Thursday, 08 November 2018 11:56

Why Buffett likes Apple

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Mark Draper writes a monthly column for the Australian Financial Review - this article was published in September 2018

 

Apple has not only featured in the media for its latest range of iPhones and Watches, but also because it is Warren Buffett’s largest investment.

Warren Buffett owns around 5% of Apple shares (via Berkshire Hathaway) which recently became the first company to crack the US $1 trillion market capitalisation level.  ($AUD 1,400,000,000,000)  To put this in perspective, the market capitalisation of the entire ASX200 is only about 25% higher than that of Apple alone. 

Even though technology is the one of fastest growing sectors globally, local investors are starved of IT opportunities in the ASX200 with technology comprising less than 4% of the index. Local investors with a focus on the domestic market may be missing out on Buffett’s wisdom.

Composition of the ASX 200

Buffett does not have a natural leaning toward technology manufacturers but at his recent annual meeting described Apple as a “very, very special product, which has an enormously widespread ecosystem, and the product is extremely sticky”.  So what is behind the investment case for Apple?

The best place to start is to ask, how many of your friends and family own an iPhone?

The iPhone is important to Apple as its sales represent around 60% of revenue, but what has changed in the last 5 years is the composition of iPhone sales.  Magellan Asset Management estimate that in 2012 around 45% of iPhone sales were to new users.  In 5 years this changed so that only 20% of iPhone sales are to new users, with 80% being sold as replacement handsets to existing users.

For investors, this means more consistent earnings in the form of recurring earnings, rather than one off handset sales.  Magellan portfolio manager, Chris Wheldon describes the iPhone sales figures “as a subscription that Apple users are willing to pay every 2- 3 years, to remain in the Apple ecosystem”.

While revenue from iPhone sales YTD to 30th June 2018 is up an impressive 15%, what is more impressive according to Wheldon is the growth in the ‘Services’ business which is up 27% YTD.  The Services business comprises of revenue from digital content and services including the App Store, Apple Music, iCloud, Apple Care and Apple Pay.  Apple Music is now the most popular paid streaming service in the United States. 

The Services business was the second largest division within Apple contributing over $27bn in revenue for the 9 months to 30th June 2018, which represents almost 15% of total revenue.

The Services business is largely recurring in nature and its strength relies on the number of Apple devices connected to the ‘ecosystem’.  Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in January 2018 that its active installed base of devices had reached 1.3bn, which includes iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watches. 

The ‘Wearables’ division which includes products like Airpods and Apple Watch is also growing strongly.  In the last quarter of 2017, for the first time, Apple shipped more Apple watches than the entire Swiss Watch Industry, making Apple the largest watch maker in the world.

Wheldon believes the market may not yet fully appreciate the quantum and growth in the Services and Wearables businesses which could account for 35% of the total business in the future.

The technology bears would point to the high valuations of the dot.com boom at the turn of the century.  To this end it is interesting to note that Apple currently trades on a forward looking 2019 price earnings ratio of around 16 (less if adjusted for cash holding), which for a business whose earnings are growing at a double digit rate does not seem excessive.

Investors can invest in Apple through many avenues, either by owning it directly or via listed invested companies/trusts from leading managers including Magellan, Platinum and Montgomery Investments.  Some ETF’s also provide an entry point to technology companies.

Using technology is second nature in our everyday lives, so why wouldn’t investors make it second nature to their investment strategy as Warren Buffett has done?

Thursday, 08 November 2018 11:35

Bank Reporting Season scorecoard FY 2018

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Article written by Hugh Dive - Atlas Funds Management and reproduced with permission from Hugh

On Monday this week, Westpac ruled off the 2018 financial year profit results for the Australian banks. In the words of Queen Elizabeth, 2018 could only be described as an annus horribilis for Australian banks and their investors. The CEO of one major bank lost his job, the revelations of the Financial Services Royal Commission resulted in remediation provisions and a spike in legal fees (which should see new sports cars and houses at Palm Beach for sections of the legal community this Christmas), fines were levied and credit growth slowed. An environment of fear has weighed on bank share prices.

There are common themes emerging from the banks in the 2018 reporting season. We will differentiate between the major trading banks and hand out our reporting season awards to the financial intermediaries that grease the wheels of Australian capitalism.

