On donkey votes and weighing machines
Our efforts to grow value for our investors have been less than successful over the past year. The August reporting season unfortunately brought no change to this outcome. Analysing the source of the errors made in the course of investing is never easy; current prices are a measure of the supply/demand balance which currently prevails, yet they are not necessarily a great indication of true value. As Benjamin Graham so wisely put it, in the short run the market is a voting machine, in the long run it is a weighing machine. Whilst we have undoubtedly made errors, we must separate those which have caused us to arrive at erroneous estimates of what some businesses are worth (weighing things incorrectly) from those where it is short term voting that has gone against us. Our perception of the past year is that voting has been far more important than weighing. The extent to which investors have convinced themselves of the merits of paying materially higher multiples (accepting materially lower yields) on businesses with either the perception of stronger growth or greater stability has surprised us. We have spent some time trying to reconcile whether the emotion attached to many of the beneficiaries of markedly higher ratings is justified by reality, and in the vast majority of cases we have come up short.
The core paradigm surrounding our evaluation of a company’s performance has remained largely unchanged. We believe that market value creation must eventually be backed up by economic value creation. When market value is separating from underlying economic value (our favoured measure is to look at NTA (net tangible assets) plus dividends) in a positive direction, investors are paying increasingly more for the future, whereas a closing gap reflects decreasing optimism on future returns and the sustainability of these returns. Our approach to evaluating this equation is perhaps best illustrated through reference to a few examples from the most recent reporting season.
The domestic insurance companies (Suncorp and IAG) have been amongst the strongest performers of recent years. We believe the management teams of both businesses have done an excellent job capitalising on exceptional market conditions, yet we do not believe they make great investments at current prices. Why? IAG reported a profit of more than $1.2bn for the past year, an outstanding result. This result was delivered on total tangible equity of $3.25bn. The result therefore reflects a return on tangible equity of around 40%. Herein lies the conundrum. The current market capitalisation of IAG is a little over $15bn. Assuming the company can sustain earnings of $1bn or more, this valuation reflects a multiple of around 15 times earnings and would deliver investors about a 7% return on their equity investment assuming growth is negligible. Essentially, IAG management need to maintain a return on equity of more than 30% in perpetuity in order for shareholders to earn a return of materially less than 10%. Achieving this outcome would be all the more impressive given that around half the premium revenue in the business emanates from traditional intermediated commercial insurance on which most global insurance companies struggle to earn double digit returns on tangible capital. To put this in perspective, John Neal, in QBE’s recent result was open in targeting a return on equity in the low double digits for the business overall, the reason why QBE now trades at a multiple of less than two times tangible equity versus nearly five times for IAG. Perhaps we will be wrong. Mike Wilkins may actually be able to walk on water and IAG will deliver such returns indefinitely, however, history is often instructive, and when Frank O’Halloran was the messiah at QBE, and the trading multiple of QBE reached an even more elevated multiple of NTA, it was a less than auspicious time to invest. To borrow from Monty Python, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.
Similarly, bank results can be assessed on these metrics. CBA reported earnings of $8.6bn on a tangible equity base of nearly $40bn, delivering an ROE of around 22% on tangible equity. Market capitalisation of nearly $132bn again implies a number of less than 7% for shareholders buying at current prices and a multiple of NTA of well over 3 times. These numbers take nothing away from the quality of these results, they merely highlight the extent to which very high returns on tangible equity need to be maintained in perpetuity to deliver less than exceptional returns for shareholders, particularly in times when opportunities for growth are sparse. It also highlights the extent to which low interest rates have done wonders in buoying the returns of many financial companies, where lower interest costs spur both volume and profits, yet very little of this largesse has flowed through to sharply improved conditions for sectors of the economy that are progressively further removed from central bank largesse.
