Where do we go from here? Credit vs. Duration

 

“Wealth does not pass three generations.” — Ancient Chinese proverb

 

“Most people do not have a problem with you thinking for yourself, as long as your conclusions are the same as or at least compatible with their beliefs.”  — Mokokoma Mokhonoana

 

Duration or Credit Risk?

 

“Real estate and mortgage credit got us in so much trouble in 2007,” he said. “Next it’s going to be corporate credit, and the breakdowns are something we have to pay attention to.”

 

The above passage comes from an article in the Institutional Investor and quotes famed hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones. The article goes on to detail Mr Jones’s concerns around, what he describes as, a probable “global debt bubble”.

 

Global corporate borrowing reached  US dollars 13 trillion at the end of last year — more than double the level prior to the Global Financial Crisis.  The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that global corporations will need to repay or re-finance as much as US dollars 4 trillion in debt over the next three years.

 

Given the amounts involved, it comes as no surprise that Mr Jones is not alone in warning about the high levels of corporate debt being a potential systemic risk. Stanley Druckenmiller has been outspoken about it. Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects “corporates, not consumers or banks,” to be source of the next recession. Mr Claudio Borio, Head of the Monetary and Economic Department of the Bank for International Settlements, cautioned in December 2018 that “the bulge of BBB corporate debt, just above junk status, hovers like a dark cloud over investors”.

 

PIMCO, one of the world’s leading fixed-income investment managers, being a little more sanguine than the aforementioned, started advocating a more selective approve to US corporate debt allocations at the start of 2018.

 

From PIMCO’s research piece published in January 2018:

 

Crucially, the share of the U.S. investment grade (IG) nonfinancial bond market that is rated BBB (i.e., the lowest credit rating still considered IG) has increased to 48% in 2017 from around 25% in the 1990s. Drilling down into the riskiest part of the BBB market segment, the universe of low BBB rated bonds is now bigger than that of all BB rated bonds (i.e., the highest-rated speculative grade bonds) combined.

 

[…]

 

We think investors may want to consider taking a more cautious and selective approach to BBB nonfinancial corporate bonds, particularly those in the low BBB rated segment where the risk of downgrades is higher and the room for error is lower. Of note, we are not advocating a generic underweight to BBBs, but rather suggesting a more selective approach in this environment. We still see opportunities in select BBB nonfinancials, especially in sectors with high barriers to entry, above-trend growth and strong pricing power.

 

 

PIMCO’s timing, in hindsight, was prescient. US corporate bond spreads bottomed, on a cyclical basis at least, in January 2018, having tightened through most of 2016 and 2017 on the back of a recovery in oil prices and then the enactment of the Trump Tax Cuts. Spreads blew out in the second half of 2018 as global risk-off sentiment gathered steam.

 

US Corporate BAA spreads to 10 year US Treasuries bottomed at around 150 basis points, approximately the same level as the pre-Global Financial Crisis low. Today, spreads are below 230 basis points, having partially retraced the move to above 250 basis points from late last year.

BICLB10Y Index (US Corporate BAA 2019-03-19 12-11-52.png

 

US High Yield spreads to 10 year US Treasuries bottomed at around 295 basis points, failing, however, to break their 2014 low of  approximately 230 basis points. Incidentally, high yield spreads bottomed around 230 basis points prior to the Global Financial Crisis as well. Presently, spreads stand at approximately 390 basis points, having come in from over 530 basis points at the end of 2018.

 

CSI BARC Index (BarCap US Corp H 2019-03-19 12-13-00.png

 

A catastrophic event, widely experienced or one reported on extensively, can scar the collective imagination. The scarring can in turn heighten the sensitivity of individuals or the collective to signs pointing to the possible recurrence of said catastrophic event.

 

In the run up to the Global Financial Crisis, the investment community was long, very long, corporate credit —  investment grade and high yield spreads were at or near multi-decade lows between 2005 and 2008. Following the Lehman bankruptcy, credit spreads spiked to multi-decade highs, leaving many investors nursing significant mark-to-market losses.

 

We are therefore not surprised that corporate debt is widely cited as a major risk to global markets in the event of a recession or another financial crisis.

 

What is often overlooked, however, is that investors, particularly institutional investors, were not long duration in the run up to the Global Financial Crisis — rather, it could be argued, they were quite possibly short duration. Using the 10 year US Treasury term premium as an indicator — the higher the term premium, the shorter the market is duration and vice versa — we can see term premium, in the below chart, rising rapidly in the two years running up to the Lehman bankruptcy, i.e. the market punishing duration.

 

ACMTP10 Index (Adrian Crump & Mo 2019-03-19 12-06-34.png

 

As we all know, those who had the wherewithal to remain long duration were rewarded most handsomely soon after the collapse of Lehman.

 

Today, term premium for 10 year US Treasuries is negative —  more than 70 basis points negative versus over 150 basis positive in 2007. If the next crisis or recession is unlike the last one, and it usually is, could it be that long duration, not long credit risk, is the pain trade?

 

When duration is punished, the entire spectrum of fixed income instruments feels the pain. In the next crisis there may be few places for coupon clippers to hide.

 

 

The Hypothetical Family Office

 

The story is clichéd but bears repeating.

 

A patriarch from humble beginnings and limited employment opportunities establishes a small business, works hard, starts employing relatives into the business and later his villagers. Benefiting from macroeconomic tailwinds and nonexistent competition, the business expands at a rapid pace and starts spitting out cash the patriarch continues to put back into the business.

 

As the patriarch grows older, he encourages his children to join the business. In this instance, the patriarch has three sons. The first, having grown up when his family had little wealth, shows no interest and is far more concerned with spending his father’s newfound wealth than increasing it. The second, having had a comfortable, if not luxury laden, upbringing, wants to prove his worth and is eager to join his father in his entrepreneurial pursuits. The third, still young and having experienced little else except luxury, pursues formal education  at a school surrounded by the scions of other business magnates.

 

After decades of re-investing in the business and expanding it across the country, comes a point where the cash being generated by the business far overwhelms any of its investment needs. So the patriarch did, what any wealthy man in any developing economy has done over the last five decades, invests in real estate and then appoints his second son to manage and grow the real estate portfolio.

 

Real estate prices witness a parabolic rise over the next decade, driven by rapid population growth, urbanisation and lack of avenues to direct excess capital as local capital markets remain underdeveloped.  The income from the family’s real estate portfolio exceeds that of the patriarch’s original business.

 

Come the late-1990’s, the third son graduates from university and joins the family business with fresh ideas and aspirations. He tries to convince his father and elder brothers to establish a family office and diversify wealth across geographies and asset classes. The second son averse to change, urges his father to stick to what they know and not to pursue the third son’s ideas. The third son, being his father’s favourite, however, is able to get his way. A family office is established, the second son continues to manage real estate and the third son is given a small amount of capital to diversify the family’s wealth.

 

As the first order of business, the third son feels that his family must gain some exposure to the dot.com boom. He connects with private bankers to help him  allocate small amounts of capital to venture capital and technology funds.  Just as the family’s capital is deployed into these funds, the tech bubble bursts and the funds are quickly marked down to zero. Mistake number 1.

 

The second son gains the upper hand and continues expanding the family’s real estate portfolio. The ageing patriarch with little ambition to manage his original business decides to take a step back, handing over the business to his sons. The sons enamoured by the world of investing, show little appetite for day-to-day operations. Instead, with the local capital markets starting to take off and growing public interest in stocks, the family appoints an independent management team, lists the business on the local stock market and enjoys a cash windfall. They are no longer millionaires, but multi-billionaires. It is now the mid-2000’s.

 

The losses from the tech-bubble long forgotten, the third son is given purview over some of the windfall profits. Erring on the side of caution this time, he engages the services of strategy consultants and investment consultants. Their advice is to allocate capital to big-name private equity and real estate managers. Capital is allocated to the likes of Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts, Carlyle Group, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, amongst others, albeit it through private wealth management structures loaded with upfront and hidden fees.

 

The timing of allocations was not great but not spotting the hidden fees was criminal. Eventually, the returns were respectable gross of fees but atrocious on a net basis. Mistake number 2.

 

With large amounts of dry powder still at his disposal, the third son starts directly and aggressively investing the family’s wealth into the financial services sector — “look at the return on equity financial institutions enjoy,” he said.

 

Come the back end of 2008, Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt and those high returns on equity are history.  Mistake number 3.

 

In 2011, the third sons starts investing small amounts of capital into biotechnology start-ups, directly not through funds — “we are investing alongside brand name venture capital funds without paying fees” he said. As it often happens, start-ups burn through cash and need to raise more capital. Not wanting to be diluted, the family participates in each subsequent round of financing. Come 2014 the handful of biotech start-ups are no longer small investments, rather the family is even the single largest shareholder in some instances.

 

In 2015, the biotech bubble pops and all of the start-ups invested in by the family prove to be duds. Mistake number 4.

 

In 2019, the family office allocated capital to venture capital funds for the first time since their late 1990’s debacle. 

 

Everything in the above tale is true, except for the family office being hypothetical.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Environmental Concerns: Ideas on the Long Side

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

— Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

In this week’s piece we discuss the Paris Agreement — a global accord signed in 2015 with the aim of mitigating global warming —  and the progress made on curbing carbon emissions since the signing of the accord. We also identify two long ideas in the clean & renewable energy and waste management sectors. Finally, we briefly touch upon the surge in Chinese credit growth during January.

 

Environmental Concerns

 

On 12 December 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, the 190-plus parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, which committed countries to do their best “to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future“.

The agreement was seen as  “a turning point in the history of common human endeavour, capturing the combined political, economic and social will of governments, cities, regions, citizens, business and investors to overcome the existential threat of unchecked climate change“.

Three years since the Paris accord was negotiated,  we were amazed to learn that there has been no reduction in global emissions. In fact, there has not even been a decline in the rate of increase in emissions. Much rather, the rate at which emissions are being added to the atmosphere has increased!

Coal-fired power generation is still increasing — coal powered plants continue to be built and existing plants are not being removed as fast as new ones are being added.

What has gone wrong?

The lack of progress since Paris is attributed, by some, to the opacity of pledges made in the agreement, and the parties to the agreement remaining vague on the specific policies they will adopt to meet them. Further, there is no official mechanism for measuring progress.

The governing body and framework for the agreement, we think, are both highly bureaucratic and politicised. As is their wont, politicised bureaucracies are as much about not offending their stakeholders as they are about effective governance, if not more. The implications of this, we think, are that the goals of the Paris Agreement are likely to prove far too ambitious and meaningful, if any, progress on curbing global emissions will have to be made through the participation of the private sector.

The private sector, however, is unlikely to participate of its own volition. Rather, the powers that be, as ever, will need to create incentives, if, of course, they want profit seeking enterprises to participate in the mission to curb global emissions. Incentives can come in the form of regulations —  a cost of doing business, per say — or rewards — profits or higher relative valuations.

Higher relative valuations would be a result of supranational, multi-lateral and public institutions limiting their investment allocations to securities of companies adhering to a set of predefined environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. Thereby increasing the relative demand for ESG-compliant securities ipso facto a higher relative valuation to  that of non-compliant securities.

 

Ideas on the Long Side

 

Below we highlight two stocks we consider to be interesting  potential long-ideas in the clean & renewable energy and waste management sectors below.

