest slowing of the EPS growth. These operating margin figures and assumed sales figures form the basis of Scenario 1. Stressed operating margin and sales formed the basis for Scenarios 2 and 3, with Scenario 2 falling back to the 2013-17 average operating margin of 9.5% and Scenario 3 falling more severely to the 2008-18 average of 8.75%. The graph below shows the operating margin assumptions in a historical context for each scenario.

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Assuming a price for the S&P500 as per Friday’s close of 2,659, the EPS figures with respective trailing and future 12-month PEs are as per the graphs below.

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So, if the current operating estimates for 2019 stand up and continue into 2020 as per Scenario 1, then I would say the current dip is a buying opportunity with a forward 2019 and 2020 PE of 15 and 14 respectively. If, however, you feel that we have reached peak earnings and a modest enough EPS retrenchment over 2019 and 2020 is likely as per Scenario 2, then the current S&P500 level looks vulnerable to further downside as the implied forward PEs of 17.5 and 18.7 for 2019 and 2020 look rich in a downward trending EPS environment. If, as per Scenario 3, the EPS retrenchment is more severe, then we are in for a very bumpy ride with another 15% to 25% downside possible.

To state the obvious, the current market focus is all about the earnings outlook for 2019 and 2020. The mid-terms over the next few weeks will be another factor to consider. It will be interesting to see if the market focus moves away from the economic prospects over the next few years and more towards 2018 bonuses and end of year window dressing as this quarter progresses!

Crises Chronicles

Ray Dalio is on a mission to share insights gained over 40 years at the helm of the vastly successful Brightwater Associates. After the financial crisis, Dalio published an excellent article on the workings of the economy. In 2017, he expanded on his previously published philosophy in a book called Principles (as per this summary). More recently he published a free downloadable book called A Template for Understanding Big Debt Crises, available here.

I have a copy of Principles but I must admit I have yet to finish reading it (on my to do list!). I have read the first section of the latest Big Debt Crises book and would highly recommend it. The second section of the book has detailed case studies (the US 2007-11, the US 1928-37, and Germany 1918-24) and the third section is a compendium of 48 other case studies.

Two graphs below from the Big Debt Crises book are worth reproducing, reflecting key factors behind our economy today.

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Dalio is an astute student of history. He recently commented that “the biggest mistake that most people make is to judge what will be good by what has been good lately”.

Amen to that.

The New Normal (Again)

I expect that next week’s reinsurance jamboree in Monte Carlo will be full of talk of innovative and technology streaming-lining business models (as per this post on AI and insurance). This recent article from the FT is just one example of claims that technology like blockchain can reduce costs by 30%. The article highlights questions about whether insurers are prepared to give up ownership of data, arguably their competitive advantage, if the technology is really to be scaled up in the sector.

As a reminder of the reinsurance sector’s cost issues, as per this post on Lloyds’, the graph below illustrates the trend across Lloyds’, the Aon Benfield Aggregate portfolio, and Munich’s P&C reinsurance business.

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Until the sector gets serious about cutting costs, such as overpaid executives on luxury islands or expensive cities and antiquated business practises such as holding get togethers in places like Monte Carlo, I suspect expenses will remain an issue. In their July review, Willis stated that a “number of traditional carriers are well advanced in their plans to reduce their costs, including difficult decisions around headcount” and that “in addition to cost savings, the more proactively managed carriers are applying far greater rigor in examining the profitability of every line of business they are accepting”. Willis highlighted the potential difficulties for the vastly inefficient MGA business that many have been so actively pursuing. As an example of the type of guff executives will trot out next week, Swiss Re CEO, Christian Mumenthaler, said “we remain convinced that technology will fundamentally change the re/insurance value chain”, likely speaking from some flash office block in one of the most expensive cities in the world!

On market conditions, there was positive developments on reinsurance pricing at the January renewals after the 2017 losses with underlying insurance rates improving, as illustrated by the Marsh composite commercial rate index (example from US below).

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However, commentators have been getting ever more pessimistic as the year progresses, particularly after the mid-year renewals. Deutsche Bank recently called the reinsurance pricing outlook “very bleak”. A.M. Best stated that “the new normal for reinsurers appears to be one with returns that are less impressive and underwriting and fee income becoming a larger contributor to profits” and predicts, assuming a normal large loss level, an 8% ROE for 2018 for the sector. Willis, in their H1 report, puts the sectors ROE at 7.7% for H1 2018. S&P, in the latest report that is part of their Global Highlights series, also expects a ROE return for 2018 around 6% to 8% and estimates that “reinsurers are likely to barely cover their cost of capital in 2018 and 2019”.

S&P does question why “the market values the industry at a premium to book value today (on average at 1.24x at year-end 2017), and at near historical highs, given the challenges” and believes that potential capital returns, M&A and interest rate rises are all behind elevated valuations.  The recent Apollo PE deal for Aspen at 1.12 times book seems a large way off other recent multiples, as per this post, but Aspen has had performance issues. Still its interesting that no other insurer was tempted to have a go at Aspen with the obvious synergies that such a deal could have achieved. There is only a relatively small number of high quality players left for the M&A game and they will not be cheap!

