Honesty is the best policy
As policymaker’s preference for deception over honesty remained firmly intact, and as a result, anxiety high, financial markets remain as confused as ever over where to hide. As Martin Wolf put it in the Financial Times, “Those who fear deflation buy bonds; those who fear inflation buy gold; those who cannot decide buy both”. Productive capital investment remains a low investment priority for most of the capital in the world, and it is this factor that continues to concern us. There is little doubt that the route to recovery requires reinvestment in the productive capacity of wealthy nations and that whilst financial markets are not always a wise arbiter of good sense, they are a fairly reliable arbiter of sentiment. On almost all indicators, riskier assets such as shares are at the cheaper end of historic valuations, whilst perceived safe havens like bonds and gold are at the other end of the spectrum. If reinvestment in businesses is the requirement for fair weather in future, and risk aversion the barometer for policymaker’s performance, the weather is still foul. Every day that gold and bonds continue to rise is an indication that the ship is not on course. Not only that, the self reinforcing nature of markets dictates that degree to which collapsing trust causes those with capital to go to immense lengths not to make it available for productive use, the more economic activity is certain to collapse. So where are they going wrong?
When Christine Lagarde (Head of the IMF) had the gall to suggest that European banks required urgent recapitalisation (which is true), European officials quickly rounded on her, concerned that her message would spook investors. Ben Bernanke in his Jackson Hole speech was focused on emphasising that “the Federal Reserve has a range of tools that could be used to provide additional monetary stimulus” (which is not true), even though the tools he has used to date have done nothing useful whatsoever. The central tenet appears to be a decided preference for deception, on the assumption that the broader populous can be deceived into thinking things are going swimmingly, over honesty. Our optimism for the future will increase markedly when the latter path takes precedence.
Touching again on the issue of productive capital use, as we have raised many times, we believe much of the current predicament of the western world has its origins in artificially cheap and misdirected capital. Economies are the same as companies and individuals. Borrowing does, and should, have a cost. Whenever borrowing or investment is undertaken in the belief that a gain will be made by selling to another at a higher price, rather than because the investment produces cashflows commensurate with the cost and risk of the capital employed, it will end badly. That is why nearly every crash has been preceded by a boom in credit (and why we believe the risks surrounding China are increasing by the day). Deploying extremely large amounts of capital quickly and wisely, almost never happens. It is also why Ben Bernanke’s proposed solution in making already artificially cheap capital cheaper still would be an unmitigated disaster in our view. Wasted capital will not be rectified by wasting more.
The recent results season for Australian companies did not fill us with optimism that companies are using capital wisely, however, as always, there were exceptions. Results from companies such as Brambles, Amcor, Cochlear and Carsales were amongst those delivering strong operational performance. Granted, the operating environment, particularly for those exposed to a high $A, manufacturing, or the consumer, is tough. However, rather than focusing on optimising the performance of the existing capital base and investing organically where sensible, a greater proportion of results were characterised by cashflow bearing little resemblance to reported earnings, buybacks aimed at supporting the share price and acquisition plans which forsake organic growth for short term earnings growth at wildly inflated prices.
Firstly, on the issue of cashflow, the dominance of EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation), in management disclosure on earnings continues to confound us. Shareholders don’t bank EBITDA, they bank cash. We can find almost no company that consistently delivers operating cashflow before interest and tax that is equal to or greater than EBITDA. We can find a countless number delivering cashflow that is consistently lower. Charlie Munger* provides the answer. Every time you read EBITDA, you should substitute “%^!!$#!@ earnings”. This is also why we are so strongly in favour of growth in NTA (net tangible assets) plus dividends as the dominant measure of company performance over the longer term and why we believe it should also dominate remuneration. Improved corporate performance, like policymaking, should start by embracing honesty. Shareholders should be more than happy to pay for sustained strong performance; for deception, they should demand retribution.
Buybacks are the next controversial topic. The financial theorists would argue that a company should constantly optimise its capital structure to minimise the cost of capital. We don’t have a huge problem with this part, however, the pretence that real economic value can be created through swapping equity for debt is flawed. Changing the balance between debt and equity in the capital structure merely changes the payoff profile and therefore risk, for equity holders. If equity is priced efficiently, shareholders should adjust the value of equity to reflect increased risk. In reality, companies are persuaded into buybacks by investment banks persuading them that the share price will rise, or fund managers hoping the share price will rise and looking for a patsy ready to buy. News Corporation, Crown, Amcor, Ansell, Pacific Brands, Perpetual and a number of property companies, were amongst those convinced. We are not saying buybacks are always bad. In some cases blatant excess capital can be more tax effectively returned through buybacks, but in most cases, dividends are just as effective and do not necessitate company boards and management forming a view on the value of their own shares. We are still waiting for the first board and management team to come in announcing that they believe their stock to be horribly overvalued.
Undoubtedly our greatest anguish is reserved for acquisitions. Harking back to our earlier comments on the availability of cheap capital, we are of the firm belief that optimal capital investment should be dominantly through organically building businesses at book value. As this resembles hard work, most large public companies opt for paying multiples of book value, ensuring massive wealth destruction, save for their own pay packets which remain firmly linked to company size. This month’s offenders included Boral, paying Lafarge Eur350m for the 50% of their Asian plasterboard JV they don’t already own, Rio Tinto and Mitsubishi paying $122 a share for the part of Coal and Allied they don’t own and Arrow Energy’s (Shell and Petrochina) bid for Bow Energy. In all cases, we would conclude that the purchasers have transferred significant and unnecessary value from their shareholders to the vendors, and in most cases investor’s agreed.
Whilst not wanting to be unduly negative on the prospects for recovery, we believe it foolhardy to assume economic recovery will be generated by some god given right. Neither will governments have anything to do with it. As I read somewhere recently, the government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from someone else. Not only that, there is an awful lot of frictional cost in this redistribution, which is why government taxes as a share of GDP have been rising almost constantly for the past 100 years. We should bear this in mind in ever expecting the government to be an engine for growth, job creation or anything else productive.
Many countries, including Australia, are likely to spend some time paying the price of significant wasted capital investment, most significantly through inflating the price of the existing housing stock. This makes it all the more important to ensure that incremental investment is as productive as possible. With this in mind, we are strongly resisting the urge to follow the lemmings into equally unproductive investments such as gold, bonds and inflating further, the price of already existing assets. Unfortunately, it is these that are providing the most impressive short term returns for investors. Hopefully banks, superannuation funds and other capital providers will take a similar approach, ensuring that capital is freely available to those able to use it wisely. If we are run over in the rush for the next useless unproductive asset, we can provide one guarantee; the outcome will not be good.
*Vice Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway
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