Advanced Emissions Solutions $ADES

Advanced Emissions Solutions is an emissions solutions provider with a focus on mercury and gas control solutions for coal-fired power plants in the United States. The company supplies electric coal-fired generation facilities with systems that chemically pre-treat various types of coal prior to the burn process. It also up sells  existing customers by providing consulting services and chemicals used to remove mercury and other hazardous airborne pollutants from the emissions resulting from the burning of coal.

The company supports coal-fired electric generation facilities in complying with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.

$ADES has a market capitalisation of US dollars 233 million, trades at estimated 2018 price-to-earnings of 6.5 times and dividend yield of 8.5 per cent.  Short interest in the company is high at more than 11 per cent of free float.

 

ADES US Equity (Advanced Emissio 2019-02-19 14-33-04.jpg

 

Heritage Crystal Clean $HCCI

Heritage-Crystal Clean is a US-centric company that helps businesses clean parts and dispose of highly regulated waste materials, such as cleaning solvents, used oil, and paint, that cannot be discarded through municipal trash systems or standard drains. Customers, primarily small to midsize companies, include car dealerships, auto repair shops, trucking firms, and manufacturers such as metal fabricators. $HCCI serves customers in 42 states in the central and eastern US.

$HCCI has a market capitalisation of US dollars 600 million, trades at a rich valuation of estimated 2018 price-to-earnings of 36 times. The company, however, has a strong growth profile with earnings estimated to increase by more than 70 per cent in 2019.

 

HCCI US Equity (Heritage-Crystal 2019-02-19 14-54-41.jpg

China: Soaring Credit Growth

 

From Bloomberg:

 

China’s credit growth exceeded expectations in January amid a seasonal lending surge at the start of the year.

  • Aggregate financing was 4.64 trillion yuan ($685 billion) in January, the People’s Bank of China said. That compares with an estimated 3.3 trillion yuan in a Bloomberg survey
  • Financial institutions made a record 3.23 trillion yuan of new loans, versus a projected 3 trillion yuan. That was the most in any month back to at least 1992, when the data began

 

The Chinese leadership’s efforts to reinvigorate credit growth and support economic activity in the latter half of 2018 may be beginning to bear fruit. Credit growth, in January reached 10.6 per cent  year-over-year — welcome relief given the less than stellar showing in the latter half of last year.

The data from January is the first sign that the Chinese credit cycle may have bottomed out.

Chinese banks originated new loans amounting to CNY 3.23 trillion, increasing by more than 13 per cent year-over-year and setting a new monthly record in the process. The reading was well above both the CNY 1.08 trillion distributed in December and market expectations of CNY 2.80 trillion.

Net corporate bond issuance came in at CNY 499 billion, the highest level in almost in three years. As impressive as this may seem, state-owned enterprises accounted for more than nine tenths of gross corporate bond issuance.  Suggesting that Beijing’s recent calls for banks to provide greater support to the private sector has not yet had the desired effect. Moreover, credit growth tends to be higher in January, and ahead of the Chinese New Year. We will not be surprised if February data is less encouraging and only expect greater clarity after March.

If, indeed, credit growth remains strong over the coming months, it will still take time to show up in economic data. Typically, a spike in Chinese credit growth has led a corresponding spike in domestic demand by nine months. We still expect first quarter data to be weak as exporters suffer a hangover from the fourth quarter rush to get US orders out ahead of the original tariff hike deadline.

Nonetheless, early indications from credit growth and the looser monetary policy stance of the People’s Bank of China are of Chinese economic activity, as we have posited previously, to get incrementally better, not worse, in 2019.

 

 

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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.

Investment Themes and Considerations for 2019

 

“Every man is the smith of his own fortune.” – Iranian proverb

“Time is like a sword: if you don’t cut it, it cuts you.” – Arabic proverb

Contents

  • Global Liquidity
    • Enhancers
    • Depressants
  • Investment Themes
    • Infrastructure Diplomacy: The Answer to the Rest-of-the-World’s Under Performance?
    • US Dollar: What Will the US Treasury Do?
    • China: Incrementally Better, Not Worse
    • Emerging Markets: Relief Not Reprieve
    • Semiconductors: Led On the Way Down, To Lead On the Way Up?
    • Saudi Arabia: Emerging Market Indices Inclusion
  • Outsiders for Outsized Returns
    • Triunfo Albicelestes
    • Data Driven Dystopia: “The monetization of every move you make”
  • Books
    • Five We Have Read and Recommend
    • Five from Our 2019 Reading List

Note: Our comparable piece from 2018 can be found here.

This post runs quite long, if you prefer you can click here to download the PDF.

 

Global Liquidity

 

As we reflect back on 2018, the year, in a capital markets context, was defined, in our view, by the charging and retarding forces acting upon global liquidity. On the one hand we had the tax reform driven liquidity enhancers, on the other a host of liquidity depressants, including monetary policy driven tightening, pseudo-capital controls under the guise of anti-graft measures, rising interest rates and high oil prices.

In the words of Thomas Joplin, the nineteenth century British banker and merchant,  “A demand for money in ordinary times, and demand for it in periods of panic, are diametrically different. The one demand is for money to put into circulation; the other for money to be taken out of it”.

Last January, with global stock markets off to their best start in more than three decades, the world was in the midst of demand for money to be put into circulation far outstripping demand for it to be taken out of circulation. From October through to the end of the year, as markets witnessed a sharp sell-off, demand to take money out far outweighed the demand to put it back. While in the intervening months between January and October, dominance waxed and waned between the two opposing forces.

 

Enhancers

One of the leading sources of liquidity in 2018 was US companies’ accelerated contributions to their respective defined-benefit pension schemes. The Republican Party’s tax reforms gave American corporations till mid-September of last year to benefit from the higher 35 per cent corporate tax rate when deducting their pension plan contributions from their tax bill. US Companies making contributions through mid-September and deducting them from the prior year’s tax return is not new. The difference last year was that the value of the deduction fell to 21 per cent following the mid-September deadline.

Pension plan contributions by companies in the Russell 3000 Index are estimated to have topped US dollars 90 billion through mid-September last year – more than 10 times the contributions made the year before.

The other major source of liquidity was also motivated by US tax reforms. The reforms, by subjecting US corporations’ offshore profits to a one-time tax of 15.5 per cent on cash and 8 per cent on non-cash or illiquid assets, eliminated the incentive to keep money offshore. In response, US multinationals are estimated to have repatriated more than US dollars 500 billion last year, a significant portion of which went toward share buybacks. The flow of money was not evenly spread throughout the year, however. Corporations repatriated the vast majority of the funds in first half of the year with the amount of cash being brought back dropping off sharply in the second half of the year.

 

Depressants

There were many forces working to suck liquidity out of and impede the flow of capital through the global monetary system.

1. Oil and US Interest Rates

Arguably the US dollar and oil are the two most important ‘commodities’ in the world. One lubricates the global monetary system and the other fuels everything else. Barring a toppling of the US dollar hegemony or till such time when the dominance of oil as the world’s primary energy resource diminishes meaningfully, the global economy is unlikely to enjoy prolonged and synchronised economic growth in an environment in which US interest rates are rising and oil prices are high.

In the more than 30 years between end of May 1988 through December 2018, the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have simultaneously been above their respective 48-month moving averages for less than a fifth of the time. And only on six occasions have the two prices remained above their respective 48-month moving averages for 5 or more consecutive months. (The periods when both prices are about their respective 48-month moving averages are highlighted in grey in the two charts below.)

US 10-year Treasury Yield 10YSource: Bloomberg

West Texas Intermediate Crude Price per BarrelOilSource: Bloomberg

2. Policy Driven Tightening

The two dominant liquidity centres of the world, the US and China, moved in 2018 to rein in animal spirits and tighten monetary conditions.

In China, the Communist Party’s, in a bid to bridle systemic risks, clamped down on shadow finance. The tightening of credit conditions, however, has thrown up an interesting twist: interest rates, as opposed to increasing as would be expected, have declined.

China Shadow Financing Growth Year-over-YearChina Shadow FinanceSource: Bloomberg

In the US, the Treasury upped issuance of short-term debt to replace maturing long-term bonds just as long-term issues were being worked off the Fed’s balance sheet through quantitative tightening.

The potential ramifications of quantitative tightening and increased Treasury bill issuance bubbling under the surface are difficult to assess. In a monetary system governed by the hitherto untested Basel III framework and the many policy tweaks enacted by the Fed, such as money market fund reform and setting the interest on excess reserves below the upper band of the feds fund rate, following the Global Financial Crisis, it is difficult to grasp what, if any, hiccups there will be in the transmission of monetary policy as the Fed continues to drain reserves from the banking sector.

Nonetheless, the tightening policies employed by the Fed and the People’s Bank of China, have squeezed global liquidity. Using year-over-year growth in money supply (M2) across the US, China and Europe, as a proxy, we can see global liquidity growth fell to multi-decade lows in 2018.

Global Money Supply Growth vs. MSCI ACWI and EM Indices Money SupplySources: Bloomberg, European Central Bank

3. Anti-Graft

A number of governments across the world have, in recent years, taken drastic measures to crackdown on corruption and the outflow of illicit funds from within their borders. We share a few examples below.

India

In 2016, in a bid to curtail corruption and weaken its shadow economy, the Indian government announced the demonetisation of all Indian rupees 500 and 1,000 banknotes. It also announced the issuance of new Indian rupees 500 and 2,000 banknotes in exchange for the demonetised banknotes. What transpired following the announcement was as, if not more, surprising than the government’s demonetisation scheme: an estimated 93 per cent of the old notes made into the banking system.

With most of the notes flowing into the banking system, they were now unsullied, legal tender. And little need for capital to flow out of India illegally through the hawala system to be held out of reach of the government remains.

Saudi Arabia

In November 2017, the Saudi government famously rounded up, amongst others, wealthy Saudi businessmen, government officials and members of the royal family in the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh as part of its anti-corruption campaign. Little of what transpired within the boundaries of the five-star hotel has been confirmed by official reports. We do, however, know that billions of dollars of assets moved from private asset pools to the Saudi government’s coffers.

China

China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has been pursuing a far-reaching campaign against corruption. Since the campaign started in 2012, Chinese authorities have investigated more than 2.7 million officials and punished more than 1.5 million people, including seven national-level leaders and two dozen high-ranking generals.

As governments across the world have cracked down on corruption and elicited the support of regulators across global financial centres, price insensitive bids for real estate across New York City, London, Sydney and Vancouver have started to dry up. The best gauge of the liquidity impact of the anti-graft measures described above, we think, is Dubai. Long a magnet for Russian, Chinese, Indian, Saudi and Iranian capital, amongst others, Dubai had one of worst performing equity markets globally in 2018.

Dubai Financial Market General Index DFMSource: Bloomberg

In summary, as the forces propelling global liquidity petered out over the course of last year, the squeezes on liquidity overwhelmed global financial markets taking down one market after the other, culminating with the dramatic end to the long-running US equity bull market in December.

 

Investment Themes

 

Infrastructure Diplomacy: The Answer to the Rest-of-the-World’s Under Performance?

 One time series that has intrigued us over recent weeks and months is that of the ratio of MSCI All Cap World Ex-US Index (RoWI) to the S&P 500 Index (SPX). The chart below is a plot of the month-end ratio of the two indices from December 1987 through December 2018. (A rising line indicates the RoWI is outperforming the SPX while a falling line indicates the SPX is outperforming the RoWI.)

