FoMO & the lure of outsized gains
Much as we might prefer otherwise, the market price of every listed equity investment is an amorphous blend of human behaviour, macroeconomic and corporate fundamentals. Share prices do not conform to a precise mathematical theorem. Investment returns over any period will comprise an element which reflects investors’ assessment of the short and longer term earnings power of a business and an element which reflects the equity market popularity contest. The separation of luck and skill in the process of investing will remain arbitrary, and anyone suggesting luck does not play a significant part is either disingenuous or delusional. If all securities moved by the change in book value per share plus dividends every year, dispersion of returns would bear no resemblance to the scorecard which also incorporates human behaviour. The gaps are often large. Blackmores grew book value plus dividends by around $55m between June 2014 and June 2015, a strong result and a very solid return on capital. Based on equity market capitalisation of a little under $500m at June 2014, this represented a solid return of around 12%. Market capitalisation rose by $830m during the same time frame. Between June and December this year it rose a further $2.4bn, with book value growth and dividends probably accounting for another $50m. Chinese proclivity for western vitamins aside (they liked iron ore for a while too), when market capitalisation shifts by more than 50 times the change in book value, it is fair to say that human behaviour is having a reasonable impact on the returns of investors. Even if book value growth doubles to $110m annually, the return on the current equity market value ($3.75bn) is now below 3%. Emotion (or share price momentum) can be extremely powerful in both directions. This will not dissuade commentators, including us, from providing narratives which support their prescience in cases of success and portray the path and quantum of returns as eminently foreseeable. They are not. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo has become widely accepted as the trigger for the chain of events which incited World War I and would feature in almost every retrospective. If one were to have conducted a survey on the day of the assassination as to whether and why the event would trigger a World War, I suspect things would not have been as obvious as historians now convey. Harry Hindsight has always been a successful investor!
As always, we have sought to position the portfolio to take advantage of what we believe is fundamental mispricing based on our expectation of the longer term earnings power of businesses. This has been roundly unsuccessful of recent times. Rightly or wrongly, we believe that returns in the longer run should remain driven by changes in economic value through time, whilst behavioural elements will oscillate. Returns in the past year have been disproportionately driven by behavioural factors, with momentum as powerful as almost any time in history. Nearly all resource and energy stocks have seen large percentages of their market capitalisation erode over recent years. Whilst there has been some economic value erosion from poor investment, the vast bulk is behavioural. Reasons for this momentum will always be debatable; however, it is almost certain that several factors are contributing disproportionately. These factors are inter-related and represent a far from exhaustive list.
Economic growth – acceptance of the inevitability of low levels of economic growth moving forward has become almost universal. If central bankers, the IMF and politicians reinforce it with sufficient regularity, it becomes the accepted wisdom. The reasons for low growth get less attention. The ability of individuals and businesses to harness resources to improve productivity and improve quality of life is unlikely to have changed significantly. The slowdown in reported growth is almost solely the result of an extended period of borrowing from the future through aggressive credit growth. Pulling forward consumption, encouraging population growth and deferring repayment has been the global recipe. They are the problem and they have a cost.
Interest rates – Albert Edwards, Global Strategist at Societe Generale dubbed Alan Greenspan and his central banker successors Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen “economic war criminals”. Whilst obvious hyperbole, his point is correct. What began as the ‘Greenspan put’, an expectation by financial market participants that any corrections in asset prices which threatened the inexorable rise in credit would always be met with further accommodation, has proven correct. It has permeated behaviour globally to a desperately unhealthy degree and has significantly altered the apportionment of economic value throughout the economy. The one thing financial markets are good at is arbitrage. If you bail them out every time they cry wolf, they’ll call your bluff. Buybacks, merger and acquisition activity and real estate bubbles are behavioural outcomes of an ingrained expectation of bail outs. On no planet is it rational to suggest that those with the discipline to save should have these savings forcibly removed through negative interest rates such that the more profligate should be permitted to bring forward yet more consumption. Things are surreal.
Relative size of financial assets versus the real economy – the obvious corollary of low interest rates is that assets and liabilities have become far larger relative to revenues and incomes. This creates the mathematical certainty of hypersensitivity. The race to zero interest rates and the exorbitant asset revaluations thereby induced has seen wealth transfers of stratospheric proportions. The theoretically infinite valuations which become justifiable at negligible discount rates can dwarf history. We could halve mortgage rates again and justify another doubling in Sydney house prices. An average home might sell for $2m. The gain triggered would be more in absolute terms than over the rest of history. You wouldn’t even need any more income as long as credit is made freely available. These are the maths currently permeating equity markets, making those invested in the market darlings look like geniuses and the contrarians (us) look like dunces.
The rise of the machines – the days of equity markets functioning primarily to facilitate exchange of ownership between investors are long gone. It is now a database of microsecond price histories, earnings revisions and correlation matrices. There is little doubt that behaviour of fundamental investors with more malleable belief sets can become reflexive in response. The correlation of price moves with changes in earnings per share is heightening and in 2015 was alarming. Upgrades are good; downgrades are bad. Importantly, in combination with the above issue on financial market size, share prices are set at the margin. Volatility is heightened, market efficiency and reliability of valuations, not so much!
Given the above dynamics, the winners and losers over the final quarter looked like a copy of the past year, 2 years and 3 years. Blackmores (+49.4%), Domino’s Pizza (+43.5%), Magellan Financial (43.4%) and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare (+29.6%) were near the top, Sims Metal (-23.7%), South32 (-22.0%), Worley Parsons (-21.7%) and BHP Billiton (-19.6%) were near the bottom. Moves are becoming more extreme. South32’s balance sheet shows $US11bn of equity value supporting its $A5.7bn market capitalisation. Blackmores shows $A133m supporting its $A3.75bn. We have no issue with the ability to create highly valuable businesses without the need for tangible capital, however, the frequency and extent to which this polarisation is becoming commonplace is alarming. Strange days indeed.
None of the above is intended to distract attention from the poor results we have delivered over the past year. It is intended as a reminder that risks remain elevated (an understatement) and conditions are far from normal. Current corporate bond market activity should heighten concerns. US corporate debt has risen significantly over the past couple of years whereas ungeared earnings have barely moved. Widening spreads indicate a degree of discomfort from debt investors not currently shared by equity counterparts. The view that plummeting oil and commodity prices should be seen as boost for economic activity seems a touch ironic in light of the rationale for low interest rates being part of an ongoing battle against deflation. Obviously the falling prices central bankers are worried about don’t include these. The complacency evident in financials (particularly in Australia) rests significantly on the extremely benign bad debt experience of recent months and quarters. This was also the case months before the global financial crisis and may not be the data point on which to anchor a benign forecast.
Our focus on economic value necessitates an acknowledgement that this process is most commonly slow and steady, particularly when accompanied by sensible levels of financial leverage. As behaviour continues to wildly overshadow fundamentals, the lure of outsized gains causes investors to forget totally about a margin of safety. If the share price of BHP Billiton or Rio Tinto continues to decline when the business is not making losses and asset values are already reflecting an exceptionally tough operating environment, the margin of safety is improving. When share price gains are wildly outpacing the rate of value creation, margin of safety is declining sharply. These rules are simple, but behaviour is powerful. FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) can, and has, overshadowed economic value for some time as momentum has ruled. It will not always be this way.
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