Australian Equities

Cursed by King Midas

04/01/2015

Martin Conlon

Martin Conlon

Head of Australian Equities

The Midas touch was with us in 2014. Everything we touched turned to gold (i.e. as soon as we bought it no-one else wanted it and it was consigned to the category of barbarous relic). Success in 2014 required King Midas’ touch to morph inanimate objects into healthcare facilities and fibre optic cables. Such is the way of cycles. This belief in the underlying cyclicality of just about all variables is core to our underlying investment philosophy. The length and amplitude of the myriad of cycles impacting businesses may vary, but those believing that some businesses can structurally grow forever, house prices only ever rise, populations only ever grow and interest rates only ever fall, have read too many fairy tales. Understanding these cycles (and therefore arriving at a view on the value of a business) requires data collection and interpretation, and is a combination of historical observation, monitoring of current conditions, forming considered expectations about the future and common sense. It is clear that the consensus of opinion has come to a different conclusion to our own on the path and positioning of businesses within the myriad of cycles. Easily monitored earnings drivers such as commodity prices and currencies have driven rapid rotation away from perceived earnings risk into the increasingly narrow and increasingly aggressively priced pool of perceived earnings safety. Our view, is that many of these businesses are susceptible to differing cyclical drivers, many of which are longer, more difficult to monitor and less observable, but equally pernicious when operating in the wrong direction. Valuations which take no account of these cycles greatly amplify this risk.

Methods of data collection and interpretation are evolving quickly with technology. The range and quantity of data which can be used in decision making are exploding, and like all industries, we must ensure we are improving this process. What is less certain is whether additional data will improve the ability of either companies or investors, to understand and forecast future returns or to allocate capital more effectively than has been the case in the past. We are sceptical. To illustrate the point, in a meeting this year with a large mining company, management were boasting that one of their project modellers was considered by Microsoft to be in the top ten Microsoft Excel users globally and was an invitee to their so called ‘Spreadsheet Olympics’ (hotly contested TV rights I’m sure!). In answering the question as to why the asset turn (revenue dollars relative to the asset base) of the business had deteriorated markedly over recent years after wildly aggressive investment at peak cycle commodity pricing, the tone was a little more evasive. A string of apparently logical steps, all supported by reams of data, prepared by intelligent individuals, often results in an illogical and sub-optimal outcome. Our investment process is driven by similar principles and is subject to similar risks. A good process ensures the replication of behaviours and uses the best possible data. The trick is in discerning which data matters and ensuring the behaviours are good ones.

At the heart of most cycles (and prices) lie the fundamental laws of supply and demand. Recent months have offered some salutary lessons on the susceptibility of many systems to apparently small changes in this balance. Oil and iron ore prices have reacted savagely to seemingly gradual shifts in the supply demand balance. Any doubts that may have been harboured as to the inherent cyclicality of these businesses and the ability for prices to exist at a permanently higher plane have been dispelled. Share prices have gone the way of commodity prices. The raft of capital expenditure and operating expenditure reductions from the likes of Santos, Origin Energy and their global counterparts that have accompanied falling prices, evidence the lack of preparedness for these price changes. Whatever they say, their project modelling didn’t have a $55 oil price and it was a fairly important input. The financial leverage used to fund vast capital expenditure on (very) mediocre investments has amplified the pain for shareholders. These rapid and unexpected changes raise some important questions. What are the implications of these sharp price falls and are they confined to commodities? Are there other areas in which the supply demand balance is similarly vulnerable?

The sharp fall in oil prices clearly causes a significant amount of wealth transfer globally (it doesn’t create any unless productivity gain allows them to move permanently lower). The income flowing to net oil producers (Middle East, Russia) will be at least temporarily transferred to net consumers (dominantly China, Japan and Asia). In more neutrally positioned countries such as the US and Australia, income may be transferred from producers to consumers in the short run, however, despite Joe Hockey’s urging, oil price funded post-Christmas sale binges will create no durable wealth. More interesting is whether we should take these falling prices as a positive or negative. Oil is a huge global market and price falls to the extent experienced are tantamount to dropping a hand grenade in a lake. It would be surprising if some dead fish don’t float to the surface.

The positivity which accompanies declining fuel prices (they are broadly welcomed as there are many more oil consumers than producers) also highlights the fundamental inconsistency of popular views on inflation. Falling prices (deflation) are considered one of the greatest threats to economic health, yet when it’s fuel, computers or groceries it is welcomed. If the bricks, roof tiles and concrete that go to constructing a house fall in price it’s great, if the price of the house once they’re assembled falls, it’s a disaster. What disingenuous policymakers should really say is that they need inflation in asset prices, as it is those that support the ever heightening levels of global debt. Ever lower interest rates (now negative in Switzerland) have been successful in suppressing cyclicality in asset prices (for now). They have been roundly unsuccessful in stimulating any growth in incomes. Prices of goods and services drive revenue, revenue drives incomes, and incomes drive the ability to service debts. History suggests that interest rates are cyclical and that a logical outworking of capitalism is that unproductive capital should be allowed to be destroyed to promote future growth. The working assumption of central bankers is that this traditionally cyclical process can be rendered obsolete. We continue to believe this assumption will prove erroneous and that the ongoing deterioration in the supply demand balance for credit will be by far the most important cycle for financial asset prices. Unlike commodity prices, it has not yet cracked.

The quarter saw energy and materials stocks savaged. Santos, Iluka Resources, Origin Energy and Fortescue Metals were amongst the worst, although there were almost no winners. Caltex was the exception, reflecting a belief that running some petrol stations selling oil is expected to be a far more durably profitable exercise than producing it. Its $9.3bn market now overshadows that of Santos ($8.1bn). Qantas, a big oil user, was the leading stock for the quarter. Anything with perceived stability of earnings was a beneficiary of the mass exodus in commodities. Westfield, Amcor, CSL, Transurban were typical of the strength across REITs, healthcare and utilities, but gaming and telecommunications were also beneficiaries.

Outlook

The pressures to capitulate and seek refuge in apparent safety are powerful. No-one likes looking stupid, and unfortunately that is how we look at present. Despite adding risk incrementally, every step we have taken in this direction has been a step into quicksand. Flows across the world remain one-way traffic, into safety and away from risk. Low beta (in market parlance) has been the way to make money over recent years. The extent of these moves, which now permeate even longer term performance numbers, will drive the data miners to observe that investing in high beta (cyclical stocks and risk in general), makes no sense. Much of the data that is fuelling the actions of an increasingly quantitatively dominated market is a derivative of share price data, causing behaviour to become increasingly reflexive.

Supply and demand also drives stock prices. If capital continues to desert risk but remains in the stock market, defensive stocks may continue to rise. However, as the relative sizes of the pools of capital shrink in everything risky and rise in everything defensive it becomes relatively more difficult to drive one lower and the other higher. It seems highly unlikely to us that the economy can materially change the proportion of activities which offer safe, secure, defensive cash flow versus those that inherently involve some ups and downs. Shopping centres need retailers as customers, hospitals need some healthy people to earn incomes to pay the bills, pipelines need energy producers to make money selling gas. The bifurcation between the two has been more durable and far more severe than we anticipated. We will not be changing course an adopting some variation of price momentum as our new investment philosophy in seeking to mitigate short term pain. If the share of the economy and its profits attributable to businesses perceived as risky remains anywhere near historic levels whilst share prices are annihilated, then prospective returns must be improving. Defensive businesses are the other side of the equation. Prospective returns do not rise with share prices over the long term. Whatever the extent of data mining in which you seek to engage, we suspect these mathematical facts will remain intact.

Important Information:
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.