Australian Equities

Don’t bet your money on this prize fight


Martin Conlon

Martin Conlon

Head of Australian Equities

The global future remains both unpredictable and confusing to those seeking to apply traditional investment logic, with outrageously low bond yields in many countries, coexisting with extremely strong commodity prices and apparent inflation concerns.  In the blue corner, treasury bonds remain buoyed by the confidence that Ben Bernanke will remain a buyer of last resort and an expectation that interest rates will remain low.  Additional doses of financial leverage may not seem an obvious solution to problems instigated by excessive borrowing, however, when monetary policy is your only tool, it’s tempting to use it.  As they say, ‘to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’. In the red corner, the Chinese responses to any signs of economic weakness have been similarly predictable.  In an economy driven by fixed investment, rather than debt and consumption, any slowdown from the arbitrary 8% growth target is met by additional investment stimulus. The primary differentiator is the probability of success which investors place on the ongoing adherence to these strategies, and the likely outcomes.  The 'bond bubble' is seen as highly vulnerable, along with the US dollar, whilst the persistence of Chinese growth at a rate which seems unsupported by metrics involving population growth or productivity gain, remains a universally accepted truth. 

Australia’s position in this prize fight could probably be characterised as currently beneficial but increasingly uncomfortable.  Our concerns rest firmly with the current terms of trade and the pressures which they are exerting on the economy.  The Australian dollar registered a gain of 15% during the quarter, and is within sight of parity with the US dollar.  Listening to the media would have you believe this is cause for much celebration, and that we should all look forward to the ‘parity party’.  I’d offer a few words of advice from Mark Twain:  “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt”.  Although I’m often accused of curmudgeonly tendencies, weighing the benefits of cheap overseas holidays against the decimation of competitiveness in a good proportion of industries in the country seems to offer limited reason for celebration.  Australian policymakers are becoming increasingly defenceless in an economy held hostage by Chinese policy, and an overheating resource sector alongside an overly indebted housing sector and suffering exporters are making for a challenging landscape.  The earnings outlook of many companies during results season, reflected this uncertainty, with greater reluctance to offer investors the crutch of earnings forecasts for the coming year.  Many analysts returned from presentations grief stricken with the prospect of having to actually analyse and think rather than just ensure their profit forecasts were suitably similar to those advised. 

Despite the earnings headwinds, which a strengthening currency will obviously exacerbate, investors surmounted this hurdle and pushed most sectors higher in the last quarter.  Industrials led the field, although the stocks behind this gain were somewhat surprising given the return of risk appetite.  The Canadian Pension Plan Board’s bid for Intoll Group and a sharp rise in its poor cousin Macquarie Atlas, saw both in the top 5 performing industrials for the quarter. Utilities, consumer staples and materials (+9.8%) were the other leaders, with the takeover of AWB (+61.8%) by Agrium spurring ancillary activity in agriculture names such as Elders and Graincorp while Wesfarmers also performed strongly.  The sector leaders were in some ways surprising, as the leading stocks in the S&P/ASX200 were almost solely resource names, however, a subdued performance by BHP Billiton on the back of its announced takeover proposal for Potash Corporation, and weak performances by materials stocks that manufacture, rather than dig up their products, such as James Hardie and Paperlinx evened up the ledger.  Lynas Corporation was by far the strongest performer over the quarter, as concerns over Chinese restrictions on rare earth exports provided the fuel to push Lynas past $2bn in market capitalisation.  Without the barriers of current production and revenue, and armed with an extremely persuasive Powerpoint presentation and products such as lanthanum, cerium and europium, which even sound valuable, there appears nothing to hold the stock back.  The share price movement remains instructive on the status of sentiment in the small (I use that term guardedly!) resource market. The negative side of the performance tables was occupied by defensive sectors which did not benefit from the enthusiasm of infrastructure investors or from rising prices.  Telecommunications occupied familiar territory at the rear of the field, as disappointing results and significant earnings downgrades impacted Telstra while information technology also posted negative returns and healthcare just edged over the line.  I am thinking of penning a letter to Telstra advising them to change the names of their products to something more evocative.  Perhaps selling the Iphonium and broadbandium would facilitate a better pricing environment. 

