Sometimes, the best meaning theories have a perverse real world effect. The Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens, recently stated that “… the thing that is most needed now is something monetary policy can't directly cause: more of the sort of ‘animal spirits’ needed to support an expansion of the stock of existing assets (outside the mining sector), not just a re-pricing of existing assets. There are some encouraging signs here. Nonetheless, if reports are to be believed, many businesses remain intent on sustaining a flow of dividends and returning capital to shareholders, and less focused on implementing plans for growth. …”.
Great sentiment. Unfortunately, corporate investment is the single biggest driver of investment returns through the past year. Those that have invested, have suffered; and vice versa. The irony as a shareholder is twofold. Firstly, whilst the RBA comments are an economic orthodoxy, they fly in the face of research (by Arnott and Asness) which highlights that, in practice, high payout ratios have been followed by higher growth; and lower payout ratios by lower growth. Of course, every general rule has limits; any payout ratio where earnings are not backed by cashflows is ultimately unsustainable, such as was seen with many corporate disasters of not so distant times past, and is a feature of some modern market darlings, especially of a roll up heritage. Nonetheless, from the cheap seats as a shareholder rather than the wider purview afforded the Governor, investment does not always provide a “growth” boost, but, alas, au contraire. Just ask the shareholders in Santos, Origin, Woodside, Crown, BHP, Woolworths, Seek, IAG and Orica. These are the worst performing stocks in the ASX100 through the past year, and they have all invested over par. Of the ASX200 through the past cycle, Arnott and Asness are right; those that have invested, have underperformed. Those that have harvested, and raised prices, have outperformed. Whilst a romantic term for economic theorists, unleashing animal spirits has commonly led to a pungent “Roar and Snore” experience for shareholders.
As we wrote in the May commentary last year “… 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 …”. This view has only strengthened since that time, which compounds the poor returns generated by the investment made by the performance laggards. In some cases, this is cyclical, and shareholders can expect to be rewarded for the investment that has been made, especially when producers are globally competitive on costs and are prudently financed. In Australia, this tends to be the mineral companies, and major miners in particular. The energy stocks meet neither criteria, and shareholders have been left with a large, compulsory service charge on top of financing that capex meal. At a long run oil price of US$75 and AUD/USD of 0.75, we do not believe the LNG projects undertaken by Australian energy names in recent years, add material value to shareholders, although they are worth more than current market values which are well below book value, and they will produce strong cashflows at those levels.
So what are the lessons of the past cycle? If hit with an unexpected boom in demand, given the experience of all of these companies, is it more rational to raise prices or invest to increase supply? Whilst the answer would seem obvious, those companies now riding the latest unforeseen boom driven by Chinese consumption – healthcare goods, soft commodity producers and vitamins – are following the same path as the commodity stocks in adding supply. It remains to be seen if the rest of the script runs true to the commodities playbook through the next several years.
On occasion, though, investment has been rewarded. Fortune favours the brave. The Fund has held a position in Incitec Pivot (IPL) for many years. Essentially, the business has three divisions; a fertiliser manufacturer and distributor in Australia; and ammonium nitrate manufacturer and distributor globally, but with a meaningful North American presence and a new plant completed three years ago now and operating on take or pay contracts servicing coal mines from a base in Moranbah in Queensland; and an ammonia plant in Louisiana, USA, which is due to commence production in 12 months. Through all of the past five years, debt has remained at relatively high levels, and not been amortised as new investment continued to be ploughed into the construction and then commissioning of these new $1b plants in Moranbah and Louisiana. Through the past year, the spread between gas and ammonia prices has been wider than long run averages, and the Australian dollar has rapidly depreciated against the US. Perfect timing for IPL. A large new asset, being built in the US when the AUD was above par, and will start to produce cashflow with a currency at much lower levels. Accordingly, after a dismal few years, IPL has had a very good past year in share market performance terms. As shareholders in IPL we are grateful that the operating leverage to commodity prices and financial leverage through a high debt load means that the resulting leverage to shareholders has been strong; but just as we are buying other stocks where we see cyclical commodities trading below mid cycle levels, we have been reducing our position in IPL as the reverse occurs. Macquarie is another example where fortune has favoured the brave and we have been reducing our position.
The “Stock Exchange Gazette” (London) on 20 July, 1928, was on the money “It would seem that they (the Australian banks) have not reached the limits to which the natural resources of the country, and the energy of the Australian people, will enable them to climb”. It has been a buoyant climb in the ninety years since, albeit through the past 12 months three of the four head Sherpas of the major Australian banks have taken their leave. This may be co-incidental, and if so it also co-incides with a change in leadership at the regulator, APRA, which armed with the FSI final report, increasingly and publicly is questioning the adequacy of lending practices and capital levels. The frictionless growth of recent years for the banking sector in Australia cannot be repeated given this regulatory position. The sector has enormous pricing power embedded in it, but the risks to the returns on equity able to be generated and hence book multiple for an equity investor, are as great as ever.
Amidst this backdrop, some opportunities present themselves, as always, especially with mid cap names. Some new management teams are making good structural change. In another case the loss of a major contract has forced us to dig deeper into the business model of an existing investment and the more we look, the stronger the franchise appears. As always, leaning against momentum is our inclination. This has been wholly unrewarding for the past eighteen months, after six successive strong years. We do believe that capital will continue to seek the best risk adjusted returns, and that sustainable returns on capital will ultimately drive equity valuations at a market and company level. Policy distortions continue to challenge this belief set, and maybe indeed price momentum will continue to be a better approach for evermore; as with prior periods of market and intra market extremes, however, when price momentum does stop working, the ending can be messy. It was ever thus.
In previous commentaries we have highlighted the six principles driving our fundamental views. They remain prima facie headwinds for earnings, and whilst multiples have adjusted they are not yet cheap, but better described as fair. 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. We continue to seek to increase our exposure to positions 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.