Australian Equities

The capital crime of asset manipulation

30/06/2015

Martin Conlon

Martin Conlon

Head of Australian Equities

Renewed concerns on the ability of Greece to repay loans. Why I never! Much to the chagrin of economists and central bankers, the behaviour of people and businesses is struggling to conform to their textbooks. Rather than stimulating the business investment and growth which theory tells them will allow loan repayments on ever rising debt balances, ever declining interest rates continue to promote rampant asset price bubbles, income inequality and instability. Financial markets remain obsessed with the ability to artificially suppress the underlying problem of needing to write off some of the bad debt rather than conceal it with $8trn of quantitative easing, interest rates around zero, asset prices which look almost universally expensive and a financial sector which has been permitted to run rampant. A June 2015 report by the OECD and the annual report of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) suggest at least some are prepared to consider and acknowledge the role the banking sector and artificially low interest rates may have as part of the global growth problem. The OECD report, which analyses 50 years of data, highlights what should be obvious. In summary, throughout virtually all developed economies, whilst stock market financing and market based credit have been positive for growth (although they may contribute to income inequality), bank lending has been detrimental to both growth and income inequality as it has been directed primarily towards households and real estate. The often claimed benefits of Australia’s strong (highly profitable) and consolidated banking sector do not sit comfortably with the data.

As the bank sector recovered again in June, to recoup almost all its falls versus the broader market, the conundrum of valuing and investing in Australian banks remains one of our greatest headaches. To put it simply, we firmly agree with the OECD. Australia’s banking sector is likely to be one of its greatest problems, rather than one of its greatest assets, yet current government policies and regulatory settings support exacerbation rather than solution of the problem. We would observe a few simplistic trends within bank valuation. Firstly, the return on equity (ROE) levels of banks and financial institutions in general, are high versus those achieved by businesses in the broader economy. Intermediating is proving somewhat more lucrative than producing. Secondly, ROE trends of banks are highly correlated with exposure to mortgages and consumer lending; the higher the mortgage and consumer exposure, the higher the returns. Current regulatory settings and capital requirements would suggest business lending is for the birds. Although capital requirements for mortgages may be increasing, the profitability and risk gap is cavernous. The banks relatively more exposed to business lending earn significantly lower returns despite taking greater risk and delivering potential benefit to the economy rather than detriment. Lastly, the more consumer exposed banks (CBA and Westpac) trade at higher multiples of NTA, suggesting investors expect these ROE trends to remain intact rather than revert. Our conundrum is twofold. If one believes the OECD data, the Australian banking sector is stifling the economy and can only continue to grow at the expense of the broader economy, particularly if future credit growth is directed to households. This is heightened by the fact that relative to the size of the Australian economy, it is larger than both the businesses it should serve and the banking sector in almost all other major economies. However, shrinking the size of the consumer banking sector will result in short term pain, as house prices and consumer behaviour are inextricably linked to credit availability. This will undoubtedly trigger an increase in bad debts. As has been the case globally, when this happens, political imperatives see governments and central banks step in and effectively socialise these losses (either through lower interest rates and/or allowing banks to recapitalise through higher profit margins), transmitting the pain to the broader economy anyway. Much as free markets would dictate that the bank sector should bear the pain for highly sub optimal behaviour over long periods, this has not been the experience. As a result, whilst our emotions would suggest that for the good of the economy, excess returns for consumer lending should be exorcised, in which case valuations of 2 – 4x net tangible assets would be fanciful, reality suggests a more benign path. While the Treasurer believes negative gearing and high house prices are just fine, and the solution for young people is to “get a good job”, major banks are probably not unduly panicked.

As the bank sector recovered again in June, to recoup almost all its falls versus the broader market, the conundrum of valuing and investing in Australian banks remains one of our greatest headaches. To put it simply, we firmly agree with the OECD. Australia’s banking sector is likely to be one of its greatest problems, rather than one of its greatest assets, yet current government policies and regulatory settings support exacerbation rather than solution of the problem. We would observe a few simplistic trends within bank valuation. Firstly, the return on equity (ROE) levels of banks and financial institutions in general, are high versus those achieved by businesses in the broader economy. Intermediating is proving somewhat more lucrative than producing. Secondly, ROE trends of banks are highly correlated with exposure to mortgages and consumer lending; the higher the mortgage and consumer exposure, the higher the returns. Current regulatory settings and capital requirements would suggest business lending is for the birds. Although capital requirements for mortgages may be increasing, the profitability and risk gap is cavernous. The banks relatively more exposed to business lending earn significantly lower returns despite taking greater risk and delivering potential benefit to the economy rather than detriment. Lastly, the more consumer exposed banks (CBA and Westpac) trade at higher multiples of NTA, suggesting investors expect these ROE trends to remain intact rather than revert. Our conundrum is twofold. If one believes the OECD data, the Australian banking sector is stifling the economy and can only continue to grow at the expense of the broader economy, particularly if future credit growth is directed to households. This is heightened by the fact that relative to the size of the Australian economy, it is larger than both the businesses it should serve and the banking sector in almost all other major economies. However, shrinking the size of the consumer banking sector will result in short term pain, as house prices and consumer behaviour are inextricably linked to credit availability. This will undoubtedly trigger an increase in bad debts. As has been the case globally, when this happens, political imperatives see governments and central banks step in and effectively socialise these losses (either through lower interest rates and/or allowing banks to recapitalise through higher profit margins), transmitting the pain to the broader economy anyway. Much as free markets would dictate that the bank sector should bear the pain for highly sub optimal behaviour over long periods, this has not been the experience. As a result, whilst our emotions would suggest that for the good of the economy, excess returns for consumer lending should be exorcised, in which case valuations of 2 – 4x net tangible assets would be fanciful, reality suggests a more benign path. While the Treasurer believes negative gearing and high house prices are just fine, and the solution for young people is to “get a good job”, major banks are probably not unduly panicked.

