Australian Equities

Approaching the tripwire


Andrew Fleming

Andrew Fleming

Deputy Head of Australian Equities

No new light through old windows, as the new year started much as the old finished in the Australian equity market. Healthcare, consumer staples, telcos and utilities – anything with a yield flavour – did best; and materials, especially mining and energy floundered. No mean reversion to be seen anywhere at a sector level – the winners over the past year were more pronounced winners over the month; the losers were walloped further.

How much further can these trends, now approaching extreme levels, persist and how best to calibrate such judgements? We have endeavoured to address these issues in two ways. Firstly, by reference to historical boundaries for sector weights – that is, since 1980, how low a proportion of the ASX have the losers (currently resources) been, and how high a proportion have the winners (currently financials) been? Secondly, if this sectoral bifurcation is in response to lower bond yields, is this self-reinforcing loop boundless, or is there a tripwire beyond which lower and lower bond yields, signalling disinflationary and even deflationary pressures, ceases to lead to further equity rerating?

The first issue of sector size gives us some comfort we are reaching extreme levels. Through the past thirty-five years, financials ex property have never been a higher percentage of the market than they are currently (at 38.6%). The current level is close to double their average and median proportion through this time. With CBA now a $150b market cap company in itself, trading at four times net tangible assets, it’s easy to see how this percentage has broken out. To be sure, CBA is a high returning bank, even on a global context, with a return on equity nearing 18%, only marginally below the returns on equity generated by Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Bradesco of Brazil (and others we will not detail, such as Unibanco). Whilst these foreign peer banks have higher returns than CBA, they have much lower multiples; circa 20% in the case of RBC and 35% in the case of Bradesco, which in dollar terms amounts to a $30bn to $55bn derating for CBA if it were to be priced on these peer multiples. This is the same market value as Amcor and Brambles combined at the lower end and those two plus Orica and Incitec combined at the upper end. The other major Australian banks also boast high returns in a global context, and accordingly high multiples, but CBA is materially divergent in terms of its valuation. Finally, it’s important to understand what has driven the banking sector’s profit growth (and hence multiple) since the GFC; it is not non-interest income (where the compound annual growth rate is sub 1%), nor costs (which have proportionately grown in line with revenues), nor pricing power (margins are broadly flat). It has simply been strong credit volumes, and bad debts declining to record lows relative to the asset base of the banks, which has driven recent profit growth. Neither are sustainable, especially so in a disinflationary/deflationary world. Healthcare is the other ASX200 sector which is currently trading at an all-time high as a proportion of the market, and where we again struggle to see enormous value, although we do not see it as overvalued as the Financials sector.

If Financials ex-Property are hitting upper boundaries as a proportion of the market, materials (notably mining) at 15% are close to their lows of 12% reached in June 2001 at the height of the TMT bubble. Accordingly, in the ASX200, we currently have 25 stocks with valuation support, the vast majority of which are material or energy stocks. It is often hard to foresee the “catalyst” for how sectors revert through time (was there a forecast for oil to halve through the ensuing year, 12 months ago?) but knowing where sectors sit within extreme bounds starts to give an appreciation as to where margins of safety may sit. Other sectors have also hit extreme levels through the past decade including utilities hitting a peak in November 2005 – coinciding with the rise, and subsequent fall, of the Paul Anthony era at AGL – and Industrials hitting a low in February 2009 as the GFC erupted.

We commissioned an external strategist to examine the second issue of sectoral bifurcation in response to lower bond yields, and whether there is a tripwire beyond which lower and lower bond yields signalling disinflationary and even deflationary pressures, ceases to lead to further equity rerating. We especially asked them to have regard to the Japanese experience. The results were unsurprising; the relationship between equities and bond yields changes at low (i.e. sub 4%) yields. Put another way, the required equity risk premium starts to rise as bond yields drop further below 4%. This is intuitively appealing – at an extreme, it is impossible to believe that a bank, for example, is less and less risky in a disinflationary and, ultimately, deflationary environment. Of course, the Japanese experience through the past twenty five years is not a “cut and paste” for Australia or other developed world markets because of differences in starting multiples, government policy, sectoral composition, and indebtedness. Nonetheless, the broad finding that below a certain level, further rallies in bond yields cease to favour the traditional yield stocks, appears logical. It is how we have been and continue to be positioned. It has been a costly position. For many of the reasons detailed above, we are disinclined to alter path and become more enamoured with domestically focused yield stocks as the domestic economy starts to falter, because of the extreme divergence in starting multiples; one lesson from Japan that certainly applies is that valuations, especially starting multiples, are a major driver in the ultimate realised return.

Indeed, one of the consequences of the bond rally distorting equity market pricing has been the skewing of multiples, leading to these market cap extremes detailed above. Our valuation models assume a sustainable EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) multiple for the market of 10.9x (or an enterprise yield of 9.2%). Drawing upon global and local historical experience of the duration of excess returns, we then cap premiums and discounts for multiples at 40% around this multiple, i.e. the highest multiple we afford a stock is 15.3x EBIT and the lowest 6.5x EBIT. This multiple is applied to mid cycle EBIT; usually, that is lower than spot EBIT (even now), and for lower quality companies it is usually well below current EBIT. The current extremes in market prices, however, sees almost a quarter of the ASX200 having a current multiple above our upper boundary, including almost every Property Trust. There is also about 10% of the ASX200 priced below our lower boundary (an EBIT multiple of 6.5x EBIT), and almost all of these stocks are resource related. BHP and RIO, for example, have globally competitive assets, generating high returns on capital (about 10% return on assets even last year). They are now trading on EBIT multiples of less than 10x, that is an equity yield of above 10%. In contrast many Property Trusts are now trading on a sustainable equity yield of circa 6%. We feel this difference is extreme and will close, but in any event having passed the “sweet spot” of bond market prices for equity multiples, should bonds only rally further, the less this bifurcation can now be stretched.

Portfolio outlook & strategy

Equity markets are always more prone to emotional swings in multiples and what prompts the opening and closing of these swings is more art than science. Whilst not giving a path, historical boundaries of sector weights and an examination of when, if ever, a breakdown in bond yield and equity multiple relationship takes place, both give us some confidence that emotion in equity prices and hence multiples across sectors is approaching extreme levels. It reflects current and very recent operating conditions, as the commodity cycle has normalised, but as the domestic economic cycle also increasingly normalises through this year it may be that many sectors outside of resources, including those to date heavily subsidised by an increasingly indebted government sector, start to be hit by these same cyclical forces. At that time we expect that sector rotation towards those stocks and sectors with increasing levels of free cashflow, as opposed to just the augmentation of recent multiple trends, may occur.

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