Superimposed on the chart are the Fibonacci projection levels based on the relative high of the RoWI, occurring in July 1988, and cyclical low of the ratio recorded in October 1992. (You can learn more about Fibonacci projections here.)

Ratio of the MSCI All Cap World Index Ex-US to the S&P 500 IndexROWUSSource: Bloomberg

From a long-term perspective, the drastic under performance of equity markets in the rest-of-the-world relative to the US equity market is obvious. Looking at the above chart, however, we cannot help but feel that a cyclical upturn for the rest-of-the-world is due.

The question then is: What would prompt a correction in the secular trend? We think the answer is a ramp up in global infrastructure investment led by infrastructure diplomacy programmes.

The most marketed, and some might say most notorious, infrastructure diplomacy programme is China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative encompasses the construction of two broad networks spanning four continents:

  • The “Silk Road Economic Belt”: A land based transportation network combined with industrial corridors along the path of the Old Silk Road that linked China to Europe; and
  • The “Maritime Silk Road”: A network of new ports and trade routes to develop three ocean-based “blue economic passages” which will connect Asia with Africa, Oceania and Europe

The Belt and Road Initiative, however, is not the only global infrastructure investment program in existence today. In 2015, worried by China’s growing influence in Asia, Japan first unveiled its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” initiative as a US dollar 110 billion investment programme targeting Asian infrastructure projects. In 2016, the initiative was expanded to US dollars 200 billion and to include Africa and the South Pacific.

In October 2018, the US Senate joined the US House of Representatives in passing the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development bill (or Build Act), a bipartisan bill creating a new US development agency –  the US International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC). The passing of the Build Act is being hailed by many as the most important piece of US soft power legislation in more than a decade.

The USIDFC has been created with the goal of “crowding in” vitally needed private sector investment in low and lower-middle income countries. The agency, endowed with US dollars 60 billion in funding, is being positioned as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has at times been described as nothing more than “debt trap diplomacy”.

We think if the three distinct initiatives propel infrastructure investment across the developing economies and help them integrate into the global economy, create jobs and gain access to much needed hard currency, the rest-of-the-world can once again enjoy a prolonged period of out performance.

Investors, particularly those with an investment horizon of at least three years, should gradually reduce exposure to the US and reallocate it to the rest-of-the-world.

  

US Dollar: What Will the US Treasury Do?

When the US Treasury issues bills and increases its cash balances in the Treasury General Account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, it inadvertently tightens monetary conditions in the global banking system.

For the period starting September 2017 through April 2018, the US Treasury did just that. It increased cash balances with the Fed from under US dollars 67 billion at the end of August 2017 to US dollars 403 billion by end of April 2018. (At the end of last year, cash balances with the Fed stood at US dollars 368 billion.)

The increase in the US Treasury’s cash balances was offset by the loss of an equivalent amount of reserves and / or deposits by the US banking system.  Thereby tightening monetary conditions and reducing the availability of US dollars.

The last time the US government faced the prospect of a shutdown, the US Treasury started drawing funds from its cash balances with the Fed to pay for entitlements and other government expenditures. The US Treasury’s Cash balances held with the Fed went from US dollars 422 billion at the end of the October 2016 down to US dollars 63 billion by the end of March 2017. The release of US dollars into the global banking system provided much needed relief, stimulated global risk appetite and weakened the greenback.

 

US Treasury General Account vs. US Dollar Index $DXY TGASources: Bloomberg, Federal Reserve

 

With the US government shutdown triggered by President Trump entering its third week and with little sign of progress in talks between the Democrats and the Republicans, the US Treasury may once again have to draw down on its cash balances with the Fed. If this does transpire and is similar in scale to the previous draw down, it could again stimulate risk appetite and weaken the US dollar.

We are bearish on the near-term (six to nine month) prospects of the US dollar.

 

China: Incrementally Better, Not Worse

 The year has barely started and the People’s Bank of China has already announced the first reserve ratio (RRR) cut of the year, a full percentage point reduction. Unlike previous RRR cuts in 2018, the latest move is a two-step reduction, effective on January 15 and January 25.

This RRR cut will release approximately Chinese yuan 1.5 trillion in liquidity, part of which will replace maturing medium-term lending facilities during the first quarter. On a net basis, the cut is equivalent to Chinese yuan 800 billion in easing.

On the fiscal stimulus side, the government has already approved new rail projects amounting to US dollars 125 billion over the course of the last month. Beijing refrained from stepping up fiscal spending in 2018. With a slowing economy and the on-going trade dispute with the US, however, the government appears to have greater willingness to loosen the purse strings in 2019.

Beijing, in a bid to shore up credit creation, is even allowing local governments to bring forward debt issuance.

Manufacturing data coming out of China is likely to get worse before it gets better – a hangover from US companies’ accelerated orders to build inventories ahead of the initial 1 January deadline for tariff increases. Nonetheless, given that the official policy stance has now tilted towards easing, we expect Chinese economic activity to improve, not worsen over the course of 2019.

Throw in the prospect of MSCI quadrupling the inclusion factor of Chinese A-shares in its emerging markets index and there is a strong possibility Chinese A-Shares break out of their bear market in 2019.

 

Emerging Markets: Relief Not Reprieve

A sharp drop in oil prices, a pause in the US dollar rally, signs of increasing fiscal stimulus in China and retreating long-term Treasury yields are providing emerging markets much needed relief. While the structural challenges, particularly on the funding side, faced by many of the emerging economies are unlikely to be resolved soon, the welcome liquidity relief can certainly provide tradable opportunities for investors.

Moreover, as we noted in December, emerging markets have been outperforming US markets since early October, which may well provide further impetus for asset allocators to re-consider exposures and potentially exchange some of their US exposure in favour of emerging markets.

Ratio of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index to the S&P 500 IndexEMSPXSources: Bloomberg

The simple play is to be long the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF $EEM. And in times of either euphoria or despair, it can prove to be the right choice as there can often be little to distinguish between constituent level returns. Nonetheless, with the rise of China’s tech giant, we think $EEM has become both too tech and too top heavy.

For broad-based exposure we prefer being long dedicated emerging market asset manager Ashmore Group $ASHM.LN. In terms of country selection we prefer being long Russia $ERUS and Indonesia $EIDO. We would also like to be long Hungary, opportunities for direct exposure to the country are, however, limited and is instead better played with some exposure to Austria $EWO.

  

Semiconductors: Led On the Way Down, To Lead On the Way Up?

 We were bearish on the prospects of semiconductor stocks for the better part of 2018. With technology at the centre of China’s trade conflict with the US, and no technology more critical than semiconductors, our thinking was that production capacities, led by China, would rise faster than the market was pricing in.

While China has made headway in gaining market share in the more commoditised segments of the semiconductor market, it has failed to catch up with the leading chip companies in the world. The top-end of the semiconductors market remains tightly controlled by a handful of players.

The Trump Administration’s security hawks and a slowing China, however, have, we think, had a far greater impact on the sharp drop in chip prices than the increases in production capacities.

With valuations for the constituents of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Semiconductor Index $SOX having corrected significantly and a lot of doom-and-gloom reflected after Apple’s guidance cut, we think semiconductors are well-placed to surprise to the upside in 2019.

  

Philadelphia Stock Exchange Semiconductor Index Trailing 12 Month P/E RatioSOXPESource: Bloomberg

Moreover, if there is to be a favourable outcome to the trade related negotiations between the US and China, we suspect China will pony up to reduce its trade surplus with the US by offering to buy more chips.

 

Saudi Arabia: Emerging Market Indices Inclusion

Ignoring the human rights grievances, the fallout from the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the sharp drop in the price of oil, we weigh the opportunity of investing in Saudi Arabia based purely on a technicality. That technicality being the inclusion of Saudi Arabia into the FTSE and MSCI emerging market indices in 2019.

Based on broker estimates, passively managed assets of greater than US dollars 15 billion are expected to flow into the Saudi equity market on the back of the inclusions. The vast majority of these passive flows are set to materialise during the first half of 2019. Given the size of flows relative to average daily traded values of less than US dollars 1 billion, the passive flows can move the needle in a market with few other positive catalysts.

We remain long the iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia ETF $KSA.

Outsiders for Outsized Returns

 

Here we discuss investment ideas that we think have an outside chance of generating outsized returns during 2019. We see these opportunities as cheaply priced out-of-the-money call options that may warrant a small allocation for those with a more opportunistic disposition.

Triunfo Albicelestes

Argentina, to put it mildly, has a chequered history when it comes to repaying its creditors. It has defaulted on its external debt at least seven times and domestic debt five times in the 202 years since its independence.

Argentina first defaulted on its sovereign debt in 1827, only eleven years after gaining independence from Spain. It took three decades to resume payments on the defaulted bonds.

The Baring Crisis, the most famous of the sovereign debt crises of the nineteenth century, originated in Argentina – at a time when Argentina was a rich nation and its credibility as a borrower had been restored. Argentina had borrowed heavily during the boom years of the 1880s and Britain was the dominant source of those funds. The flow of funds from Britain was so great that when Argentina defaulted on its obligations in 1890, the then world’s largest merchant bank, Baring Brothers & Co., almost went bankrupt. Had it not been for intervention by the Bank of England, the British lender would have been long gone before Nick Leeson came along a century later.

In 1982, Argentina once again failed to honour its external debt obligations and remained in default for almost a decade. Its emergence from default was made possible by the creation of Brady bonds – a solution proposed by then US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady as a means for debt-reduction by developing nations.

In the 1990’s Argentina kept piling on debt until it finally defaulted on around US dollars 80 billion of obligations in 2001, which at the time was the largest sovereign default ever. The government managed to restructure 93 per cent of the defaulted debt by 2010; however, Paul Singer’s Elliot Management famously held out and kept Argentina exiled from international debt markets for a further six years. Argentina returned to the bond market in 2016 after settling with the hedge fund and bringing to an end a long-running saga, which saw Paul Singer take extreme measures such as convincing Ghanaian courts to seize an Argentinian navy vessel so it could collects on its debt.

The lessons from Argentina’s history of defaults, however, were quickly unlearned by capital markets. In little more than a year after its return to the bond markets, Argentina successfully pulled-off the sale of a 100-year bond in 2017. The good times did not last very long, however. In August 2018, Argentina was heading to the IMF cap-in-hand requesting the early release of a US dollars 50 billion loan. By end of September the IMF had increased the debt-package to US dollars 57.1 billion – making it the biggest bailout package ever offered by the IMF.

After running through Argentina’s history of debt defaults and at a time when it may appear that its future is bleak, we are here to tell you that Argentina has the foundations in place to surprise to the upside.

The days of “Kirchnerismo”, the legacy of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s and her late husband Néstor’s  twelve years in power, defined by the concentration of power, unsustainable welfare programmes and fiscal profligacy shrouded under the guise of nationalism, are gone. President Mauricio Macri’s willingness to chart a new course, armed with a robust IMF bailout package, we think, can help revive the Argentinian economy.

What is transpiring in neighbouring Brazil, too, has potential spill over effects on Argentina. If newly elected president Mr Jair Bolsonaro remains true to his word, Brazil is likely to pursue a reformist economic agenda that liberalises the economy from the statist policies that were the mainstay of the Workers’ Party’s rule. If the economic reforms spur growth in Brazil, Argentina should benefit – Brazil is, after all, Argentina’s largest trading partner.

