“No one’s ever achieved financial fitness with a January resolution that’s abandoned by February” – Suze Orman, American author, financial advisor, motivational speaker, and television host
“Nobody wants a prediction that the future will be more or less like the present, even if that is, statistically speaking, an excellent prediction.” – Nathan Myhrvold, formerly Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft
“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious” – Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher
The start of a new year is as a good time as any to take stock of one’s portfolio and by extension the investment views underpinning it. Having undertaken the exercise internally, we take this opportunity and share some of our thoughts and investment ideas for the year ahead.
The ideas we present here are amongst our top convictions based on a 6 to 12 month investment horizon. As ever, we remain flexible and should circumstances and / or the data change our investment views too may change.
- Japan continues to outperform
We issued a piece on Japan last month, where we argued that the Japanese economy is quite possibly on the cusp of a virtuous growth cycle. This view is predicated on the fact that Japan is already at the forefront of the robotics revolution and has a demographic profile that makes it uniquely sheltered from the potentially negative socio-economic consequences of the increased proliferation of artificial intelligence. Moreover, Japanese companies are flush with cash – cash holdings of companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange are now more than 140 per cent of Japan’s GDP – that they can use to invest in robotics and automation.
Long iShares MSCI Japan ETF ($EWJ).
- A bull market in uranium
“The key to the ‘capital cycle’ approach – the term Marathon uses to describe its investment analysis – is to understand how changes in the amount of capital employed within an industry are likely to impact upon future returns. Or put another way, capital cycle analysis looks at how the competitive position of a company is affected by changes in the industry’s supply side.”
– Excerpt from Capital Returns Investing Through the Capital Cycle: A Money Manager’s Reports 2002 -15 edited by Edward Chancellor
When it comes to uranium sector, plenty have cried wolf over the years as the commodity’s price crashed following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011. When prices fell below the cash cost of the marginal producer, many felt the bottom was close. Instead, prices continued falling and even dropped below the cash cost of the most efficient producer.
Uranium 308 Physical Spot Price Source: Bloomberg
Uranium miners cut capital expenditures in response to the decline in price. Some producers even went as far as buying from the spot market to fulfil their deliveries as it became cheaper to buy in the market than to produce. Despite the struggles, supply cuts were few and far between – given tepid demand, the lack of capacity curtailment became a major impediment to any improvement in prices. That is, until recently. In January, 2017, KazAtomProm, the national operator of Kazakhstan for import and export of uranium, announced plans to cut production by 10 per cent – representing approximately 3 per cent of global uranium production. Spot prices rallied in response to the announcement but faded due to slow implementation of the cuts while demand also remained tepid. This past November, Cameco Corporation ($CCJ) – the world’s largest publicly listed uranium company – announced that it would suspend production at two of its mines, representing approximately 9 per cent of total global production, for ten months by end of January, 2018. Less than a month later, Kazakhstan announced that it would cut 20% of its production for the next three years. These announcements sparked a yearend rally in uranium prices.
Our analysis suggests that the announced production cuts, without any improvement in demand dynamics, are sufficient to bring the uranium market into balance over the course of the next 18 months. If demand picks up, however, the market could quickly fall into a deficit, which would push prices up to much higher levels.
Long Global X Uranium ETF ($URA).
- US inflation, wage growth and velocity of money all pickup
Historically, periods of labour market tightness when businesses are facing difficulty in filling job openings have preceded increasing wage growth. Comparing the US Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill index to US wage growth lagged by one year, we find this to be the case up until the end of 2012. Since 2013, however, the relationship appears to no longer hold true. The number of businesses reporting job opportunities difficult to fill has been increasing while wage growth has remained largely absent.
Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill vs. Wage Growth (Lagged One Year)
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Federation of Independent Business
This discrepancy is largely due to headline figures masking the underlying trend. The outsized impact of a handful of industries distorted the average. Based on the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) wage growth has been positive across a majority of industries from 2014 through 2016. The oil and gas extraction industry, unsurprising given the collapse in the price of oil in 2014, has been a major drag on overall wage growth.
Annualised Wage Growth by Industry (2014 to 2016) Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
As the oil and gas extraction industry is no longer a drag on headline wage growth, there is increasing evidence of wage growth picking up. Based on a recent article, “In Cities With Low Unemployment, Wages Finally Start to Get Bigger”, in the Wall Street Journal:
“Workers in metro areas with the lowest unemployment are experiencing among the strongest wage growth in the country. The labor market in places like Minneapolis, Denver and Fort Myers, Fla., where unemployment rates stand near or even below 3%, has now tightened to a point where businesses are raising pay to attract employees, often from competitors.”
Rising wages in the US will have disproportionately higher impact on the disposable incomes of low and lower-middle class households. As poorer households’ disposable income increases, they are more likely to increase consumption as opposed to increasing savings, especially when compared to upper and upper-middle class households. Moreover, the spending patterns of poorer households are starkly different to those of richer households – for one they are more value conscious. Retailers and quick service restaurants catering to lower and lower-middle income households are likely to be amongst the greatest beneficiaries of higher wages.
The inevitable corollary is the rising wages will place increasing pressure on businesses to improve productivity. This coupled with the incentives within the new US tax bill for increasing capital spending – cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 per cent and a capital expensing provision – we expect capital expenditures in the US to pick up during 2018.
Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill vs. Capital Expenditure Plans
Source: National Federation of Independent Business
The combination of increased capital expenditures and higher wages means corporate cash piles will start turning away from financial engineering and toward investment. Flows out of Wall Street and into Main Street should translate into velocity of money picking up ergo higher inflation.
Long Wal-Mart Stores ($WMT), Dollar General ($DG) and Dollar Tree ($DLTR).
- Industrial commodities continue to rally
In our last post of 2017, we outlined our bullish view on industrial commodities. To summarise, on the demand side we think there are two key forces that will determine the trajectory of industrial commodities during 2018. The first is construction activity in China which, given the Chinese Communist Party’s goal to make housing more affordable and transform rural residents into urban residents, should remain strong over the course of the year. The second is US capital investment, which we expect to pick up in 2018 given the incentives for capital investment created by the new tax bill. On the supply side, China’s supply side reforms are well documented – capacities at coal mines have been curtailed, steel mills have been shuttered and the supply of natural gas rationed. The results of these reforms thus far have been largely positive. Given the supply and demand dynamics, we are of the opinion, barring short-term volatility, the risk for industrial metals remains to the upside.
Long Vale SA ($VALE) and United States Steel Corporation ($X).
- Emerging markets: Oil exporters outperform oil importers
The sharp drop in oil prices in late 2014 has been a welcome windfall for oil importing emerging markets. Money that was previously being used to pay for oil imports has gone into productive investments as well as increasing consumption. Since the number of oil importing nations far outstrips the number of oil exporting nations, the drop in oil prices has supported the synchronised global economic recovery that we are enjoying today.
As the old saying goes, “Low prices, cure low prices”, the synchronised pickup in global economic activity caused in part by lower oil prices is resulting in demand for oil exceeding expectations. At the same time Russia and OPEC are maintaining high levels of production discipline. Moreover, our analysis suggests that the likes of Mark Papa and Harold Hamm are correct in calling out the Energy Information Administration (EIA) for its optimistic projections for shale production. We think that shale production will disappoint leading to higher oil prices in 2018.
Higher oil prices should lead to oil exporting emerging markets outperforming at the expense of oil importing emerging markets.
Long iShares MSCI Russia ETF ($ERUS) and long iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia ETF ($KSA).
- Robotics and artificial intelligence adoption accelerates
At a human level, the pace of adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence, while being cognizant of the possibilities for human advancement, concerns us. We worry that the blind, unchecked development of artificial intelligence could one day tear through the social fabric that binds us together and spread the venom of protectionism across the globe. The business case for artificial intelligence adoption, however, is very strong. A performance gap between early adopters of the technology and laggards will become increasingly evident over the coming years. A widening of this gap is likely to result in an adopt-or-die type of scenario for the laggards. And may even lead to a “winner-takes-all” type of environment where even second-best is not good enough to survive. Companies have no choice but to invest in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Our advice: learn a foreign language. If you have children, encourage them to learn a foreign language too. While Google and others may develop tools to reduce the friction of translation, one can never truly understand a culture without understanding its language. In a world where nations are becoming increasingly inward looking, we need to increase our cross-cultural understanding and there will be, in our opinion, great reward for those that can facilitate such understanding. Learning a foreign language is the first and most critical step in this process.
Long ROBO Global Robotics and Automation Index ETF ($ROBO).
- The first trillion dollar company
While this may not materialise in 2018, we think before this bull market is done we will have witnessed the world’s first publicly listed trillion dollar company. It could be one of tech giants – such as Apple, Amazon or Google – or it could be the successful listing of Saudi Aramco. Either way, we think a trillion dollar company will ring the bell at the market top.
- China bears disappointed
After the botched currency devaluation efforts of 2015 and 2016, the Chinese government has deftly managed its economy by balancing between fiscal stimulus, risk management within the financial system, and supply-side reforms on the industrial side. While there have been hiccups, such as the gas supply crunch witnessed late last year, the economy has continued to grow smoothly. We expect 2018 to be not too dissimilar with the Chinese government continuing to strike a balance between using the stick and offering the carrot. We expect China bears to have little to celebrate in 2018.
- Onslaught of cyber-attacks
In 2017, cybercrime came of age:
- US-based consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax, suffered a massive data breach compromising the data of over 143 million of its customers
- WannaCry a ransomware was unleashed in May 2017 and targeted computers running Microsoft Windows by encrypting data and demanding ransom payments in the Bitcoin cryptocurrency
- NotPetya ransomware attack forced shipping giant Maersk to halt operations at 76 port terminals around the world, which translated into an estimated financial cost of USD 300 million
- Television network HBO was hacked in late July. A group of hackers claimed to have stolen roughly 1.5 terabytes of information from the company, including scripts and episodes of popular TV show Game of Thrones
The above are but a few examples of the cyber-attacks that took place in 2017. In an increasingly hyper connected world, we expect the scale and frequency of cyber-attacks will only increase.
Long Cyber Security ETF ($HACK)
- Household consumer stocks underperform
We wrote about avoiding household consumer names in October last year – namely constituents of the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ETF ($XLP). We maintain this view for 2018 as we consider their valuations to be stretched for businesses that are increasingly susceptible to disruption and shifting consumer preferences towards more niche brands.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.