As you are likely aware, I have been vocal on the impact the ILS sector has had in recent years (most recently here and here). With so-called alternative capital (at what size does it stop being alternative!) now at the $95 billion-mark according to Aon, A.M. Best makes the obvious point that “any hope for near-term improvement in the market is directly correlated to the current level of excess capacity in the overall market today, which is being compounded by the continued inflow of alternative capacity”. Insurers and reinsurers are not only increasing their usage of ILS in portfolio optimisation but are also heavily participating in the sector. The recent purchase by Markel of the industry leading and oldest ILS fund Nephila is an interesting development as Markel already had an ILS platform and is generally not prone to overpaying.

I did find this comment from Bob Swarup of Camdor in a recent Clear Path report on ILS particularly telling – “As an asset class matures it inevitably creates its own cycle and beta. At this point you expect fees to decline both as a function of the benefits of scale but also as it becomes more understood, less of it becomes alpha and more of it becomes beta” and “I do feel that the fees are most definitely too high right now and to a large extent this is because people are trying to treat this as an alternative asset class whereas it is large enough now to be part of the general mix”. Given the still relatively small size of the ILS sector, it’s difficult for ILS managers to demonstrate true alpha at scale (unless they are taking crazy leveraged bets!) and therefore pressure on current fees will become a feature.

A.M. Best articulated my views on ILS succinctly as follows: “The uncorrelated nature of the industry to traditional investments does appear to have value—so long as the overall risk-adjusted return remains appropriate”. The graph below from artemis.bm shows the latest differential between returns and expected cost across the portfolio they monitor.

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In terms of the returns from ILS funds, the graph below shows the underlying trend (with 2018 results assuming no abnormal catastrophic activity) of insurance only returns from indices calculated by Lane Financial (here) and Eurekahedge (here). Are recent 5 year average returns of between 500 and 250 basis points excess risk free enough to compensation for the risk of a relatively concentrated portfolio? Some think so. I don’t.

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Whether reinsurers and specialty insurers will be able to maintain superior (albeit just above CoC) recent returns over ILS, as illustrated in this post, through arbitrating lower return ILS capital or whether their bloated costs structures will catch them out will be a fascinating game to watch over the coming years. I found a section of a recent S&P report, part of their Global Highlights series, on cat exposures in the sector, amusing. It stated that in 2017 “the reinsurance industry recorded an aggregate loss that was assessed as likely to be incurred less than once in 20 years” whilst “this was the third time this had happened in less than 20 years“.

So, all in all, the story is depressingly familiar for the sector. The new normal, as so many commentators have recently called it, amounts to overcapacity, weak pricing power, bloated cost structures, and optimistic valuations. Let’s see if anybody has anything new or interesting to say in Monte Carlo next week.

As always, let’s hope there is minimal human damage from any hurricanes such as the developing Hurricane Florence or other catastrophic events in 2018.

Broken Record II

As the S&P500 hit an intraday all-time high yesterday, it’s been nearly 9 months since I posted on the valuation of the S&P500 (here). Since then, I have touched on factors like the reversal of global QE flows by Central Banks (here) and the lax credit terms that may be exposed by tightening monetary conditions (here). Although the traditional pull back after labor day in the US hasn’t been a big feature in recent years, the market feels frothy and a pullback seems plausible. The TINA (There Is No Alternative) trade is looking distinctly tired as the bull market approaches the 3,500-day mark. So now is an opportune time to review some of the arguments on valuations.

Fortune magazine recently had an interesting summary piece on the mounting headwinds in the US which indicate that “the current economic expansion is much nearer its end than its beginning”. Higher interest rates and the uncertainty from the ongoing Trump trade squabble are obvious headwinds that have caused nervous investors to moderate slightly valuation multiples from late last year. The Fortune article points to factors like low unemployment rates and restrictions on immigration pushing up wage costs, rising oil prices, the fleeting nature of Trump’s tax cuts against the long-term impact on federal debt, high corporate debt levels (with debt to EBITDA levels at 15 years high) and the over-optimistic earnings growth estimated by analysts.

That last point may seem harsh given the 24% and 10% growth in reported quarterly EPS and revenue respectively in Q2 2018 over Q2 2017, according to Factset as at 10/08/2018. The graph below shows the quarterly reported growth projections by analysts, as per S&P Dow Jones Indices, with a fall off in quarterly growth in 2019 from the mid-20’s down to a 10-15% range, as items like the tax cuts wash out. Clearly 10-15% earnings growth in 2019 is still assuming strong earnings and has some commentators questioning whether analysts are being too optimistic given the potential headwinds outlined above.