President Bolsonaro’s external agenda is also likely to diverge from that of his predecessors. He has openly criticised China – Brazil’s largest trading partner – and expressed a desire to forge closer ties with the US. If Brazil pivots towards the US, Argentina, as South America’s second largest economy, is likely to be wooed aggressively by China. China’s ambition to dilute the US’s influence in Latina America is an open secret. In China’s bid to acquire influence, Argentina is well placed to attract investments from Beijing.

There are many ways to play this theme be it through the bond market, the currency or the equity market. For the average equity market investor the easiest way to gain exposure is probably through the Global X MSCI Argentina ETF $ ARGT.

Data Driven Dystopia: “The monetization of every move you make

From The New Yorker’s article “How the Artificial-Intelligence Program AlphaZero Mastered Its Games”:

“David Silver, the head of research at DeepMind, has pointed out a seeming paradox at the heart of his company’s recent work with games: the simpler its programs got—from AlphaGo to AlphaGo Zero to AlphaZero—the better they performed. “Maybe one of the principles that we’re after,” he said, in a talk in December of 2017, “is this idea that by doing less, by removing complexity from the algorithm, it enables us to become more general.” By removing the Go knowledge from their Go engine, they made a better Go engine—and, at the same time, an engine that could play shogi and chess.”

As the leading tech companies have ramped up investments in developing their artificial intelligence – or machine learning, if you prefer – capabilities, what has started to become apparent is that data not algorithms hold the keys to success. The companies that collect the most and best data, not the ones that develop the most sophisticated algorithms, are likely to reap the greatest rewards from investing in artificial intelligence.

One, much maligned, ‘wearables’ company that has been tracking and collecting data on its users’ movements for many years, with little to show for it, is Fitbit Inc. $FIT. The company has fallen out of favour amongst investors ever since the launch of the Apple Watch – particularly after Apple’s health and fitness pivot following the launch of Series 2.

We think $FIT is a viable acquisition target for Amazon.

Amazon, through the Echo, is already collecting data at home and could close the data loop with an acquisition of $FIT. $FIT’s wrist bands and watches can be integrated with Alexa and with a little investment be upgraded to better compete with the Apple Watch. Moreover, Amazon could feature $FIT’s products front and centre on the most valuable retail real estate in the world – Amazon’s homepage.

 

Books

Five We Have Read and Recommend

  1. Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economics and Political Relationships by Peter Bernholz
  2. Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent by Edward Luce
  3. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke
  4. The Art of Execution: How the world’s best investors get it wrong and still make millions by Lee Freeman-Shor
  5. Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought by Andrew W. Lo

Five from Our 2019 Reading List

  1. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze
  2. The Volatility Machine: Emerging Economies and the Threat of Financial Collapse by Michael Pettis
  3. Efficiently Inefficient: How Smart Money Invests and Market Prices Are Determined by Lasse Heje Pedersen
  4. The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
  5. These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

 

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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. 

Charts and Updates

 

Zé Pequeno: Can you read?

Gang Member: I can read only the pictures.”

City of God (2002) directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund

 

“Yet in opinions look not always back,–
Your wake is nothing, mind the coming track;
Leave what you’ve done for what you have to do;
Don’t be “consistent,” but be simply true.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. 

 

This week’s piece is  lighter in words, heavier in charts. As we begin looking forward to 2019 we share some recent market developments that have caught our attention. For now there are more questions and observations than there are answers and actions.

 

Before getting to the charts, a few updates related to topics we have written about in the recent past.

 

Updates

 

1. President Trump has named US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to lead trade negotiations with China following the post-G20 meeting between President Trump and President Xi

 

From the Wall Street Journal:

 

President Trump named a China hard-liner to lead negotiations with Beijing, indicating the U.S. will pursue a tough stance in what is bound to be contentious talks over a trade dispute that has sent shivers through global markets.

 

Mr. Trump informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of his choice of Robert Lighthizer at their Saturday meeting in Buenos Aires, people familiar with the discussions said, pointing several times to the U.S. Trade Representative as the person who will face off with Beijing’s diplomats and using Mr. Lighthizer’s charts in presentations.

 

The remarks came as a surprise to a Chinese leadership that had maneuvered for months to deal with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had led initial rounds of talks, but failed to resolve the dispute over the past year.

 

The post-G20 niceties did not last very long and the positive developments of trade negotiations have unravelled rather quickly. The appointment of China hawk Robert E. Lighthizer to lead negotiations, we think, is a clear signal of intent by the Trump Administration – there is unlikely to be a breakthrough in US-Chinese trade talks any time soon.

 

Matters have deteriorated even further with arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei Technologies’s chief financial officer and daughter of the company’s founder, by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the request of the US. US authorities allege that Ms. Meng and Huawei violated economic sanctions placed on Iran and have submitted an extradition request for Ms. Meng.

 

The arrest aside, if the US government moves to sanction Huawei, it will be hurting US businesses such as Micron, Microsoft and Qualcomm, which count Huawei amongst their major customers. It will not be the first time the Trump Administration directly harms US corporate interests in its bid to punish China for the violation of sanctions or for intellectual property theft.

 

In October, the US Commerce Department placed export controls on American companies to restrict them from selling software and technology goods to Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit. Fujian Jinhua is a semiconductor startup supported by the Chinese government as part of the efforts to develop its own semiconductor industry.

 

Investors should avoid investing in American B2B technology, aerospace and defense companies with significant commercial interests in China. 

 

2. Intel: The next company to be “Amazoned”?

From Bloomberg (emphasis added):

 

Amazon.com Inc. has taken a big step toward reducing reliance on Intel Corp. for a critical component of its cloud-computing service.

 

The largest cloud company unveiled its own server processors late Monday and said the Graviton chips will support new versions of its main EC2 cloud-computing service. Until now, Amazon — and other big cloud operators — had almost exclusively used Intel Xeon chips.

[…]

 

Intel processors run more than 98 per cent of the world’s servers, and owners of massive data centers such as Amazon, Microsoft Corp. and Google have become some of its biggest customers. While these internet giants have driven down the price of most components by doing a lot of their own engineering, Intel’s Xeon chips have resisted that pressure. The average selling price of these processors has risen over time, something that almost never happens in the electronic industry.

 

As Jeff Bezo’s famously said: “Your margin is my opportunity.”

 

Charts

 

1.  Watch the 48 month moving average of gold

The logarithmic chart of the price of gold:

XAU 48M

 

Gold has been flirting with its 48-month moving average for more than 18 months. If it can get above the moving average and gather some momentum. We would be buyers of gold.

 

In the second panel in the chart below, we can see, using the 48-month rate of change in the price of gold, the barbarous relic has failed to gather momentum in recent months. A step up (down) in momentum would be quite bullish (bearish) given the relative narrowness of the trading range over the last three years.

 

XAU ROC.png

 

Gold has once again started out performing the broader commodity complex (the chart below is the price of gold divided by the CRB spot commodity index) after under performing during the first half of the year.

 

Over the longer-term, we can see the start of gold’s out performance over the commodity index dates back to late 2005 and the trend remains in favour of gold for now.

 

XAU CRB

 

2. The US dollar is losing momentum despite its strength

The dollar index $DXY is right above its 48-month moving average, having intermittently broken below it at the start of the year. The greenback, however, is losing momentum (second panel) with the 48-month rate of change making lower highs despite the continued strength in the dollar.

 

DXY ROC.png

 

3.  Emerging markets have been out performing the S&P 500 since early October

Emerging markets hit their recent lows at the end of October (top panel) but started outperforming the S&P 500 starting early October (bottom panel).

 

Coincidentally, emerging market out performance started soon after the deadline for tax-breaks for pension contributions by US corporations passed. Pension contributions made through mid-September of this year were deductible from income on tax returns being filed for 2017 — when the US corporate tax rate was still 35 per cent as compared to the 21 per cent in 2018. This one-time incentive encouraged US corporations to bring forward pension plan contributions and is likely to have had an out sized impact on US assets relative to non-US assets.

 

MXEF.png

 

Whilst not definitive by any means, the gold, US dollar and emerging markets charts, we think, appear to be sending the same message: weaker dollar, stronger commodities and non-US markets out performance relative to US markets.

 

4. Despite all the bad news, China too has stopped under performing the US

The signal from China is the weakest but follow through has the potential to be the strongest across emerging markets.

 

Chinese markets have remained above mid-October lows despite all the bad news in recent weeks. If the lows hold, we suspect China is likely to outperform the US in 2019.

 

SHCOMP.png

 

5. In the US, it is time to sell the rallies in growth to re-balance to value

The below chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 Growth Index to the S&P 500 Value Index. Given the ratios distance from its 36-month moving average, portfolios should gradually be shifting away from growth to value over the course of 2019.

 

SPG.png

 

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.

US vs. Europe: A Closer Look at US Outperformance

 “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” – Margaret Thatcher

“In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” – Philip Roth, American novelist and modern literary great

MSCI Europe Index vs. S&P 500 Index – Total Return in USD Indices TRSource: Bloomberg

In the ten years since the global financial crisis, European stocks have underperformed US stocks by a considerable margin.

In the first three years following the global financial crisis, the performance of the two markets were not too dissimilar. For the period commencing end of November 2008 through October 2011, the MSCI Europe and S&P 500 indices generated total returns of 46 and 53 per cent in US dollar terms, respectively.

Since late 2011, however, investors in European stocks have been left frustrated all the while investors in US stocks have enjoyed a long-running bull market. From 29 October 2011 through 20 November 2018, the MSCI Europe Index has generated a total return of 35.8 per cent in US dollar terms – 102.8 per cent less than the total return of the S&P 500 Index for the same period.

Despite, the strong outperformance of US equity markets relative to European equity markets, European stocks have been more expensive, on a trailing 12 month price-to-earnings basis, for the majority of the time since late 2011. Only since late 2017 have European equities become cheaper than US equities on a trailing 12 month price-to-earnings basis.

MSCI Europe vs. S&P500: Trailing 12 Month Price-to-Earnings RatioIndices PESource: Bloomberg

At an index level and since the global financial crisis, US companies have grown revenues and earnings at a faster clip than their European companies.

MSCI Europe vs. S&P500: Revenue Growth RevenueSource: Bloomberg

MSCI Europe vs. S&P500: Earnings Growth EarningsSource: Bloomberg

In terms of annual performance, European markets have outperformed US markets in three out of the nine calendar years since the global financial crisis: 2009, 2012, and 2017. Notably, in 2009 and 2017, European companies’ year-over-year earnings growth rates were far superior to those of American companies. While outperformance in 2012, can be attributed to Signor Draghi uttering those famous words that brought Europe back from the brink: “Whatever it takes”.

European earnings also outpaced US earnings during the years 2010 and 2013, yet US stocks outperformed European stocks. The year 2010 was, of course, when the sovereign debt crisis engulfed the peripheral members – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – of the European Monetary Union. While in 2013, although European equities underperformed US equities , it was still a very good year for Europe with the MSCI Europe Index generating a total return of around 23 per cent in US dollar terms versus around 28 per cent for the S&P 500 Index.

Digging a little deeper we compare the performance between US and European markets on a sector-by-sector basis, using the Global Investment Classification Standards (GICS) level 1 classifications.