Resource and resource related businesses in general, paint a somewhat different picture as pressure on commodity pricing and demand heads (for the most part), in the wrong direction, causing investors to progressively downgrade the levels of sustainable return which they are prepared to extrapolate in current share prices. To use Rio Tinto as an example, reported profit in the past year of some US$10bn was delivered on an equity base of US$55bn, delivering an ROE of about 18%. Market capitalisation of a little over
US$100bn leaves us with a price to NTA under 1.9 times. If this ROE (still materially lower than either IAG or CBA) can be maintained, investors should achieve a sustainable ROE of more than 9%. In the case of Rio Tinto, there is almost no debate that they are the world’s lowest cost iron ore producer. There is perhaps a little more debate over whether we have the world’s best banks and insurance companies.
These simple measures can obviously be flawed, however, they usually point in broadly the right direction. Today’s preponderance of momentum and data driven investment processes, in which earnings revisions, guidance and sentiment have overtaken fundamentals have created obvious incentives for management. If you can manufacture earnings momentum, a ready pool of investors awaits. Restructuring provisions, asset write-downs and various other tools which seek to embellish future earnings at the cost of today’s equity, are often overlooked. You don’t even have to have investor meetings with the computers that run the money! Witness the $2bn plus fleet write-down by Qantas and the massive restructuring provisions which accompany almost every acquisition. These are real costs to shareholders and one of the major reasons why we insist that focusing on growth in tangible equity and dividends is far more likely to encourage the right behaviour.
These examples serve to highlight our frustration with many of the price moves over recent times. Many of the market darlings are far more egregious. Ramsay Healthcare reported earnings of some $300m on a tangible equity base of less than $600m. The current market capitalisation of more than $10.5bn offers an exciting 3% equity yield for lucky investors and reflects a multiple of around 20 times NTA. When you get an ageing population, plenty of financial leverage and some offshore growth for good measure, investors can be worked into quite a frenzy.
Overheating markets almost always encourage a gradual migration away from the tedious and mundane methods of actual wealth creation (investing capital at the best organic returns possible and focusing on genuine productivity gain) towards the debilitating and illusory but more exciting methods (asset price speculation and financial leverage). The vast majority of seasoned investors and commentators whose views we both read and respect (even if they do not always accord with our own), have a great deal of concern over the path to which almost all major economies seem irreversibly committed. We share these concerns. We have heard almost no coherent case as to how further borrowing, ever higher prices for existing assets and unfounded government spending will suddenly morph into stabilising asset prices, improving employment and growth in real rather than asset price activity. Belief in the axiom that ‘low interest rates spur economic growth’ is unwavering, despite little evidence of its veracity. Lack of supporting evidence, however, is unlikely to be sufficient to see policy change course.
Before Copernicus postulated the theory that the Earth orbited the sun rather the Earth being the centre of the universe, astronomy had struggled to move forward from the efforts of Aristotle, many centuries earlier. We feel the current thinking of policymakers is misguided, and the objective evidence in equity markets, real estate markets and just about every other asset market, is that the vast majority of current wealth creation is illusory. We must, in our hope that policymakers change course in the future, acknowledge the risk that we may be a few hundred years early!
In the interim, current market conditions will ensure that considerable wealth changes hands, as promoters weave persuasive stories around mediocre assets. We suspect very little real wealth will be created as a result. We apologise for the fact that short term returns have been less satisfactory than we’d like, but we will remain diligent in ensuring we weigh the value of the investments we are making rather than try to pick the next popular vote. We are fairly sure that many of the votes being cast at present will transpire to be ‘donkey votes’.
Opinions, estimates and projections in this article constitute the current judgement of the author as of the date of this article. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Schroder Investment Management Australia Limited, ABN 22 000 443 274, AFS Licence 226473 ("Schroders") or any member of the Schroders Group and are subject to change without notice. In preparing this document, we have relied upon and assumed, without independent verification, the accuracy and completeness of all information available from public sources or which was otherwise reviewed by us. Schroders does not give any warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of information which is contained in this article. Except insofar as liability under any statute cannot be excluded, Schroders and its directors, employees, consultants or any company in the Schroders Group do not accept any liability (whether arising in contract, in tort or negligence or otherwise) for any error or omission in this article or for any resulting loss or damage (whether direct, indirect, consequential or otherwise) suffered by the recipient of this article or any other person. This document does not contain, and should not be relied on as containing any investment, accounting, legal or tax advice. Schroders may record and monitor telephone calls for security, training and compliance purposes.