Simplifying the miasma
When reading Cormac McCarthy is proving less bleak than most economic and political commentary, I think it’s fair to conclude that pessimism reigns. Ideas and solutions are short and crises long. Whether it’s the US debt ceiling, Chinese inflation, Greek debt and the accompanying austerity protests or rebuilding earthquake devastated regions, optimists were tested during the last quarter. Ireland had their first bit of good news in a while with Rory McIlroy winning the US Open golf, so I suppose as always, it depends on your perspective.
The last 20 years
During a recent dinner, at which Gail Kelly was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on managing and leading one of the country’s major banks, she touched on a number of themes on which she was focusing internally. One, in which we share her enthusiasm, was ‘Simplify’. We are constantly guilty of making business, government and investment, too complicated. With this theme in mind, we’ll try and give you our condensed economic summary of the past 20 years, in an effort to simplify what’s going on now.
As China, and Asia more broadly, emerged as the world’s manufacturer, offering a myriad of cheap goods, Australian and western world economies progressively shifted away from being manufacturing economies and became dominated by services. The ‘disinflation’ driven by shifting manufacturing offshore allowed inflation as measured by the all-knowing CPI basket, to remain at low levels for many years. The fact that the disinflation was not being driven by productivity gains onshore did not dissuade central bankers, earnestly focused on CPI movements, from progressively lowering interest rates the world over. Thus, with good times and cheap money, every year saw aggressive expansion of money supply and credit, rising asset prices and citizens who felt wealthier. The longer it went, the more comfortable they became and the more the need to save became an antediluvian memory. No-one questioned whether having at least 10% more money in the system each year was consistent with inflation of 2%. Global trade boomed. The countries manufacturing the world’s goods built more factories and didn’t repatriate the proceeds from selling goods offshore (as this would see their currency appreciate and reduce competitiveness). The more the West consumed, the more scale and productivity gains in manufacturing brought prices down. The plasma TV’s got cheaper and bigger! It was good.
Eventually, the laws of economics caught up. If we lived in an island economy, production would need to equal consumption, and individuals need to do some of each. After all, drinking beer is more fun than making it. The same is true globally. While the West enjoyed their time consuming what others produced, and borrowing back the proceeds, it couldn’t last forever. Consumption and services had become far more than 50% of the average Western economy, and we weren’t exporting too many services. To compound the error, the profits of the East, having been lent to the West at very low cost, were invested almost solely in housing, an investment not likely to drive massive productivity gain. The houses may have got bigger and more luxurious (they probably needed to be bigger in order to create sufficient distance between the 55” plasma and the lounge), but they were primarily just getting more expensive. The ability for foreigners to ever reclaim their loans (to facilitate future consumption) was being slowly compromised.
Whilst this less than erudite history may be simplistic, we believe it captures the reasons for most of the tensions currently evident globally. The system is backing up. Without manufacturing, job creation is proving difficult. Artificially supported currencies are preventing the restoration of competitiveness. Having consumed more than what was produced, adjustments are unpalatable. Assets inflated by foreign borrowing are leaking air and are difficult to reflate. Solutions will be found, but they will not be easy.
Searching for opportunity
As organic growth remains elusive, borrowing costs low and corporate balance sheets fairly strong, it is predictable that companies are getting itchy feet. SAB Miller management could not resist the urge to scratch. The UK brewing behemoth, on the back of a few flimsy statements on the attractions of the Australian brewing market and the fact that it was so close to Asia (they might want to look at Google maps), decided to embark on an acquisition path for Fosters which should ensure their shareholders benefit from single digit returns on their investment for many years to come. In a mature beer market already earning amongst the highest margins on the planet and a currency at the highest levels in history, returns for shareholders will be dominated by the price paid. The ensuing war of egos will undoubtedly ensure it is way too high. Success in the bid will undoubtedly ensure they need to cut swathes through costs and the workforce to ensure the delivery of promised synergy benefits. Undoubtedly the CEO will keep a close eye on progress when he flies out to monitor the situation from his box at the Australian Grand Prix. SAB Miller shareholders responded by marking down the shares by about 4%, which doesn’t sound like much, except that it’s nearly $2bn. As one broker quipped, Fosters is Australian for ‘larger’. To the great credit of Terry Davis at Coca Cola Amatil, he had the discipline to secure a significant benefit for his shareholders in relieving the geniuses at SAB Miller of yet more money for unwinding their brewing joint venture if their Fosters bid is successful.