US vs. Europe: 5- and 10-Year Sector Level Total Returns (USD) Sectors TR

Source: Bloomberg

Note: Periods ending 31 Oct 2018, calculated using monthly data, and excludes real estate

For both the 5- and 10-year periods for every sector except energy, US performance has been superior to European performance – we have excluded real estate as we were unable to gather clean data for the sector.

The US energy sector has lagged the European energy sector largely due to the much higher number of listed shale oil companies in the US. Shale oil plays witnessed significantly larger drawdowns as compared to blue chip oil producers following the sharp drop in oil prices in late 2014.

For the 10-year period ended 31 October 2018, the greatest difference in performance between the two markets comes from the consumer discretionary and information technology sectors. The consumer discretionary sector includes Amazon and used to include Netflix – a significant portion of US consumer discretionary outperformance can be attributed to Amazon and Netflix. While the outperformance of the American information technology sector has been broader than that of the consumer discretionary sector, a handful of stocks still have had an outsized impact on US outperformance. These stocks are namely Apple, Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com, Microsoft and Nvidia. (Note: In January 2018 the industry classification of Google, Facebook, and Netflix was changed to communication services).

The most comparable performance between the two markets, for the 10-year period, comes from the energy, materials, consumer staples and industrial sectors.

US vs. Europe: 5-Year Sector Level Revenue and Earnings Growth Sectors Rev Earnings

Source: Bloomberg

The above table details the 5 year (4-years for communication services) revenue and earnings growth by sector for US and European stocks.

Notably, in the US, net margins expanded from 2012 through 2017 across all sectors except energy. While in Europe, margins expanded for six sectors and declined for three – margins declined for the consumer discretionary, utilities and communication services sectors.

Median sector level revenue growth in the US for the five-year period was 20.96 per cent versus -2.26 per cent in Europe. (Earnings level comparisons are not meaningful in our opinion due to the artificially high earnings growth in certain sectors in Europe due to write-downs / exceptional circumstances in 2012 that understate earnings at the beginning of the period.)

Investment Perspective

The underperformance of European equities relative to US equities over the last five- and ten-years can predominantly be explained by fundamental factors. The challenge at this juncture, however, becomes that of identifying scenarios under which European stocks would arrest this trend of underperformance and begin outperforming the US stocks on a prolonged basis. We outline three such scenarios below.

  1. If the next ten years are not like the last ten years

If we assume, simplistically and without trying to predict how, that the next ten years will be unlike the last ten years then there should be a preference for non-US stocks over US stocks in general.

In capital markets dominated by passive allocations to market capitalisation weighted indices, the main drawback is that the allocation to ‘go-go’ stocks is at its highest when they are at their peak relative to other stocks in the indices.

With respect to the S&P 500 Index, the information technology, healthcare, financials, communication services and consumer discretionary sectors have gone from representing 58 per cent of the index at the start of 2009 to almost 70 per cent today. And within these sectors the increase in allocation to technology and technology related stocks has been even more pronounced.

S&P 500 Index Allocation by GICS Level 1SPXSource: Bloomberg

The change in sector allocation for US indices has been far more prominent than it has been for European indices – simply because the dispersion in performance between sectors has been much greater in the US. Over the last ten-years the top performing sector in the S&P 500 Index has outperformed the median sector by almost 260 per cent. In comparison, the total return differential between the best performing and median sectors is 63 per cent for the MSCI Europe Index.

MSCI Europe Index Allocation by GICS Level 1 MSCIESource: Bloomberg

  1. Labour not capital is rewarded

“The defining characteristic of economics in the 1950s is that the country got rich by making the poor less poor.

Average wages doubled from 1940 to 1948, then doubled again by 1963.

And those gains focused on those who had been left behind for decades before. The gap between rich and poor narrowed by an extraordinary amount.”

– Excerpt from Morgan Housel’s piece How This All Happened:

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, unemployment levels shot up across the world. The global economy has spent the last ten-years healing from the damage wrought by the financial crisis. Slack in the labour market has been slow to dissipate and wages have remained stubbornly stagnant.

The corollary of the abundance of labour has been capital owners benefiting at the expense of labour.

As the global economy has healed, unemployment levels have gradually declined and wage pressures have slowly emerged. The European labour market, however, has much more slack than the US labour market – where unemployment levels are reaching twenty year lows and wage pressures are much more significant.

If demand for labour picks up globally, Europe has much more room to reduce unemployment levels before wages have to pick up meaningfully. Whereas the US has limited, if any, room for unemployment levels to drop lower without a meaningful increase in wage inflation. Therefore, Europe has greater flexibility to facilitate an improvement in household earnings without it impacting profit margins.

  1. Capital investment / infrastructure spending pick ups

US corporations have been far savvier capital allocators than their transatlantic counterparts – they have reduced equity, through share buy backs, and increased leverage during a time when servicing debt has never been easier. The behaviour of US corporations has been facilitated not only by record low interest rates but also by a limited need for capital investment – a deflationary environment incentivises the postponement of capital investment.

If capital investment picks up globally – motivated by inflation, infrastructure development led diplomacy, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or a need to reconfigure global supply chains due to trade wars – European indices, with their much greater weighting to the industrial and materials sectors, are better placed to outperform the more technology leaning US indices in such a scenario.

Moreover, increasing capital investment may spur demand for credit in Europe and support the much maligned European financial services sector, which also happens to be the sector with the highest allocation in the MSCI Europe Index.

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.

Late Cycle Signals and Yield Curve Dynamics

 

“Everything turns in circles and spirals with the cosmic heart until infinity. Everything has a vibration that spirals inward or outward — and everything turns together in the same direction at the same time. This vibration keeps going: it becomes born and expands or closes and destructs — only to repeat the cycle again in opposite current. Like a lotus, it opens or closes, dies and is born again. Such is also the story of the sun and moon, of me and you. Nothing truly dies. All energy simply transforms.” – Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem by Suzy Kassem

 

“We say that flowers return every spring, but that is a lie. It is true that the world is renewed. It is also true that that renewal comes at a price, for even if the flower grows from an ancient vine, the flowers of spring are themselves new to the world, untried and untested.

 

The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid.

 

And as it is for spring flowers, so it is for us.” – The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham

 

“There are constant cycles in history. There is loss, but it is always followed by regeneration. The tales of our elders who remember such cycles are very important to us now.” – Carmen Agra Deedy

 

Late Cycle Signals

 

Each business cycle is unique. Certain patterns, however, have tended to repeat across business cycles with the ebbs and flows in the level of economic activity.

The late stage of the business cycle is often characterised by an overheated economy, restrictive monetary policy, tight credit markets, low unemployment rates and peaking corporate profit margins.  These are not the types of signals that form part of our discussion on the late cycle this week. Instead we focus on behavioural clues from the financial services and investment management sector that signal that we may have potentially entered the late stage of the business cycle – often the most rewarding, but also the most precarious, phase of bull market for investors.

 

1. Liquidity events for investors in ride hailing services companies

 

Few opportunities have captured the imagination of venture capital investors over the last decade as the one represented by ride hailing services companies such as Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing and Grab.

 

 

 

  • Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent to Uber and valued at US dollars 56 billion during its last fundraising, is the most valuable start-up on the Mainland and counts Apple, Softbank and Uber amongst its shareholders. The start-up is estimated to have raised US dollars 20.6 billion in funding over 17 rounds of financing.

 

  • Southeast Asia’s leading ride hailing services company, Grab, was valued at over US dollars 10 billion in a fundraising round in June this year and has received US dollars 1 billion in funding from Toyota.

 

With such eye-popping valuations it should come as no surprise that most, if not all, of the leading ride hailing companies the world over are weighing up potential liquidity events, be it an initial public offering or a trade sale to larger competitors or strategic investors. The investors in these companies are undoubtedly eager to convert their paper profits into realised gains in the form of cold hard cash.

 

  • Lyft has hired JP Morgan to lead its IPO and is aiming to beat its much larger rival, Uber, in becoming the first ride hailing services company to be publicly listed

 

  • Uber has reportedly received proposals from Wall Street valuing the company as high as US dollars 120 billion – almost 67 per cent higher than the valuation at its last round of fundraising

 

  • Didi Chuxing is reportedly weighing up the possibility of a public offering in 2019

 

  • Careem Networks, the Middle East’s leading ride hailing services company, and Uber are rumoured to be in talks for a possible merger or an outright acquisition of the Middle Eastern business by Uber. Careem was valued at US dollars 1 billion during a fundraising round in December 2016. Bloomberg reported in September that the acquisition of Careem by Uber would value it between US dollars 2 to 2.5 billion – a 100 to 150 per cent increase in less than 24 months.

 

In 2007, The Blackstone Group, the leading alternative asset management firm, successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange, selling a 12.3 per cent stake in return for  US dollars 4.13 billion. Blackstone’s listing was, at the time, the largest US IPO since 2002.

Although Blackstone was able to successfully list, many of its rivals – including Apollo Global Management, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and the Carlyle Group – missed the opportunity to float ahead of the global financial crisis and had to shelve their plans and wait for a more conducive environment.

We worry that a similar fate awaits the riding hailing services industry, where it becomes a case of one IPO and done and the remaining companies’ plans are delayed by an abrupt end to the current iteration of the US equity bull market.

 

 

2. INVESCO to buy OppenheimerFunds

 

INVESCO, the independent investment company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, this week agreed to buy rival Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance’s OppenheimerFunds unit for US dollars 5.7 billion. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Invesco will pay for the deal with 81.9 million common shares and another $4 billion in preferred shares, making MassMutual the firm’s largest stockholder. Including OppenheimerFunds, Invesco will manage more than $1.2 trillion in assets.”

In the summer of 2009, BlackRock acquired Barclays Global Investors, including its highly coveted iShares franchise, for US dollars 13.5 billion and created a combined entity with, at the time, approximately US dollars 2.7 trillion of assets under management.

BlackRock’s timing was impeccable: a near decade long equity bull market ensued and, even more importantly for BlackRock, the company put itself in the prime position to reap the rewards of the rise of passive investing.

The rationale for the OppenheimerFunds acquisition according to the Wall Street Journal paraphrasing INVESCO CEO Martin Flanagan is to: “strengthen Invesco’s position in some businesses that have been proven resilient to the move toward passive investing, including international and emerging-markets stock funds.”

We are curious to see if INVESCO’s decision today turns out to be as flawed as BlackRock’s decision in 2009 was impeccable.

 

3. Middle market alternative asset managers selling stakes

 

In recent years, seemingly successful, mid-sized alternative asset management firms have started selling equity stakes to their much larger, more established competitors such as Neuberger Berman, The Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group.

Dyal Capital, a unit of Neuberger Berman, has closed 30 or more transactions acquiring stakes in alternative asset managers over the last 2 to 3 years, including a strategic investment into Silver Lake Partners. Dyal presently manages three funds with US dollars 9 billion in assets under management and is set to complete fundraising over 5 billion for a fourth fund.

The most recent of such sales comes from New Mountain Capital, which manages private equity, public equity and credit funds with more than US dollars 20 billion in assets under management. The company has reportedly sold a 9 per cent stake to Blackstone Strategic Capital Holdings.

We wonder: what are the chances that highly successful private equity and alternative investment firms would sell their stakes at anything but close to peak valuations?

