The holy trinity of excess
Excess capacity abounds. The holy trinity of supply in financial aggregates, goods and services has burgeoned since 2007. Just as supply of each factor of production has exceeded expectations, demand has consistently fallen shy. Taken together, at a macro level, global growth has disappointed without exception in a post GFC world, and we expect this to continue. Treasury Secretary, Martin Parkinson recently highlighted that even the recent strengthening in the USA economy, has underperformed expectations. At a micro level, Australian corporate profitability has equally disappointed through this time, and not by a little. In only one year in the past six have results come within 10% of year prior expectations, and it’s more common to be closer to 20% shy than 10%. We also expect this to continue. Equity market gains have been driven by rerating, not through earnings; and here’s where we finally expect a discontinuity, unless “self- help” accelerates from a nascent level. Rarely will “self-help” be anything other than cost cutting – pricing power outside of financial services is rarer than a student welcoming university fee deregulation, and volumes are at a high level already.
Money supply has been strong around the world, with debt:GDP at higher ratios now than those that existed immediately pre GFC. In Australia, CBA had total assets in 2008 of $488bn, and will report a number for the 2014 year in several weeks which will be almost double that level on a share count up a quarter from 2008 levels. All banks and financial intermediaries here and around the world have benefited from quantitative easing; volumes are up, as with the CBA example, and product prices are usually up even more. The problem with this policy only arises if banks don’t use the opportunity created by inflated asset prices to recapitalise and remain over geared if asset prices follow consumer prices and start to decline again. Such a scenario is now confronting Europe, where banks have been slow to recapitalise, and deflation is now a reality through the March quarter for as many member countries of the EU, as not. Money changers have won; all of banks, insurers and fund managers have seen strong market performance through the past year, globally even more so than locally. Central bankers have all signed up to the Bo Derek philosophy that “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping”.
In goods, China has taken what has been done with money supply, and raised the ante, creating the deflationary forces taking hold in Europe. Let’s look at three examples; steel, cement and glass. Global steel capacity is 2.0bn tonnes, double the level of year 2000, with as much capacity added since 2007 as was the case earlier in that decade, mostly from China. Because of the paucity of growth through recent years, capacity utilisation has dropped to its lowest level on record now, from 85% in 2007 to 70%. A lot of 2% growth years will be required to fill this existing capacity! This will be an ongoing issue for the domestic steel producers, Bluescope and Arrium , notwithstanding their valiant attempts to diversify away from commodity products. Cement is a similar story with Chinese capacity doubling through the last decade as the rest of the world added very little. Adelaide Brighton and Boral both struggled during the month and point to ongoing pressures in cement markets. Glass ups the ante again, as the West has retrenched capacity through the past decade and yet Chinese and other developing company supply has been such that total global capacity has doubled through time with Chinese capacity utilisation now only 60%. Metro Glass is about to list in NZ with a model using fully imported glass of a higher specification than locally produced glass. Whilst CSR has already written off almost $0.5b from the purchase price for Viridian glass in 2007 and the business has not been profitable since purchase further write downs may need to occur.
In some other industries, such as explosives, excess supply is seen by the market as particularly troublesome, leading to poor performance by Orica and Incitec Pivot . This is a more than fair observation, however, the pressures upon product price are just as great in the glass, steel, cement and other manufactured products, even where demand is strong, such as for building products as housing starts continue at high levels in Australia. Iron ore is also seeing pricing pressure emerging, even though the price remains stubbornly above our long run estimates (as does the Australian dollar), seeing stress for pure play producers, notably Fortescue and those providing services to them, such as Mineral Resources . Pricing pressures upon manufactured product prices are likely to remain intense, and productivity is the only defense.
Finally, the impact of additional supply of services to listed Australian corporates, as companies increasingly outsource working roles, should not be underestimated. This is globalisation writ large. QBE has established a shared services hub in Manila, leading to US$340m in cost benefits through next year. Given forecast profit this year of a little more than A$1b, the benefit in outsourcing labour is large. ANZ has been pursuing a regional servicing hub strategy for several years, with only one of those hubs being in Australia.
In sum, supply of money, goods or services has been turbo charged through the past decade. Demand has been insipid, even with the full and then fuller force of quantitative easing around the globe. Taken together, the outcome of weak economic and earnings growth is, to our mind, here to stay. Our portfolio is positioned to attempt to counter these trends by incorporating stocks and sectors where material productivity gains are now being realised, or where supply is not as plentiful (such as in energy).
A final observation is that the market has aggressively bid “growth” through the past year as a reflection of the foregoing. At first glance, this is a rational response. However, our concern rests with the multiples applying to many of these stocks. One broker recently highlighted that the multiples attaching to the most expensive decile of stocks is now as extreme as it has been since the Tech boom of 15 years ago. There is no precedent of shares at these multiples outperforming through the ensuing two years. Growth is scarce, and hence valuable, but not at any price.
In previous commentaries we have highlighted the six principles driving our fundamental views. They are prima facie headwinds for both multiples and earnings. They ignore two, critical, issues; the price paid for the equity purchased, and the management intent to generate good returns on investment even in the face of challenging conditions. As equity markets outperformed through the past two years, these risks did not diminish; and hence we have increasingly assumed positions with lesser financial leverage, and where we feel operational leverage – evident across the breadth of the market and amplified by the three forces affecting supply detailed above – is accommodated within current valuations.
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.