At the micro level, the gap between theory and practice is equally evident. Examples of highly profitable organic capital investment are increasingly rare, whilst businesses aiming to reduce capital intensity and satiate investor appetite for high returns and strong growth are plentiful. Analysing some topical examples highlights the point. IAG announced a deal this month with Berkshire Hathaway, which saw it quota share 20% of its insurance business in return for an exchange commission and a $500m equity investment. Whilst the cynic would suggest the latter part of the deal was more about creating a path which Buffett acolytes and eager media commentators could follow to engineer share price gains, the essence is in the value of 20% of IAG’s insurance premium, how much Berkshire are prepared to pay to access it, and why, in an era of ultra-cheap capital, IAG is so determined to convert the business of providing insurance into the business of distributing it. Whilst the merits of the deal from an IAG perspective are less capital employed with a purportedly minimal loss to earnings, Berkshire is the other side of the deal, and unless it is that often quoted but almost never realised ‘win-win’ deal, the more likely scenario is there is a winner and a loser. We’d look at it fairly simply; if returns flow back to capital and away from distribution over the next decade, Berkshire will be the winner. If capital continues to be commoditised, IAG will. Additionally, the deal must necessarily be more negative for those with an optimistic view on insurance margins over the next decade (as IAG have given away more value), whilst those with a more sombre outlook should look on it more favourably.

The trials and tribulations of Woolworths are another example. As Grant O’Brien is skewered for his role in Woolworths’ fade from grace, we find the sentiment surrounding the Masters Home Improvement rollout and that of new supermarkets instructive. In hardware, whilst execution has been undoubtedly poor, most would
suggest the market offered opportunity for a new entrant and that a perpetual monopoly for Bunnings was not the natural state of things. The extent to which Woolworths have been vilified for an organic investment which was obviously going to generate losses in the early years has surprised us. This doesn’t excuse poor
execution, however, we can’t help feeling that infatuation with ‘capital light’ business models and the impatience which accompanies any long term capital investment has reached fever pitch. The list of capital investment disasters over recent years is a long one. LNG projects and iron ore expansions with vast capital
expenditures have been ill conceived and premised on unrealistic long term growth expectations. Nevertheless, we remain far more comfortable with the duration of the cash flows on these investments (as long as they are not overly reliant on debt funding) than of many of the ‘capital light’ peers to which many are
according similar duration. Discounted cash flow models remain weapons of mass deception in this regard. Assuming the status quo continues for the next few years and capitalising the final year as a perpetuity value, is nonsense. This approach totally ignores obvious duration differences between businesses and is the heart
of the reason why the average lifecycle of listed businesses around the world has shortened considerably over recent decades.

In recent times we have been asked to pay higher multiples for the cash flow from a MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), where the entire business rests on a periodically renegotiated contract with a mobile network owner, than for world leading iron ore mines with 100 years of reserves or the largest supermarket business in the country. Forgive us for thinking the world has gone mad. Bumps in the road for a few businesses over which we had serious concerns on business duration, such as Slater & Gordon (-49.7%), Greencross (-28.0%), REA Group (-18.8%) and Seek (-17.9%) gives us some hope that it will perhaps eventually factor into investor thinking. It is not that we believe these businesses are necessarily poor, it is just that we believe extraordinarily high returns on capital should rarely be extrapolated into perpetuity and treated as having the same duration as businesses with far more moderate returns supported by very large amounts of capital employed.

Outlook

Our crystal ball is looking as opaque as a ten pin bowling ball at present. It also has at least as many holes and is frequently ending up in the gutter. Our aforementioned efforts to understand and account for business duration have been met with little reward. We find it paradoxical to say the least that many strategists defend
overall market valuation as seeming reasonable when measures such as price to book and Tobin’s Q (replacement cost of assets) are taken into account, yet the businesses which are causing these ratios to appear reasonable are the highly capital intensive businesses generating currently poor returns which they invariably detest. The role of the stock market in funding capital investment for businesses to deliver productive capacity seems long forgotten. The vast majority of strong market performers and IPO candidates are businesses with almost no capital requirement where the listed market serves as the exit mechanism enriching former owners as cash flow is accorded a longevity which we believe is unlikely to exist. The linkage between the value of financial investments and the underlying capital which should provide its return seems of little consequence.


Our unease at the elevated value of almost all assets versus historic levels and the artificiality of an environment of gross manipulation in almost every economy and sector has been long lasting. As the pressures on this manipulation (like Greece) continue to resurface with greater regularity and severity, we are strongly of the view that returns in the long run will flow back to capital, as weak and insolvent players across a broad range of industries finally fail and the ability of distributors and intermediaries to leverage ever cheaper capital abates. We have no idea when this will occur; however, we would observe that manipulation worldwide does not seem to be getting any easier. 

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