 

Yield Curve Dynamics

 

Given that we have discussed late cycle signals above, we wanted to touch upon the historical dynamics of the Treasury yield curve when it has either gone (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping.

Prior to sharing our findings, we wanted to share some analysis for the period starting 1959 and ending 1984 from Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World (1985) by Henry Kaufman:

 

“If the risk in investing in the long market is still great immediately following the point of maximum inversion, when does the long market offer the best opportunity? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine the swings in the U.S. Government securities yield curve during the past quarter century.

These swings are:

 

  1. from extreme negative (short rates above long) to flat
  2. from flat to extreme positive (long rates above short)
  3. from extreme positive to flat
  4. from flat to extreme negative

 

The results are as follows:

 

1. When the yield curve for government securities swung from extreme negative to flat, long yields actually increased with one exception – the 1980 cycle. In one of these cycles, there was greater rise in long yields than in short rates. In all other instances, however, short rates fell while long yields rose.

 

2. When the yield curve moved from flat to extreme positive, with long yields going above short, in all cycles long yields fell in conjunction with a more sizable drop in short rates.

 

3. The swing from extreme positive to flat can be quite dangerous in the long bond sector. In the four complete cycles… yield increases average 104 basis points for long-term issues, ranging from 40 to 220 basis points.

 

4. The most dangerous period of all for investors in long bonds, however, occurs when the yield curve moves from flat to extremely negative, with short rates moving up above long.”

 

Interestingly, the period around the time of publishing of Mr Kaufman’s book was the exception for how the long end of the curve reacted when the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat. And Mr Kaufman speculated in his book if the long-running bond bear market was over or not. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the bond bear market had indeed ended during the early 1980s.

For the period from 1980 till date and with respect to cycles where the yield curve went either (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping, we make the following observations (based on the yield differential between 2 and 10 year Treasury securities):

 

  1. 1980 – 1982: the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 1988 – 1992: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2000 – 2003: from inverted to flat and then to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2005 – 2010: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

In recent weeks we have witnessed the yield curve correct its flattening trend due to a sell-off at the long-end. The yield curve has steepened due to higher long-term yields – a phenomena last witnessed in the 1970s. These are still early days and the recent sell-off at the long-end may be nothing more than a blip. If, however, the yield curve continues to steepen due to increasing long-term yields it would be an ominous sign for bond bulls.

Much like Mr Kaufman speculated that the bond bear market may have ended in the early 1980s, the recent shifts in the Treasury yield curve and the forthcoming supply of US Treasury securities have us wondering if the multi-decade bond bull market is over.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trade Wars: Clearing the Way for a War of Attrition

 

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy

 

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

“Only an idiot tries to fight a war on two fronts, and only a madman tries to fight one on three.” – David Eddings, American novelist

 

A few updates relating to themes and topics we have written about in the recent past before we get to this week’s piece.

1. Two out of three companies we highlighted as potential value plays in Searching for Value in Retail in June have now announced that they are evaluating opportunities to go private.

The most recent of the announcements comes from Barnes & Noble $BKS which said on Wednesday that it is reviewing several offers to take the bookstore chain private. We are not surprised by this development and had expected as much when we wrote the following in June:

“Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 10x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 500 million, $BKS remains a potential target for even the smallest of activist investors or private equity funds.”

The other company we discussed in the same piece was GameStop $GME, which at the start of September announced that it is engaged in discussions with third parties regarding a possible transaction to take the company private.

 

2. Following-up on Trucking: High Freight Rates and Record Truck Orders, orders for Class 8 semi-trucks increased 92 per cent year-over-year in September. Last month capped the highest ever recorded quarterly sales of big rigs in North America.

American trucking companies continue to struggle with tight capacity at the same time demand from the freight market remains strong.

We continue to play this theme through a long position in Allison Transmission $ALSN.

 

3. When the tech bubble popped at the start of the millennium, between 2001 and 2003, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100 indices declined by 31.3 and 57.9 per cent on a total return basis, respectively. During the same period, Cameco Corporation $CCJ, the world’s largest uranium miner by market capitalisation, went up by more than 40 per cent.

Yesterday, as we witnessed global equity markets sell-off in response to (depending on who you ask) (i) tightening central bank policies and rising yields raising concerns about economic growth prospects, (ii) the accelerating sell-off in bond markets, or (iii) news that China secretly hacked the world’s leading tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, $CCJ closed up 5 per cent on the day.

Maybe history as Mark Twain said rhymes, maybe it is nothing, or just maybe it is one more sign of the increasing awareness of the nascent bull market underway in uranium.

CCJ.PNG

 

4. With the recent sell-off in the bond market, long-term Treasury yields have surged. Yields on the ten-year treasuries rose as high as 3.23 per cent on Wednesday, recording their highest level since 2011.

Does this level in yields make the long-end of the curve attractive for investors to start to re-allocate some equity exposure to long-term Treasury bonds? We think not.

Our thinking is driven by the following passage from Henry Kaufman’s book Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World in which he considers, in 1985, the possibility that the secular bond bear market may have come to an end:

“[T]wo credit market developments force me to be somewhat uncertain about the secular trend of long-term rates. One is the near-term performance of institutional investors, who in the restructured markets of recent decades generally will not commit funds when long when short rates are rising. The other development is the continued large supply of intermediate and long-term Governments that is likely to be forthcoming during the next period of monetary restraint. There is a fair chance that long yields will stay below their secular peaks, but the certainty of such an event would be greatly advanced with a sharp slowing of U.S. Government bond issuance and with the emergence of intermediate and long-term investment decisions by portfolio managers.”

 

In August this year, the US Treasury announced increases to its issuance of bonds in response to the US government’s rising deficit. This is the very opposite of what Mr Kaufman saw as a catalyst for declining long-term yields in 1985. Moreover, this increased issuance is baked in without the passing of President Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, which has been temporarily shelved. We suspect that Mr Trump’s infrastructure spending ambitions are likely to return to the fore following the upcoming mid-term elections. If an infrastructure spending bill of the scale Mr Trump has alluded to in the past come to pass, US Treasury bond issuance is only likely to further accelerate.

With the window for US companies to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions now having passed, it will be interesting to see if institutional investors now become reluctant to allocate additional capital to long-dated Treasury bonds due to rising short rates.

The relative flatness of the yield curve, in our opinion, certainly does not warrant taking on the duration risk. At the same time, we do not recommend a short position in long-dated treasuries either – the negative carry is simply too costly at current yields.

 

On to this week’s piece where we discuss the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the new trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and its implications on the on-going trade dispute between the US and China.

The many months of the will-they-won’t-they circle of negotiations between the US, Canada and Mexico have culminated in the USMCA, which will replace NAFTA. The new deal may not be as transformative as the Trump Administration would have us believe but nonetheless has some important changes. Some of the salient features of the new agreement include:

 

1. Automobiles produced in the trade bloc will only qualify for zero tariffs if at least 75 per cent of their components are manufactured in Mexico, the US, or Canada versus 62.5 per cent under NAFTA.

The increased local component requirement is, we feel, far more to do with limiting indirect, tariff-free imports of Chinese products into the US than it is to do with promoting auto parts production in North America. The latter, we think, is an added benefit as opposed to the Trump Administration’s end goal.

 

2. Also relating to automobiles, the new agreement calls for 40 to 45 per cent of content to be produced by workers earning wages of at least US dollars 16 an hour by the year 2023.

This provision specifically targets the relative cost competitiveness of Mexico and is likely to appease Trump faithfuls hoping for policies aimed at stemming the flow of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico.

How this provision will be monitored remains anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the USMCA, unlike NAFTA, does allow each country to sanction the others for labour violations that impact trade and therefore it may well become that the threat is used to coerce Mexico into complying with the minimum wage requirements.

 

3. Canada will improve the level of access to its dairy market afforded to the US. It will start with a six-month phase-in that allows US producers up to a 3.6 per cent share of the Canadian dairy market, which translates into approximately US dollars 70 million in increased exports for US farmers.

Canada also agreed to eliminate Class 7 – a Canada-wide domestic policy, creating a lower-priced class of industrial milk. The policy made certain categories of locally produced high-protein milk products cheaper than standard milk products from the US.

 

4. The term of a copyright will be increased from 50 years beyond the life of the author to 70 years beyond the life of the author. This amendment particularly benefits pharmaceutical and technology companies in the US. American companies’ investment in research and development far outstrips that made by their Canadian and Mexican peers

Another notable victory for pharmaceuticals is the increased protection for biologics patents from eight years to ten years.

 

5. NAFTA had an indefinite life; the USMCA will expire in 16 years.

The US, Canada and Mexico will formally review the agreement in six years to determine whether an extension beyond 16 years is warranted or not.

 

The successful conclusion of negotiations between the three countries, subject of course to Congressional approval, combined with the trade related truce declared with the European Union in the summer, should be seen as a victory for US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer.

Earlier this year, in AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote (emphasis added):

 

Mr Lighthizer’s primary objectives with respect to US-Sino trade relations are (1) for China to open up its economy – by removing tariffs and ownership limits – for the benefit of Corporate America and (2) to put an end to Chinese practices that erode the competitive advantages enjoyed by US corporations – practices such as forcing technology transfer as a condition for market access.

Mr Lighthizer’s goals are ambitious. They will require time and patience from everyone – including President Trump, Chinese officials, US allies, and investors. For that, he will need to focus Mr Trump’s attention on China. He will not want the President continuing his thus far ad hoc approach to US trade policy. If NAFTA and other trade deals under negotiations with allies such as South Korea are dealt with swiftly, we would take that as a clear signal that Mr Lighthizer is in control of driving US trade policy.

 

Mr Trump and his band of trade warriors and security hawks are now in the clear to focus their attention on China and deal with the threat it poses to the US’s global economic, military and technological leadership.

 

The Big Hack

On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a ground breaking story confirming the Trump Administration’s fears relating to Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft. The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies details how Chinese spies hacked some of the leading American technology companies, including the likes of Apple and Amazon, and compromised their supply chains.

Bloomberg’s revelations were swiftly followed by strongly worded denials by Apple and Amazon.

The timing of Bloomberg’s report – coming so soon after the USMCA negotiations were completed successfully – regardless of whether the allegations are true or not is notable.

Coincidentally, also on Thursday, Vice President Pence, in a speech at the Hudson Institute, criticised China on a broad range of issues, from Beijing’s supposed meddling in US elections, unfair trade practices, espionage, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

American Corporate Interests

The main hurdle for the Trump Administration in its dispute with China is the US dollars 250 billion invested in China by Corporate America.

We see the recent moves by the Administration in upping the ante on China, by disseminating the theft and espionage narrative through the media and new rounds of tariffs, as a means to provoke Corporate America to begin reengineering its supply chains away from China. Whether this happens, and at what the cost will be, remains to be seen.

 

War of Attrition

We expect US-China tensions to continue to escalate especially as we draw closer to mid-term election. And the Trump Administration to (threaten to) impose higher tariffs and use other economic and non-economic measures to pressurise the Chinese. The only near term reprieves we see from the US side are (i) a resounding defeat for the Republicans in the mid-term elections (not our base case) or (ii) a re-assessment of priorities by the Trump Administration following the elections.

