Many are called but few are chosen
Following the themes that emerged in late April, May was noticeable for a transition in market leadership away from the “yield” names that have dominated ASX market performance through the past two years, towards material names of many hues. In synch with a global bond market selloff, banks underperformed and resources, energy and industrial stocks, outperformed.
The bank underperformance was not a function of poor earnings. Rather, they are a direct reflection of renewed focus upon bank capital, credit quality and culture, with the Regulator explicitly forewarning on all three fronts. In the past month alone, Wayne Byers, the APRA Chairman, has made two speeches on point, one titled “Sound lending standards and adequate capital; preconditions for long-term success”. In short, his message was lending standards were unsound, capital inadequate, and culture poor. Two quotes from these speeches summarise the official view; capital requirements are increasing, and soon;
“… The Basel Committee meets again in June to review the way ahead on its various proposals. I do not think it will be too long after that that we are able to announce how we will respond to those issues that are easiest to tackle sooner rather than later. Other items will take a little longer to pin down the precise detail. But the direction is clear, and we fully support the FSI’s recommendation that Australian ADIs should be unquestionably strong. So it also makes sense to start early and move forward in an orderly fashion wherever possible: affected ADIs should, provided they take sensible opportunities to accumulate capital, be well-placed to accommodate these changes when they occur…”
As well as flagging concern with credit and capital, Mr Byers also expressed concern with respect to culture, which strikes at the heart of operational risk (and hence again capital requirements);
“… We regularly see instances where participants in financial markets, when faced with an ethical dilemma, fail to ask themselves ‘is this right?’ Instead, the question has often been ‘can I get away with this?’ – or, more ominously, in some cases it appears no question was asked because the attitude was ‘if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying’. For an industry that is ultimately founded on trust, something serious is amiss, and strong and ethical leadership within financial firms is needed to set this right….”
Notwithstanding bank CEO’s public exhortations, these comments make it clear; this regulator is not for turning.
The quantum of capital to be raised is subject to much variance in estimation. Our initial assessment is that the amount required because of an adjustment in risk weightings for mortgages is likely to be between $2b and $4b for each of the majors, and that this may be needed sooner rather than later. Those that have raised funds through equity raisings or asset sales already have this requirement covered. We suspect no more than this amount may need to be raised again, and that this second tranche will be subject to transitional provisions, such that it can readily be accommodated by dividend reinvestment plans. This estimate is at the low end of market estimates. Given starting equity for all major banks is close to $50b, even raisings of this amount could be meaningful for return on equity metrics, in the absence of repricing. Given the newly appointed Westpac CEO gave an unchanged RoE target of 15% in his first strategy announcement through the past month, clearly repricing is being assumed by the major banks.
Other factors than changing regulatory structures are often larger drivers of returns, as Telstra highlights. David Thodey assumed a six year period as CEO of Telstra in the midst of the NBN maelstrom, and during his tenure the market capitalisation of the company doubled to $75b. Earnings before interest and tax started at $6.0b as he assumed the role, and ended at $5.9b; dividends started at 28 cents per share and were also largely flat. The amazing part of this tenure was the “Vodafail” effect; Telstra’s most profitable and highest returning business, mobiles, grew EBIT by $1.5b through this period due to the market share gains Telstra accrued as their only competitors commercially self immolated through network failure. We suspect that competitor seppuku and the resultant once in a lifetime shift in mobile market share was not part of the Telstra five year strategic plan when Mr Thodey assumed the position; and if perfect knowledge of that extraordinary outcome was to be had, we highly doubt that no resulting net growth in group EBIT would have been forecast. As with the Telstra example, commercial factors often overwhelm regulatory changes in their contribution to investor returns. Given we highly doubt the competitive environment in mobiles can improve from here for Telstra, the risk is EBIT falls materially through the next several years, as opposed to the gentle growth currently built into market forecasts.
Some stocks do not have gentle growth next to their name. James Hardie has long been a holding in the portfolio, and we have spoken to its attributes of pricing power and being the lowest cost producer in its markets. The F15 result released during the month highlighted both qualities, with the US division producing EBIT per housing start of US$288, the second highest result ever recorded by the group, and an improvement of almost 40% on the most recent cycle. Given this is a leveraged number – the higher starts go until Hardies runs out of capacity the higher the EBIT per housing start will be – and starts are still well below mid cycle levels, Hardie is well placed to continue to grow EBIT aggressively from this base of US$300m through the next several years, even with only mild further increases in US housing starts. Hardies has both promised and delivered much; however, as with any of the few ASX stocks in this position, the multiple now captures much of this exceptional performance.
At the other end of the spectrum, when much is expected but not delivered, life can get very messy. Realestate.com fell almost 20% because it confirmed revenue growth of only 13%, shy of the 20% expected by analysts but presumably not the former CEO who resigned in March last year after an exceptional tenure. Since his resignation the stock has underperformed by 30%. Many are called but few are chosen; extending the duration of excess returns is always hard for any business, and in most cases investors ultimately overestimate the reality.
Many of the traits which characterised the market boom of 2006 through 2008, before the GFC, are again in force. Equity markets have risen apace for several years now, at a much faster rate than earnings growth. Two to three years ago, given low bond yields and the prospect of them going lower, and low multiples for equities, we thought buying equities was a credible investment strategy. That is now subject to some caveats. High multiple stocks, which on the ASX are almost wholly industrial stocks with a technology and/or yield tinge, are now at multiples so high they have never before presaged gains for investors, even after some notable corrections through the past six weeks. Materials stocks remain reasonable value, due to the cocktail of better than expected outcomes for volumes, and capital and operating costs dropping dramatically, notwithstanding their recent hiatus after a horrid year.
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