Fare thee well, annus horribilis
Andrew Fleming, Deputy Head of Australian Equities, bids farewell to 2015.
Our portfolio has been overweight hard assets (we are now 10% overweight materials) and underweight bond sensitives (we are now 15% underweight financials) all year, much to our chagrin as we bid fare thee well to our annus horribilis. The trend is, indeed, our portfolio’s anything but friend, with the same themes permeating several years in a row now. Whilst value is clear and present - and risk adjusted value is the driver for our portfolio positioning - the catalyst for a reversal is unclear, just as it was when prior market extremes ultimately corrected; but correct they did. What was the catalyst for the financial boom leading to the GFC? And for it to implode? What was the catalyst for the TMT boom to emerge? And then correct? Even with hindsight, it’s hard to know, but what to our minds is clear is that we are now, again, in a financial bubble, just this time one with a clear catalyst, inspired by interest rate settings, the ultimate outworking of which is that the best performing equities through recent years have been those most sensitive to interest rate movements.
Valuations are at extreme levels. Whilst low quality resource exposures will most likely go broke through the next year, a raft of higher quality metals and mining names – Alumina, BHP, Iluka, RIO, South 32, and Western Areas – all have more than 50% valuation upside, with good balance sheets. We struggle to find industrial stocks with material upside. But valuation is being cast aside as momentum rules, and with iron ore going below US$40 per tonne, it is back to the future time. The price was last at this level (for any meaningful period) close to a decade ago and has flirted with levels four times current spot, and commonly traded more than three times current spot, through the intervening years. Having said that, whilst the timing and magnitude of the rise and then fall has surprised us, the fall itself hasn’t – we have had a long run iron ore price assumption of US$65 (recently dropped to US$60) for the better part of this decade, just as we have had an Australian dollar foreign currency assumption of 0.75 against the United States dollar through that time as well. In fact, we spent many years defending these numbers during the “Stronger for Longer” era, when we made the cardinal sin of not going to China “often enough” to know anything other than it was (a) big and (b) smoggy. How those enduring qualities translated to a sustainable iron ore price of US$50, US$60, or as was more commonly then suggested US$100 or more was beyond us. All we could do amidst the euphoria was look to the cost curve for guidance as to sustainable prices, and using this sustainable commodity price, value the security accordingly. And, hence, for many years, when resources were expensive on fundamentals and traded up to six times book value, we were underweight. Now with the iron ore price at US$40, and with forward curves through the next year closer to US$30, using almost identical inputs as to the cost curve and currency in deriving long run prices as we were when the iron ore price was multiples higher, but with the sector having massively underperformed for several years and now trading under book value, we are overweight and find momentum against us. Just as we didn’t know how the cycle would correct when fundamentals overshot, but we were confident they would, we now don’t know how the path progresses with fundamentals pressured, but we are confident they ultimately will.
We highly doubt the Australian banks will have the elasticity in profit and book multiple that has featured in the resource market, but a cursory glance at global financial stocks through the past decade would suggest that they are cyclical beasts as well, and earnings for Australian financials are closer to cyclical peaks than troughs. For context, when iron ore was last at US$40 per tonne, CBA made less than A$2b in annual profit – this year it will make close to A$10b. Through the last forty years, materials (dominated by mining stocks) as a proportion of the ASX have never been at lower levels; whilst financials (dominated by banks) as a proportion of the ASX have never been at higher levels. Our portfolio is positioned counter cyclically on both fronts, and we would be interested to understand credible valuation arguments supporting a contrary position.
Apart from just the cyclical element, our overweight position in BHP was an enormous drag to returns during the month due to the perception of BHP’s liability for damages to lives and property in the village of Bento Rodrigues and surrounds, arising from its joint venture interest in Samarco Minerao. Of course BHP should meet all of its responsibility arising out of this disaster, however we do not believe BHP’s liability should be any greater than its JV partner’s liability. Given BHP’s loss in market capitalisation through the month was close to A$20b more than its partners market cap fall, the market appears to be assuming this will ultimately prove to be the case. In the event this continues to be mooted, the logic for BHP to remain as a large entity rather than being demerged into many smaller entities will be questioned; just as it would be if a major bank was expected to pay more in compensation to those customers affected by poor advice than a smaller entity would be for providing the same poor advice. Large companies have underperformed materially on the ASX, and shareholder’s have seen little commensurate reward for the complexity and risk inherent to such entities.
Almost three years ago, we outlined six fundamental views that shaped our thinking:
- lower (global growth) for longer, driven by overcapacity and demographics;
- an ongoing need for deleveraging by the government, financial and household sectors, albeit deferred (but ultimately exacerbated) by political realities;
- there is no long term monetary solution to indebtedness; although this is now becoming an increasing craze for central bankers;
- in line with unemployment rates, the Australian economy is far above mid cycle whereas most other developed world economies are below;
- business plans extrapolating prior cycles are folly; and
- the two golden rules for corporate success in this low volume environment remain the ability to exert pricing power, and a productivity focus.
The scorecard is mixed, but these views largely remain on foot. The first principle is now an orthodoxy. Overcapacity in all of the factors of production – capital through monetary policy, goods through aggressive capex through the past twenty years leading to low global capacity utilisation, and labour through globalisation – continues to see prices pressured in free markets. Most price rises are occurring in markets where the Government pays the bill, which should not presage mindless extrapolation. Fiscal restraint, though, is now seen as a form of Calvinism, a slightly quixotic economic orthodoxy which is looked upon with bemusement whilst global debt to GDP levels keep rising to new record levels. QE is abating, on balance, after years of dominating policy, with the US raising rates imminently, although we suspect to no great extent in the way of further increases. Whilst unemployment in Australia remains manageable, it is now higher than in most developed countries, and hence Australia can no longer be said to be in an advantaged part of the business cycle relative to peer nations; our currency and muted profit growth suggests that as well. Finally, the ability to exert pricing power needs to be seen in context; to create durable value, this is neither a licence to rip off customers (as a supermarket may be tempted to do), nor a presumption of an ever larger government subsidy (cue another healthcare policy review). The productivity focus remains key but outside of resources, where major iron ore producers have doubled productivity through recent years, and manufacturing, there is still scant evidence of it in many industrial businesses.
Over the past year the ASX200 Index is slightly down, but Resources and Energy are down 25% to 35%. Every other sector is up. We were overweight Resources and Energy a year ago and are more overweight now. Last month the bifurcation in returns stretched, again, to a record extent, as has been the case for several months through 2015. Fare thee well, annus horribilis. Many sectors are now at or close to 40 year extremes as a proportion of the market – all the QE recipients and financial asset traders (Healthcare, Financials, Utilities) to the upside and many hard asset traders or producers (Energy, Metals and Mining, Consumer) to the downside. If bonds are indeed expensive, and interest rates rise through 2016, then the extreme sectoral performance of the ASX through recent years is highly unlikely to recur.
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