From the Chinese perspective, the short-term impact of tariffs has partially been offset by the ~10 per cent fall in the renminbi’s value against the US dollar since April. A continued depreciation of the renminbi can further offset the impact of tariffs in the short run – for now this is not our base case.

The other alternative for Beijing is to stimulate its economy through infrastructure and housing investment to offset the external shock à la 2009 and 2015. However, given that Xi Jinping highlighted deleveraging as a key policy objective at the 19th National Congress, we expect fiscal stimulus to remain constrained until is absolutely necessary.

For now our base case is for China to continue to buy time with the President Trump and at the same time for it to work on deepening its economic and political ties in Asia, with its allies and the victims of a weaponised dollar.

 

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.

Consumer Stocks: The Long and Short of it

 

“One of the funny things about the stock market is that every time one person buys, another sells, and both think they are astute.” – William Feather, American publisher and author

 

“When thinking about the future, it is fashionable to be pessimistic. Yet the evidence unequivocally belies such pessimism. Over the past centuries, humanity’s lot has improved dramatically – in the developed world, where it is rather obvious, but also in the developing world, where life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 100 years.” – Bjørn Lomborg, Danish author and President of Copenhagen Consensus Center

 

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favourite day,” said Pooh.

Alexander Alan Milne

 

American consumers are the driving engine of the US economy – consumer spending is estimated to represent about two-thirds of US economic output. If sentiment surveys and retail sales are anything to go by then the American consumer, and by extension the US economy, is in rude health.

Consumer sentiment, as tracked by the University of Michigan, in September jumped to its second-highest level since 2004.

According to the Commerce Department, US retail sales increased by 6.6 per cent year-over-year in August – running well ahead of inflation. Month-on-month growth, however, was disappointing with August sales only increasing 0.1 per cent over July – whilst somewhat unsatisfactory, monthly comparisons tend to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio and are therefore misleading to read into, in our opinion.

Given the robust retail sales and soaring consumer sentiment, one would expect investors to be all bulled up on consumer stocks. Yet, as we compare the level of short interest across the constituents of the S&P500 Index we find that the greatest concentration of shorts (relative to free float) is in consumer related stocks. Investors remain circumspect about the prospects of consumer focused companies due to the potential impact of (i) rising interests on the disposable income of US consumers, and (ii) escalating trade tensions between the US and China on the companies’ supply chains, which in turn could meaningfully increase their cost of goods.

The below chart shows the average level of short interest (as a percentage of free float) by industry group. (Consumer related industry groups are highlighted in yellow.)

 

Average Short Interest across S&P500 Index by Industry Group 1Source: Bloomberg

The above chart shows that all but one of the consumer related industry groups has a higher level of short interest than the average level of short interest for a stock in the S&P500 Index. Moreover, the top three most shorted industry groups are all consumer related.

To further dissect the level of short interest across consumer related stocks, we focus in on the constituents of the SPDR S&P Retail $XRT and iShares US Consumer Goods $IYK exchange traded funds.

 

Retail

The average level of short interest for $XRT constituents is 7.5 per cent of free float. The most shorted sub-industry groups are food retail (something we have written about recently in The Challenge for Food & Beverage Retail Incumbents), automotive retail, and drug retail.

Average Short Interest across $XRT by Sub-Industry Group 2Source: Bloomberg

American department store chain Dillard’s is the most shorted stock amongst the constituents of $XRT with short interest making up a whopping 66.2 per cent of free float. The high level of short interest in the stock has not been rewarded by a declining price this year – the stock has generated a total return of 31.5 per cent year-to-date (as at market close on 19 September, 2018).

A further seven constituents have short interests that exceed 30 per cent of their free float, namely: Overstock.com (45.7 per cent), JC Penney (45.7 per cent), GameStop (39.6 per cent), Camping World Holdings (39.3 per cent), Hibbett Sports (36.4 per cent), The Buckle (36.0 per cent) and Carvana (31.3 per cent). The performance of these stocks has been more mixed with online retail company Overstock.com down 58.8 per cent year-to-date while online car dealer Carvana has generated an astonishing 208.3 per cent return year-to-date.

Many of the heavily shorted retail stocks appear to us to be the companies investors view as the mostly likely to be “Amazoned” in the near term.

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 3Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 4Source: Bloomberg

 

Generally, being short retail stocks has not been rewarding this year. The price return of $XRT is 14.2 per cent year-to-date versus 9.6 per cent year-to-date for the S&P500 Index.

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $XRT Constituents 5Source: Bloomberg

Note: Chart excludes Dillard’s and Caravan

 

Consumer Goods

The average level of short interest for $IYK constituents at 6.2 per cent of free float is lower than for $XRT constituents but still significantly higher than the average for the S&P500 Index. The most shorted sub-industry groups are tires & rubber, home furnishings and housewares & specialties.

Rising mortgage rates and the home buyer affordability index at ten-year lows are the likely reasons for the high levels of short interest in the home furnishings and housewares & specialties segments.

Average Short Interest across $IYK by Sub-Industry Group 6Source: Bloomberg

 

Only two stocks amongst the $IYK constituents have a short interest to free float ratio exceeding 30 per cent: B&G Foods (32.7 per cent) and Under Armour (31.8 per cent).

Generally, being short consumer goods stocks has been more rewarding than being short retail stocks. $IYK is down 3.5 per cent year-to-date. (We wrote about our concerns relating to the consumer goods sector last year in Unbranded: The Risk in Household Consumer Names.)

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 7Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 8Source: Bloomberg

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $IYK Constituents 9Source: Bloomberg

 

 

Investment Perspective

 

There is, we think, no clear playbook when it comes to heavily shorted stocks. Some portfolio managers we have interacted with in the past have occasionally gone long ‘consensus shorts’. Their track record is middling; they have done very well at times but also been burnt badly at other times.

Our approach is to identify heavily shorted stocks where we have a differentiated view on the prospects of near term earnings, valuation or the potential for the company to be acquired and to go long those stocks. (These lessons have been hard learned over time as in the past we have found ourselves far too closely aligned with consensus – as George S. Patton is known to have said: ‘If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’.)

In the instances our positioning and views prove correct, the high level of short interest acts like leverage and greatly amplifies returns in a relatively short amount of time.

Earlier this year we went long Under Armour based on our view that consensus earnings expectations had been deflated to such a degree that there was very little chance for the company to disappoint – with the stock price languishing at multi-year lows we deemed there to be little downside even if the company disappointed. As it transpired, the consensus view was indeed far too bleak and the stock quickly re-rated higher as the company outdid lowball expectations.

More recently, on 24 July, we went long and remain long kitchenware and home furnishings company Williams Sonoma $WSM. Short interest for the stock stands at over 20 per cent of free float, the company generated a best-in-class operating return on invested capital of 18.4 per cent in 2017 and trades at around consensus forward price-to-earnings of 15.4 times.

The retail and consumer goods sectors remain our preferred areas to search for heavily shorted stocks where we may have or develop a differentiated view.

 

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. 

Financial Misery and the Flattening Yield Curve

 

“Every day is a bank account, and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor, we’ve got 24 hours each.” – Christopher Rice, bestselling author

 

“He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal.” – Excerpt from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.” – Bob Hope

 

Before we get to the update, just a quick comment on the New York Times op-ed “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” written by a hitherto anonymous member of the Trump Administration, which we suspect many of you have already read. Our reaction to the piece is that an “elite” politician issuing an editorial in a highbrow broadsheet and talking of resistance against the President is far more likely to stoke populism than to weaken it. Moreover, as angry as President Trump may appear to be about the editorial on television, it gives him just the kind of ammunition he needs to drum up the “us against them” rhetoric and rouse his core supporters to turn up to vote during the forthcoming mid-term elections.

Moving swiftly on, this week we write about US financials.

 

Financials have not had a great year so far. The MSCI US Financials Index is up less than one per cent year-to-date, tracking almost 7 per cent below the performance of the S&P500 Index. While the equivalent financials indices for Japan and Europe are both down more than 11 per cent year to date.

At the beginning of the year, investors and the analyst community appeared to be positive on the prospects for the financial sector. And who can blame them? The Trump Tax Plan had made it through Congress, the global economy was experiencing synchronised growth, progress was being made on slashing the onerous regulations that had been placed on the sector in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and banks’ net interest margins were poised to expand with the Fed expected to continue on its path of rate hikes.

 

So what happened?

We think US financials’ under performance can in large part be explained by the flattening of the US yield curve, which in turn can result in shrinking net interest margins and thus declining earnings. The long-end of the US yield curve has remained stubbornly in place, for example 30-year yields still have not breached 3.25 per cent, and all the while the Fed has continued to hike interest rates and pushed up the short-end of the curve.

 

Why has the long-end not moved?

There are countless reasons given for the flattening of the yield curve. Many of them point to the track record of a flattening and / or inverted yield curve front running a recession and thus conclude with expectations of an imminent recession.

The Fed and its regional banks are divided over the issue. In a note issued by the Fed in June, Don’t Fear the Yield Curve, the authors conclude that the “the near-term forward spread is highly significant; all else being equal, when it falls from its mean level by one standard deviation (about 80 basis points) the probability of recession increases by 35 percentage points. In contrast, the estimated effect of the competing long-term spread on the probability of recession is economically small and not statistically different from zero.”

Atlanta Fed President, Mr Raphael Bostic, and his colleagues on the other hand see “Any inversion of any sort is a sure fire sign of a recession”. While the San Francisco Fed notes that “[T]he recent evolution of the yield curve suggests that recession risk might be rising. Still, the flattening yield curve provides no sign of an impending recession”.

Colour us biased but we think the flattening of the yield curve is less to do with subdued inflation expectations or deteriorating economic prospects in the US and far more to do with (1) taxation and (2) a higher oil price.

US companies have a window of opportunity to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions. Pension contributions made through mid-September of this year can be deducted from income on tax returns being filed for 2017 — when the U.S. corporate tax rate was still 35 per cent as compared to the 21 per cent in 2018. This one-time incentive has encouraged US corporations to bring forward pension plan contributions. New York based Wolfe Research estimates that defined-benefit plan contributions by companies in the Russell 3000 Index may exceed US dollars 90 billion by the mid-September cut-off – US dollars 81 billion higher than their contributions last year.

US Companies making pension plan contributions through mid-September and deducting them from the prior year’s tax return is not new. The difference this year is the tax rate cut and the financial incentive it provides for pulling contributions forward.

Given that a significant portion of assets in most pension plans are invested in long-dated US Treasury securities, the pulled forward contributions have increased demand for 10- and 30-year treasuries and pushed down long-term yields.

Higher oil prices, we think, have also contributed to a flattening of the yield curve.

Oil exporting nations have long been a stable source of demand for US Treasury securities but remained largely absent from the market between late 2014 through 2017 due to the sharp drop in oil prices in late 2014. During this time these nations, particularly those with currencies pegged to the US dollar, have taken drastic steps to cut back government expenditures and restructure their economies to better cope with lower oil prices.

With WTI prices above the price of US dollars 65 per barrel many of the oil exporting nations are now generating surpluses. These surpluses in turn are being recycled into US Treasury securities. The resurgence of this long-standing buyer of US Treasury securities has added to the demand for treasuries and subdued long-term yields.

 

Investment Perspective

 

A question we have been recently asked is: Can the US equity bull market continue with the banking sector continuing to under perform?