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According to Factset as at 10/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE of 16.6 is around the 5-year average level and 15% above the 10-year average, as below. As at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE is 16.8.

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In terms of the Shiller PE or the cyclically adjusted PE (PE10), the graph below shows that the current PE10 ratio of 32.65 as at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, which is 63% higher than 50-year average of 20. For the purists, the current PE10 is 89% above the 100-year average.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 as at 21082018 S&P500 high

According to this very interesting research paper called King of the Mountain, the PE10 metric varies across different macro-economic conditions, specifically the level of real interest rates and inflation. The authors further claim that PE10 becomes a statistically significant and economically meaningful predictor of shorter-term returns under the assumption that PE10 levels mean-revert toward the levels suggested by prevailing macroeconomic conditions rather than toward long-term averages. The graph below shows the results from the research for different real yield and inflation levels, the so-called valuation mountain.

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At a real yield around 1% and inflation around 2%, the research suggests a median PE around 20 is reasonable. Although I know that median is not the same as mean, the 20 figure is consistent with the 50-year PE10 average. The debates on CAPE/PE10 as a valuation metric have been extensively aired in this blog (here and here are examples) and range around the use of historically applicable earnings data, adjustments around changes in accounting methodology (such as FAS 142/144 on intangible write downs), relevant time periods to reflect structural changes in the economy, changes in dividend pay-out ratios, the increased contribution of foreign earnings in US firms, and the reduced contribution of labour costs (due to low real wage inflation).

One hotly debated issue around CAPE/PE10 is the impact of the changing profit margin levels. One conservative adjustment to PE10 for changes in profit margins is the John Hussman adjusted CAPE/PE10, as below, which attempts to normalise profit margins in the metric. This metric indicates that the current market is at an all time high, above the 1920s and internet bubbles (it sure doesn’t feel like that!!). In Hussman’s most recent market commentary, he states that “we project market losses over the completion of this cycle on the order of -64% for the S&P 500 Index”.

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Given the technological changes in business models and structures across economic systems, I believe that assuming current profit margins “normalise” to the average is too conservative, particularly given the potential for AI and digital transformation to cut costs across a range of business models over the medium term. Based upon my crude adjustment to the PE10 for 2010 and prior, as outlined in the previous Broken Record post (i.e. adjusted to 8.5%), using US corporate profits as a % of US GDP as a proxy for profit margins, the current PE10 of 32.65 is 21% above my profit margin adjusted 50-year average of 27, as shown below.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 adjusted as at 21082018 S&P500 high

So, in summary, the different ranges of overvaluation for the S&P500 at its current high are from 15% to 60%. If the 2019 estimates of 10-15% quarterly EPS growth start to look optimistic, whether through deepening trade tensions or tighter monetary policy, I could see a 10% to 15% pullback. If economic headwinds, as above, start to get serious and the prospect of a recession gets real (although these things normally come quickly as a surprise), then something more serious could be possible.

On the flipside, I struggle to see where significant upside can come from in terms of getting earnings growth in 2019 past the 10-15% range. A breakthrough in trade tensions may be possible although unlikely before the mid-term elections. All in all, the best it looks like to me in the short term is the S&P500 going sideways from here, absent a post-labor day spurt of profit taking.

But hey, my record on calling the end to this bull market has been consistently broken….

Bumpy Road

After referring to last year’s report in the previous post, the latest IMF Global Financial Stability Report called “A Bumpy Road Ahead” was released yesterday. Nothing earth-shattering from the report when compared to previous and current commentary. The following statements are typical:

“Many markets still have stretched valuations and may experience bouts of volatility in the period ahead, in the context of continued monetary policy normalization in some advanced countries. Investors and policymakers should be cognizant of the risks associated with rising interest rates after years of very easy financial conditions and take active steps to reduce these risks.”

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“Valuations of risky assets are still stretched, with some late-stage credit cycle dynamics emerging, reminiscent of the pre-crisis period. This makes markets exposed to a sharp tightening in financial conditions, which could lead to a sudden unwinding of risk premiums and a repricing of risky assets. Moreover, liquidity mismatches and the use of financial leverage to boost returns could amplify the impact of asset price moves on the financial system.”

With the US 10 year breaking 2.9% today and concerns about a flattening yield curve, the IMF puts global debt at $164 trillion or 225% of GDP (obviously a different basis from the IIF’s estimate of global debt at $237 trillion or 318% of GDP) and warns about the US projected debt increase due to its “pro-cyclical policy actions”.

In a chapter the IMF calls “The Riskiness of Credit Allocations” it presents an interesting graph, as below, using its financial conditions index which uses multiple inputs constructed using a methodology that’s wonderfully econometrically complex, as is the IMF way.

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The IMF warn that “a variety of indicators point to vulnerabilities from financial leverage, a deterioration in underwriting standards, and ever more pronounced reaching for yield behaviour by investors in corporate and sovereign debt markets around the world”.