On the other side of the Tasman, rationality was far more evident, with Crown Fibre Holdings (the entity established to manage the broadband process) and Telecom New Zealand agreeing a pragmatic and sensible approach to delivering broadband to the bulk of the population. Rather than political grandstanding and unnecessary government involvement, the objective of delivering infrastructure as quickly and efficiently as possible, took precedence. Network construction will remain the responsibility of the company best qualified to execute, and incentives are aimed at being productive, not punitive. This contrasts sharply with their Australian peers, preferring an approach of re-nationalisation of a communications network which had been sold to the taxpayer at inflated prices, then regulated such that the evil monopolist was forced to dispose of market share to competitors whose infrastructure investment consisted of a box which had a Telstra cable coming in one end and another Telstra cable out the other (which they then proceed to call their own network). The extent to which our taxpayer funded regulator manages to discourage investment remains truly galling. If we want to see infrastructure renewal in this country, the approach needs to change.
Inflation and its link to credit
Proceeding further down the path of simplicity, we wanted to touch further on the continuing concerns around the spectre of inflation. In heeding the warnings of the inflationists, we are inherently agreeing to an expectation that prices in Western countries are likely to rise significantly from current levels. Our primary thesis as to why this is not likely to happen is readily observable. Firstly, the fuel for inflation is credit, and this has slowed to the lowest level in two decades. Secondly, prices in Australia for the vast majority of goods and services are already higher than just about anywhere on earth (with almost all similarly expensive jurisdictions located in the Western world). That’s why people are travelling offshore more and here less, and why online retail is attacking traditional bricks and mortar retailing. When your prices are higher than all your competitors (i.e. the rest of the world), competition will drive them down, not up. Those who should logically be worried about inflation are those with low prices relative to the rest of the world and lots of credit growth. That would be China. They are!
Going to the previously raised issue of focusing solely on the CPI, this issue is probably the most significant impacting markets domestically, as the RBA’s focus on combating a rising CPI figure is proving a significant headwind for an economy already slowing substantially. Although the RBA has generally done an exemplary job, we do feel there is a risk of undue focus on a CPI number which has the potential to be misleading. Similarly, the propensity for the small segments of the economy currently experiencing buoyant conditions (mainly resources) to cave in to demands from labour and suppliers, giving away hard won productivity gains and fuelling the CPI, may well involve a heavy price down the track.
As has happened the world over, increasing pessimism and lack of visibility on the path of rebalancing of Western economies away from excessive consumption towards a more balanced structure, has created an environment less than auspicious for equity performance. Governments and regulators are busy shutting gates after horses have bolted and engaging in deception rather than restructuring. While many companies allowed poor practices and excessive leverage to permeate their operations through the 20 years of boom times referred to earlier, governments were at least as guilty. Cost structures are out of control, bureaucracy has gone mad and government budgets and reporting are mired in opacity such that they give no insight whatsoever into future obligations.
Despite all this doom and gloom, we will continue to respond rationally to changes in share prices. As prices fall, as they have recently, we will become more optimistic, not less. The price which we pay for the cashflows of a company is likely to remain a very significant determinant of future returns. The lower it is, the happier we are. Additionally, tougher environments, such as that experienced globally in recent years, and beginning to be felt in Australia, are those in which companies address inefficiencies accumulated in good times, and they will always act more quickly than governments. Signs that governments are beginning to grasp the initiative and showing genuine leadership would be cause for greater optimism. We won’t hold our breath.
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