Portfolio outcomes in Australian shares remain significantly dependent on the resource sector, and in turn, China. You don’t have to be an astro-physicist to ascertain that voracious demand from a country of 1 billion people which creates a supply/demand squeeze and hence vastly higher prices, might be extremely beneficial to those being paid.  When the seller is a country of only 20 million people, the value transfer is particularly noticeable.  Just look at what oil has done for the Middle East and countries like Norway.  The more important questions from an investment perspective relate to how long this situation will last and how much is already reflected in share prices. 

The exercise of valuing resource stocks is problematic.  The volatility in the price at which these companies sell their produce, makes identification of a sustainable commodity price (and in turn cashflow), subject to a significant margin for error.  We can only observe that prices have always been subject to cycles and that high prices have always encouraged new supply.  Spending a week in WA recently, visiting numerous resource companies only reinforced the amount of potential new supply.  In most commodities, the approach to analysis and valuation is rational.  Commodity price remains the key variable impacting cashflow and analysts assume this price level will revert at some stage to a level driven by industry costs and capital requirements.  Although elevated prices will still dictate assumptions drifting upwards with the cycle and tending to over optimism at inopportune times, wildly unrealistic assumptions are still uncommon.  This is not the case with gold, which is why it can be an intensely frustrating sector for fundamental analysts.  The reasons for this frustration can probably be summarised in the following excerpt from some recent stockbroking analysis on Newcrest Mining.  “As the local comparables for Newcrest have rapidly disappeared we have decided to align our NPV calculation method with that of our Canadian peers. We have lowered our discount rate to 5% (from 8.3%) and now apply an LT gold price (from 2015) of US$1,300/oz, up from our previous house assumption of US$850/oz. Together these have seen our 'raw' (pre-gold premium) NPV increase from A$16.99/share to A$35.27/share, however this has been offset by a reduction in the 'gold premium' applied to the operational DCF from 2.7x previously to now 1.3x P/NPV”.  Net present value (NPV) is a term which lends an air of credibility to investment analysis, and when properly applied, there is no doubt it has merit.  This is not one of those cases!  Increasing long term prices by more than 50%, reducing discount rates to levels below bonds and changing the random number by which this is multiplied to arrive at a price target are methods employed in an effort to lend credibility to what is actually guesswork.  The real answer is that gold has enormous positive momentum and that few are prepared to stand against this momentum.


Despite valuations which look relatively attractive, particularly versus defensive assets such as cash and bonds, we are not viewing the market with unbridled optimism.  The reasons for this cautious approach can be summarised fairly simply.  We are of the view that the investment landscape over the coming decade will not be a replica of the past 20 or 30 years.  Aging populations, an extended period of increasing leverage in the household sector, together with income disparity issues and significant off-balance sheet liabilities for most governments, mean the environment going forward is likely to change.  Almost all indicators point to slower rates of future growth, and whilst this need not be detrimental to investors, it will require careful economic management.  Acknowledgement by policymakers of the need for change is remarkably absent.  In the case of the west, despite being faced with abundant facts suggesting the current path of credit growth and consumption fuelled economies to be unsustainable (from both an economic and environmental perspective), appetite for reform is negligible.  Although issues in China may be of a different nature, the need for rebalancing is similar.  This suggests an environment in which policymakers will react to crises when they occur, rather than aiming to avert them.  Australia may be better placed than many economies to deal with a changing environment, and issues such as demographics and income disparity pose less of a threat than in many other economies, however, with examples such as Japan offering free history lessons on some of the pitfalls, we believe it’s worth observing the lessons.

The abovementioned issues are longer term in nature and offer little insight into market direction for the next six months.  That’s because I don’t have any.  Markets remain unpredictable, as the techniques being used in an effort to restart growth are largely untested.  In ‘Spinal Tap’ parlance, policymakers are trying to turn the dial to 11, “for when you need that little bit extra”.  We continue to deal with this uncertainty by maintaining a well diversified portfolio and through trying to look through much of the current disequilibrium.  Although disequilibrium can persist for extended periods we believe water always finds a level. 

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