Our response is to wait to see how the yield curve evolves after the accelerated demand for treasuries from pension funds goes away. Till then it is very difficult to make a definitive call and for now we consider it prudent to add short positions in individual financials stocks as a portfolio hedge to our overall US equities allocation while also avoiding long positions in the sector.

We have identified three financials stocks that we consider as strong candidates to short.

 

Synovus Financial Corp $SNV 

 

SNV

 

Western Alliance Bancorp $WAL

 

WAL 

Eaton Vance Corp $EV

 

EV

 

 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. 

US Stocks: Long, Short and Interesting

“We often plough so much energy into the big picture, we forget the pixels.” – Silvia Cartwright

As highlighted last week, the focus is on equities this week. Instead of the usual text heavy approach, we do a quick run through of more than a handful of US stocks including some that we already hold, would like to add to our holdings, and consider as candidates for the short side.

The approach we have taken is as thematic as we could possibly make it. Stocks that do not fall under a theme have been left out of today’s piece, we will aim to issue a follow-up piece in the next week or two to cover  individual stocks that we are monitoring but do not neatly fit under a clear investment theme at present.

[Note that our typical investment horizon ranges from 6 to 18 eighteen months for any position. With the caveat that if a stock significantly re-rates higher or lower due to a material development or otherwise, we may exit the position sooner.]

Semiconductors and Fabrication

In AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote:

Investors often talk about the one dominant factor that drives a stock. While we consider capital markets to be more nuanced than that, if semiconductor stocks have a dominant factor it surely has to be supply – it certainly is not trailing price-to-earnings multiples as semiconductor stocks, such as Micron, have been known to crash when trading at very low trailing multiples. Chinese supply in semiconductors is coming.

While we expect the bull market in tech stocks to re-establish itself sometime this year, if there was one area we would avoid it would be semiconductors.

Supply related concerns and forward earnings expectations reaching unreasonable levels have certainly slowed the upward march of semiconductor stocks; and we are seeing weakness across the semiconductors and fabrication spectrum. We consider the following stocks as potential candidates for shorting.

ON Semiconductor $ON

A spin-off of Motorola, $ON supplies semiconductor products across a wide spectrum of end-uses including those for power and signal management, logic, discrete, and custom devices for automotive, communications, computing, consumer, industrial, LED lighting, medical, military/aerospace and power applications.

As per Bloomberg, there are 21 analysts recommendations for the stock, 14 of them buys, an 5 holds and only 2 sells.

If the company disappoints, as we suspect that it will, a flurry of downgrades could well push the stock much lower.

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Cypress $CY

$CY designs and manufactures programmable system-on-chip integrated circuits, USB and touchscreen controllers, and programmable clocks for the automotive, industrial, home automation and appliances, consumer electronics and medical products industries.

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Entegris $ENTG

$ENTG  designs and manufactures contamination control, microenvironment, and specialty materials products and systems to purify, protect, and transport critical materials used in the semiconductor device fabrication process.

As per Bloomberg, the stock current trades almost 30% below the average target price of the 11 analysts that cover the stock.

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Marvell Technology $MRVL

$MRVL designs analog, digital, mixed-signal and microprocessor integrated circuits for storage, telecommunications, cloud storage and consumer markets.

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Retail

According to data released earlier this week, retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5 per cent in July from the prior month, well ahead of economists’ forecasts for a 0.1 per cent increase.

Year-over-year retail sales are up a robust 6.4 per cent, tracking well ahead of inflation, as measured by the consumer price index.

Low unemployment levels combined with the windfall from tax cuts is contributing to strong consumer sentiment and high levels of spending across the majority of retail categories.

We have already witnessed Walmart $WMT reporting  its strongest US sales growth in more than a decade, which sent the stock soaring higher. We have been long $WMT since September last year and at the time of initiating the positioning, we wrote:

$WMT’s revenue growth has flat lined in recent years as wage growth has been trendless. As wage growth picks up, we expect investors to increasingly come to recognise $WMT’s growth potential

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Another retail name we have been long  is Dollar General $DG, we initiated a position in the stock in November last year.

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We still expect further upside in both $WMT and $DG and continue to hold them. Generally, we continue to see strength across the retail complex and may look to add long positions in at least two more stocks.

Burlington Stores $BURL

$BURL operates more than 630 off-price department stores across the US.

The company is expected to report quarterly earnings on 22 Aug with consensus analyst estimates for earnings growth of 33 per cent for the quarter, and 37 per cent growth for the full year. Annual earnings estimates were recently revised upward.

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Dunkin’ Brands Group $DNKN

$DNKN is a restaurant holding company and franchiser of two chains of quick service restaurants: Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins. The company franchises over 20,000 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours in the US and across 60 international markets.

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Payment Processing

Driven by the rise of global e-commerce and internet-connected mobile devices, physical money is being snubbed in favour of cards and other digital payment options. According to Capgemini, global non-cash transactions are expect to grow at CAGR of 10.9 per cent between 2015 and 2020 and reach US dollars 725 billion.

This secular trend toward ever increasing non-cash transactions is in favour of payment processors – both the near ubiquitous players (e.g. VISA and MasterCard) and niche solutions providers.

We added FleetCor Technologies $FLT to our long trade ideas in June.

$FLT is an independent provider of specialised payment products and services to commercial fleets, major oil companies and petroleum markets.

The company’s payment cards provide significant savings and benefits to local fleets, including purchase controls, lower fraud, and specialised reporting. Penetration levels for the payment cards are relatively low at around 50% and there is significant potential for the company to gradually increase penetration levels.

We continue to hold the stock.

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Cardtronics $CATM

We will be looking to add $CATM as a second name under the payment processing theme.

$CATM is the world’s largest non-bank ATM operator and a leading provider of fully integrated ATM and financial kiosk products and services.

The company owns Allpoint, an interbank network connecting ATMs. Allpoint offers surcharge-free transactions at ATMs in its network and operates in the US, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, and Australia.

Allpoint is in the business of supporting any financial institution provide an ATM network to rival the very largest banks. Allpoint today offers more than 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs to over 1,000 financial institutions.

$CATM’s has recently updated its strategy to increasingly focus on expanding Allpoint’s network and penetration amongst financial institutions.

The company’s strategy update has been accompanied by a strong level of insider buying.

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Energy Infrastructure and Mid-Stream Services

In April we issued a piece on the opportunities arising out of the infrastructure bottlenecks in shale patch in the US – Oil: Opportunities Arising from Infrastructure Bottlenecks

At the time we identified two industrial equipment suppliers that could benefit from increased demand originating from the shale patch: SPX Flow $FLOW and Flowserve $FLS. Although the stocks have yet to perform we continue to see significant opportunities in the energy infrastructure space and hold on to them.

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Given the scale of the opportunity in the sector, we think there is a lot of room to add additional names to better play the overall theme.

IDEX Corp $IEX

$IEX is engaged in the development, design, and manufacture of fluid handling systems,  and specialty engineered products.Its products include pumps, clamping systems, flow meters, optical filters, powder processing equipment, hydraulic rescue tools, and fire suppression equipment, are used in a variety of industries.

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UGI Corp $UGI

$UGI is a holding company with interests in propane and butane distribution, natural gas and electric distribution services.

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Targa Resources Corp $TRGP

$TRGP  is one of the largest providers of natural gas and natural gas liquids in the US. The company’s operations are predominantly concentrated on the Gulf Coast, particularly in Texas and Louisiana.

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Digitalisation

Digitisation is the process of converting information from a physical format into a digital one. When this process is utilised to automate and / or enhance business processes and activities, it is referred to ‘digitalisation’.

Digitalisation is concerned with businesses adopting digital technologies to create new revenue streams and / or improving operational processes. Digitalisation is not something new, businesses have been actively engaged in digitalising their operations for decades. The rise of big data, Moore’s law continuing to hold true as it relates to integrated circuits and the ever dropping cost of electronic components, however, has meant that its adoption has started to accelerate in recent years.

Amazon’s supermarket with no checkouts is an example of an outcome when a business fully embraces digitalisation.

We currently do not have any open positions under this theme. We are looking to add longs in two names.

Trimble $TRMB

$TRMB developer of Global Navigation Satellite System receivers, laser rangefinders, unmanned aerial vehicles , inertial navigation systems and software processing tools. The company is best known for its for GPS technology.

The company provides integrated solutions that enable businesses to to collect, manage and analyse complex information.

$TRMB is renowned for having deep domain knowledge of the industries it provides integrated solutions for and generally caters markets ripe for or undergoing rapid digitalisation.

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Zebra Technologies $ZBRA

$ZBRA  is in the business of  enterprise tracking and manufactures and sells marking, tracking and computer printing technologies primarily to the retail, manufacturing supply chain, healthcare and public sectors. Its products include direct thermal and thermal transfer printers, RFID printers and encoders, dye sublimation card printers,  handheld readers and antennas, and card and kiosk printers.

The  company achieved an adjusted EPS of US dollars 2.48 a share in the second quarter, up 64 per cent year-over-year. Sales rose 13 per cent to US dollars 1.012 billion. The company beat consensus estimates of  US dollars 2.23 in EPS and sales US dollars $989 million.

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Software as a Service (SaaS)

We quote from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s seminal essay from 2011:

“This week, Hewlett-Packard (where I am on the board) announced that it is exploring jettisoning its struggling PC business in favor of investing more heavily in software, where it sees better potential for growth. Meanwhile, Google plans to buy up the cellphone handset maker Motorola Mobility. Both moves surprised the tech world. But both moves are also in line with a trend I’ve observed, one that makes me optimistic about the future growth of the American and world economies, despite the recent turmoil in the stock market.

In short, software is eating the world.”

Mr Andreessen’s words ring just as true today as they did back in 2011. Software, specifically SaaS, has continued to proliferate and we have increasingly witnessed the rise of SaaS companies that provide solutions tailored to the needs of individual industries or specific functions within a business.

We are looking to go long two names under this theme.

Paycom $PAYC

$PAYC designs and develops cloud-based human capital management software solutions to support businesses in managing the entire employment life cycle.

$PAYC is a highly disruptive company that is successfully displacing entrenched incumbents across the payroll management space.

Businesses tend to use software to make their employees’ lives easier and to reduce their day-to-day administrative burden. Ask any business, big or small, they will tell you that compliance is a major headache. And there is a lot businesses have to comply with, particularly in the US. Payroll software allows businesses to comply with tax and other payroll related laws. $PAYC started life as a payroll management software provider.

$PAYC’s software solutions have long since evolved beyond payroll management and include applications for talent management, recruitment and general human capital management. Payroll management is serves as the company’s entry product for new customers and the added solutions provide $PAYC with the opportunity to gradually up sell existing customers.

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Veeva Systems $VEEV

$VEEV is a cloud-computing company focused on providing solutions for the sales and marketing functions within the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. The company’s software helps pharmaceutical companies manage customer databases, track drug developments, and organize clinical trials. The software has been widely adopted by ‘Big Pharma’.

The company’s lower-cost and tailored approach has enabled it to upend the on premise software providers such as SAP and Oracle in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors.

While the company maintains its core focus in life sciences, it is gradually broadening its products’ functionality to enable it to up sell existing clients and to potentially enter into new industry segments.

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Plenty of names for you to chew on for this week. If you would like to discuss any of the names in more detail or to talk you through our more detailed investment cases, feel free to reach out to us over email or by direct message on Twitter.

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.