Australian Equities

Thirsty for good news


Andrew Fleming

Andrew Fleming

Deputy Head of Australian Equities

Markets are confused and fatigued coming into the end of the year.  Two years ago, this time was characterised by unabated pessimism, anticipating the turbulent quarter that ensued as the GFC hit its nadir.  Last year, unbridled optimism had re-emerged as the world had recapitalized – or rather, the corporate sector had largely courtesy of governments.  Today, we have markets struggling with high levels of Government debt and the accompanying rescue packages and austerity and/or monetary programs.  Add to that political uncertainty, with Australia and other Western democracies having governments without majority control of parliament, and finally, global growth that is led by emerging markets, with China as the poster child.

We saw these factors at play in the Australian equity market in different ways through November. Sovereign indebtedness reared its head in two ways.  Markets rallied through the first half of the month in anticipation of the advent of quantitative easing in the US, only to struggle after its official confirmation mid month.  In the back part of the month, Ireland required an €85 billion bail-out, and given this followed six months after a slightly larger bail-out for Greece, it also required the creation of the European Stability Mechanism, a permanent system to deal with debt crises, to come into effect after 2013.  Interestingly, as a condition of the bail-out, the EC defied the IMF and the Irish Government in leaving senior creditors whole.  Apart from the implications of excessive sovereign debt, universally triggered by imprudent bank lending, the other large factor playing on markets was Chinese policymaking.  The reserve ratio for Chinese banks increased by 50bps through the month, locking up circa RMB1 trillion of liquidity, amid persistent suggestions of further tightening.

The implications of these factors appear relatively favourable for Australia, where the land of plenty has banked a record level of terms of trade with accompanying low levels of unemployment and record currency and house prices. Wisely, Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens referred to the terms of trade and the resulting impact during November when suggesting we use “the current period of exceptionally favourable international prices to raise our savings”, and that the Government create “considerably larger surpluses in the upswings of future cycles than those to which we have become accustomed to in the past”, with the surpluses being used to fund a “stabilization fund”.  This advice is being afforded little truck by the minority Government, which far from recording a record surplus is running at deficit levels, and resisting attempts to measure the economic feasibility of major public projects. If, alas, the Governor’s pleas to the government are falling on deaf ears, they are being heeded by the public.  Household saving in Australia has increased to now be as high as at any point through the past 20 years, reflected in consumer stocks struggling and being the worst performers in the market in November.  Gerry Harvey is now publicly lamenting consumers seeking lower prices!

Amidst this turmoil, for the fourth month in a row, resource stocks continued to outperform, even in the face of commodity prices stalling as three breeds of investors - those seeking price momentum, those seeking earnings momentum and those seeking a seemingly safer store of value than currencies – drove the resource sector up a further 1.1% for the month, outperforming industrials by 3.4%. For the rolling year, resources have outperformed industrials by 11.9%, or approximately the market cap of the largest industrial stock in the market, CBA.

Within the resources rally, however, the rise and rise of Newcrest as a hedge against inflation and the debasement of fiat currencies has stalled in recent months, and again in November.  At $31 billion in market capitalization now, it is not as though the stock is solely priced on forecast earnings next year of $1.2 billion.  Significant excess capacity is now manifesting itself in various guises in the developed world – with US CPI running at 1% and declining and with Treasuries priced commensurately – and the developing world – where the Chinese city of Ordos, in inner Mongolia, recently built for 1.5 million residents, now sits empty.  This excess capacity does not sit readily with fears of rampant inflation, without which we suspect a year from now the market capitalization of the gold sector in Australia will sit significantly below where it does today.


As noted upfront, we are now three years from the peak of the last cycle, with subsequent economic and political turmoil.  Debt levels at financial and consumer levels has generally morphed into government and consumer levels, seeing housing prices and employment levels in the developed world ex Australia plummet, although the strong terms of trade in Australia has masked a private sector debt to GDP level commensurate with that of the US. Political uncertainty sees Australia joining all western G20 countries in having governments without majority control, and a government running deficits with further large, uncosted spending programs flagged through 2011 notwithstanding the Reserve Bank Governor’s prescient and brave commentary that we should be running record surpluses.  Whilst the developing world continues to drive world growth from this developed world backdrop, it would be churlish to ignore their intent and action in slowing their own rates of growth.   

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.  Markets remain thirsty for what they perceive to be good news, and will rally when it is received, as occurred in the first half of November. That will continue to be the case, and we need to continue to be prepared for that likelihood with our portfolios.  Equally, it would be imprudent for us to ignore what we see as the ongoing risks detailed above, which only become amplified the longer they remain unaddressed, and indeed this is why the back half of the month saw markets in the end decline through the period.  It is this balancing act that has dominated the past year and will continue to dictate our assessment of not just future likely returns, but also risks.

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