Australian Equities

The scourge of overconfidence

09/09/2015

Martin Conlon

Martin Conlon

Head of Australian Equities

Leaving in its wake sharp equity market retracements globally, efforts to stem falls and to revalue the currency in China, more commodity price decimation, mediocre earnings results and sharply increasing volatility, August was certainly eventful.  What didn’t change much was the propensity for the winners to keep winning and the losers to keep losing.  These trends continue to confound many of our underlying beliefs in how economies should function, how the businesses comprising the economy make money and how the fundamental value of these businesses should be reflected in equity markets.  Probably the main reason we struggle to embrace momentum investing is the powerful tendency of return on capital to revert to the mean rather than to expand perpetually, both within industries and more broadly.  Staying ahead of competitors in the very long run is tough.  Whilst investors are inclined to capitalize the status quo into perpetuity, physics and basic maths usually work against over-optimism in the longer run.  When Daniel Kahneman was asked in a recent interview what he’d eliminate from human nature if he had a magic wand, his answer was “overconfidence”.  We’d agree.  Entirely unrealistic optimism always pervades the popular wisdom on sustainable levels of economic growth, population growth and asset prices.  It will not stop politicians, economists, CEO’s and investors promising and relying on them.  It will stop their realisation.

Murphy ’s Law has applied to our stock selection efforts and at times (now!) we feel like we’re making Murphy look like one lucky son of a gun.  We cannot blame all our errors on exogenous factors.  In trying to understand the root cause of our numerous errors and why ‘mean reversion’ has been notably absent of recent times we must inevitably go back to basics.  Capitalism, in order to function properly requires the process of what Joseph Schumpeter described as ‘creative destruction’.  The strong thrive and the weak are allowed to fail.  A free market facilitates new entrants to challenge the strong and allows bankruptcy to remove the weak.  It allows prices to be set by supply and demand rather than by a regulator or government.  One of the most crucially important ‘prices’ in the economy is the price of money; interest rates, as the above process works far more effectively when interest rates are kept relatively stable.  As concerns over lack of growth and a need to respond to financial crises have seen interest rates fall to 5000 year lows (a claim proven recently by the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew Haldane), this process has been largely stymied.  The progressively greater distortion of interest rates is gradually overshadowing the process of free market competition as the driver of profits in the economy.  As a result, interest rates have also become a hugely disproportionate and correlated driver of all asset markets.  An uncomfortable amount of the current global dysfunction seems to us to have its root in pricing money incorrectly.  Whether it is the now wildly outsized nature of financial markets relative to the underlying economy or the massive incentive to use financial leverage against any assets offering cashflows exceeding the cost of debt, there is far more evidence of unproductive uses than of companies ‘investing’ for growth.  We struggle to see how 10% swings in the oil price in a couple of days are driven by fundamental changes in supply and demand.  In a world of wildly outsized financial assets it is far more likely that incremental pricing is at play, allowing relatively small changes in the massive financial asset pool to inflict wild price swings on the underlying assets.  As such, we believe the expectations of many for a low return but stable environment are highly unlikely to be realised.

These principles are also applying at the business level.   It would seem anomalous to us if every mining and energy CEO was a blundering fool (they are mostly in TV bidding for AFL rights) whilst every bank, REIT and infrastructure CEO is a genius.  Whilst not wanting to rain on their parade, our suspicion is that there are a number in each category, together with a large number in the mediocre category.  Versus generations past, we would suggest they take some solace in at least being more handsomely rewarded.  Wildly divergent outcomes are being driven primarily by interest rates.  Mining and energy businesses are undoubtedly the canaries in the coalmine.  Misallocation of capital in China causing excessive capacity addition has flowed back down the chain.  Profitability of underlying assets is under enormous pressure and many are struggling for oxygen.  Few are yet failing as ludicrously low interest rates allow profitability to almost totally evaporate before creative destruction arises as an option.  One then seeks a government subsidy. 

The manifestation of capital misallocation as iron ore mines or LNG facilities with insufficient sustainable demand should be seen alongside a similar process in other sectors.  August saw a bid for Asciano (+4.4%) finalised by Brookfield Investment Partners.  Asciano is a well-managed business unlikely to augment profits under Brookfield ownership.  The transaction merely sees the addition of financial leverage, allowing the same profits to support more apparent asset value (debt and equity).  Babcock and Brown would be proud.  Heightening merger and acquisition activity globally (now back to 2007 levels), particularly in market darling sectors such as healthcare, technology and infrastructure are not indicative of a sudden surfeit of uncovered gems.  It is merely an alternative and more expedient method of compressing return on capital than organic capital spend, particularly in sectors with almost no tangible capital anyway.  The result will be the same, the time frame perhaps slightly different.  The irony in chastising the Chinese for apparently ill-conceived plans to support an ailing stock market or devalue the currency when manipulation of interest rates and asset markets lies at the heart of almost every Western economy, is hard to ignore.  The Chinese do not have a monopoly on capital misallocation.

Outlook

Our views on the way forward are undoubtedly tinged with frustration borne of an obvious failure to anticipate the extent to which interest rate manipulation could both persist and permeate every facet of the global economy.  Massive amounts of wealth have been transferred in the process, whilst none has been created.  The compression of available returns to those employing both tangible and financial capital has left both profits and asset valuations vulnerable.  Although the pricing of many assets may not appear egregious versus prevailing interest rates, these rates are wrong.  We continue to exhort companies to shed financial leverage rather than participate in the process of capital misallocation.  The escalation in merger and acquisition activity and buybacks together with ever increasing dominance of earnings momentum as an investment strategy, would suggest our exhortations are falling on deaf ears.  Only those already feeling the intense pain of this misallocation (energy and resource stocks) are understanding of the consequences.  As a result, these sectors house the bulk of businesses where valuations reflect a pessimistic view of longer term outcomes, and thus offer good prospective returns.  ‘Standing against the wind’ is becoming ever more difficult, reflected in the massive underperformance of any valuation based investment strategy globally.  Interest rate sensitive investments are both leading the market higher and insulating from downturns, as the entire investment world embraces an expectation that all mishaps will be met with further monetary accommodation, ensuring the price of excessive leverage (creative destruction) is never paid.

In the longer term, we remain of the view that excessive leverage must be unwound.  History indicates that periods of strong wealth creation emerge from periods in which interest rates have been set at levels which encourage and reward effort and productivity gain rather than leverage and speculation.  For regulators and policymakers that remain doggedly aligned to an approach that falls firmly into the latter category, we’d offer some advice penned by Midnight Oil in ‘Powderworks’, a favourite from my youth: 

There's a shit storm a 'coming
I feel it coming soon
There's a time and a place
And a moment in space
When the fat boys call the tune
There's a bubble a bouncing
And it's bouncing my way
There's two sticks in the powderworks
I think it's gonna blow today

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