If it’s not alright, then it’s not yet the end
We continue to think that amidst volatile and heterogeneous markets – the rally seen through the front half of last year featured second tier resource names, whereas this year it has been led by industrial stocks – two characteristics will be common to the best performing equity investments in the long run; those that reflect price-making ability and those that reflect productivity improvements, sustainably. It’s hard and rare, which is why it is valuable, to deliver on both fronts for shareholders. It’s also completely independent of the growth rate of the market you are operating in, which is increasingly a cause for concern for Australian equity investors.
Amidst global froth and bubble, and then turmoil and trouble, the past decade has been a consistently blessed period for corporates and consumers in Australia. It’s hard to detach from that mindset, but critically important. We recently had a discussion with the CEO of an Australian construction materials company, who said whilst he was closing capacity quickly – leading the industry in doing so – and setting his business for a mid-cycle of 135,000 housing starts in Australia down from 145,000, he feared that going any lower would leave him prone to claims of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. We suggested a number closer to 120,000 or even lower may be prudent, after all, on a per capita basis relative to the US experience of sub 600,000 starts in recent years, the Australian equivalent is closer to 40,000 starts. This observation was unwelcome.
This CEO was not alone. It is easy to see why many CEOs remain, in our opinion, bullish, as recency bias affects many forecasters. The recent forecast briefing by the Australian Construction Industry Forum had global growth reverting to 2003-2008 levels at between 3% and 4% every year for the next decade, despite the last couple of years being peskily lower. In turn, the AICF forecasts that through the next decade, unemployment in Australia doesn’t get above 5.5% and residential building, after an unhealthily low growth period through the last few years whilst work done has been flat in nominal terms, will resume an aggressive upwards trajectory. This forecast also had construction for retail and wholesale trade, which has dropped materially in recent years, to “…return to pre-GFC trend in spite of structural issues including high AUD and the shift to online retail …”.
We doubt many of these assumptions. Nonetheless, Stockland shares the forecaster’s optimism, albeit when unveiling a downgrade through March, it asserted that two factors depressing housing activity right now were the weather and, surprisingly, banks making credit difficult to obtain for creditworthy buyers. Let’s think this through. Banks are seeing loan growth plummet, and in turn, mortgage discounts off the standard variable rate are as high as they have ever been through the March quarter, seeing reported margins pressured. Mortgages are the only source of growth in bank’s loan books year on year as increasingly large corporates access markets directly (and more cheaply) and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector continue to deleverage. Does that really sound like an environment where undue credit rationing in the mortgage market is occurring? Not to us. A more cogent, and troubling explanation may be that presented by one of our analysts Daniel Peters. Daniel observed that using the ABS household income and cost of living data, it is only the most affluent quintiles that are saving, and that’s even with the current 5.3% levels of unemployment and the oft cited benefits to income arising from the record terms of trade. This is a structural issue, that when coupled with lower levels of confidence, is likely to underpin subdued levels of building demand and consumption in Australia, in our opinion, for many years yet. If unemployment reaches northern hemisphere levels at some point through the next cycle then we will have a much better feel for the impact of cyclical declines upon a variety of sectors in Australia than we do currently. In the meantime, mistaking the structural for the cyclical is one of the worst sins a board and management can make. Just ask any Fairfax shareholder.
David Jones also downgraded its earning guidance, as did Metcash, as did Bank of Queensland. There were no offsetting upgrades of note. The trends are clear, the answers are not. Nonetheless, if embracing an “omni channel retailer” strategy is the answer, we think David Jones is asking the wrong question.
Why are we circumspect on economic growth rates for an extended period? As the ever cheerful Indian inn keeper in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” assures his increasingly sceptical (English) guests, “It will be alright in the end. If it is not yet alright, it is not yet the end”. The stoicism shown in the face of any adversity, including economic, is an enduring trait of the English. Elsewhere, the picture is not quite as benign, as taxes rise, and with it civil unrest. Japan has announced an intention to double consumption taxes. Ireland has seen mass protests upon the introduction of a poll tax upon all house owners. Days after an EU Summit saw commitments to a more restrictive budget framework limiting national autonomy, and the ECB lending €529bn to 800 banks in the second long term refinancing operation (“LTRO”), the Spanish government diluted its 2012 deficit target to 5.8% of GDP from 4.4%. China reduced its GDP growth rate target to 7.5% and has seen loan growth drop 8% this year. Whilst better than a year ago, US data is still mixed. Around the world, growth forecasts will continue to drop as the world continues the great unwind, and just as the past decade has seen extreme levels of gearing emerge, this phase of deleveraging is unlikely to be modest.
Nonetheless, our scepticism on global growth rates should not be mistaken for a matching outlook for equity markets. Last year, the Chinese growth rate was roughly double that of Australia, which was roughly double that of the US. Yet equity market returns were the exact opposite, with the US doing best. This pattern of equity returns detaching from (sales or economic) growth rates is one of the few constants in history. In the face of lower than anticipated growth, markets have duly rallied year to date, albeit with Australia lagging other markets. We think this may be a base case for a deleveraging world. Economic growth will continue to disappoint, but equities can do well, especially when an unduly negative base case has already been factored in. The large equity risk premium attaching to many northern hemisphere developed markets appears to us to be a great contemporary example of this phenomenon.
What does well as equity investments in Australia in this context? As we began, it’s hard to go past price makers and management teams showing an ability to generate productivity gains as a good start. As the RBA has noted, human nature means that productivity gains usually lag a poorer economic environment, and hence Australia has a currently poor productivity environment. By definition, then, many of the companies we can nominate as doing a good job on this front – James Hardie, Brambles, Amcor, CSL – have significant operations in the northern hemisphere. Many domestic industrial stocks, such as manufacturers, telcos and retailers have started down the productivity path. Banks are in a nascent (and currently fumbling) stage while resource stocks have yet to be concerned about such boring matters, given the ongoing lure of high prices.
Growth in the developed world is anaemic and slowing, with demand weakening and the financial system clearly needing further recapitalisation. The major themes affecting the Australian markets of too much debt, albeit concentrated in the financial and household sectors, aging demographics, and commodity prices continuing to trade at levels well above what we consider long term sustainable prices, all remain on foot, and increasingly imprint themselves in performance. Our portfolio is positioned accordingly, with a bias to industrials with earnings exposure to economies where we believe upside to mid cycle exists more than can be said to be the case in Australia or with exposure to domestic industries where cyclical debasing has already occurred, such as Pathology. It remains imprudent for us to ignore what we see as these ongoing risks, which only become amplified the longer they remain unaddressed. This balancing act has dominated the past several years and will continue to dictate our assessment of not just future likely returns, but also risks, in the portfolio.
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.