Bank reporting season scorecard October 2018

Click to enlarge

Scaling back the empire

The main theme from 2018 was the breaking down of the allfinanz model that the banks built up carefully over the past 30 years. Allfinanz or bancassurance refers to the business model where one financial organisation combines banking, insurance and financial services such as financial planning to provide a financial supermarket for their customers. This is based on the somewhat false assumption that the bank’s employees can efficiently cross-sell different financial products to their existing customers at a lower cost than if this was done by separate financial institutions. It creates some of the conflicts of interest that have been on display at the Royal Commission.

Over the past year, the Commonwealth Bank sold its life insurance business to AIA and the asset management business a week ago to Mitsubishi UFJ for a very solid price. Similarly, ANZ exited both its wealth management and life insurance businesses. NAB also announced plans to sell MLC by 2019. Additionally, Westpac has reduced its stake in BT Investment Management (now renamed as the Pendal Group). These moves acknowledge that creating vertically-integrated financial supermarkets was a mistake. If adverse rulings are made on vertical integration in the Royal Commission’s Final Report, most of the banks will have already made moves to simplify their businesses, so shareholders won’t be exposed to significant ‘fire sales’ of assets by motivated sellers.

Profit growth hit by remediation

Across the sector, profit growth was subdued in 2018 as the banks grappled with slowing credit growth, the application of tighter lending standards, customer remediation and legal costs. The table above looks at the growth in cash earnings inclusive of these costs. Whilst many companies encourage investors to look through these charges, ultimately these are real costs that impact the profits available to shareholders, and in aggregate the four banks have set aside $1.3 billion to cover customer remediation.

Westpac reported the strongest cash earnings by cost control, very low bad debts and a lower level of customer remediation charges. NAB brought up the rear due to both $755 million in restructuring costs and $435 million in customer remediation charges.

Bad debts stay low

A big feature of the 2018 results for the banks has been the ongoing decline in bad debts. Falling bad debts boost bank profitability, as loans are priced assuming that a certain percentage of borrowers will be unable to repay. Additionally, declining bad debt charges year on year creates the impression of profit growth even in a situation where a bank writes the same amount of loans at the same margin. Bad debts fell further in 2018, as some previously stressed or non-performing loans were paid off or returned to making interest payments. The main factors causing this fall has been the low unemployment rate and a near absence of major corporate collapses over the past 12 months.

Westpac and Commonwealth Bank both get the gold stars with very small impairment charges courtesy of their higher weight to housing loans in their loan book. Historically home loans have attracted the lowest level of defaults.

Shareholder returns hold as dividends steady

Across the sector, dividend growth has essentially stopped, with Commonwealth Bank providing the only increase, two cents, over 2017. In an environment where loan growth is slowing, provisions rising and the management teams regularly appearing either in front of the Royal Commission or before our political masters in Canberra, it would be imprudent for the banks to raise dividends.

In 2018, dividends were maintained across the banks, which was a surprise in the case of NAB. It paid $1.98 in dividends on diluted cash earnings per share of only $2.02, a very high payout ratio and not a sustainable situation given that the bank’s capital ratio is below the APRA target of 10.5%.

Looking ahead, dividend growth is likely to be subdued in 2019, as the banks digest the outcome from the Royal Commission. ANZ and Commonwealth Bank shareholders can expect capital returns in the form of share buy-backs to offset the dilution from asset sales. In 2018, ANZ bought back $1.9 billion of its own stock, with an additional $1.1 billion due over the next six months. The major Australian banks in aggregate are currently sitting on a grossed-up yield (including franking credits) of 9.4%, an attractive alternative to term deposits.

Interest margins

The banks’ net interest margins [(Interest Received – Interest Paid) divided by Average Invested Assets] in aggregate declined in 2018, reflecting higher wholesale funding costs and borrowers switching from interest only (which attracts a higher rate) to principal and interest mortgages. This switching was done in response to regulator concerns about an overheated residential property market, and in particular the growth in interest-only loans to property investors. Looking ahead to 2019, margins should recover courtesy of a rate rise of around 0.15% announced in mid-September. All the banks put through a similar rate rise with the exception of NAB, and it will be interesting to see whether NAB increases its market share as a result of this or follows suit at a later date.

Total returns including share prices

All the banks have delivered negative absolute returns, also trailing the S&P/ASX200 which eked out a small gain of 0.24%. The uncertainty around the outcomes from the Royal Commission, rising compliance costs and slowing credit growth has weighed on their share prices. Westpac has been the worst-performing bank, mainly due to concerns about lending standards in the $400 billion mortgage book, though we are yet to see any adverse evidence in the form of rising bad debts.

– No star given –

Our overall view of the future

It is hard to be a bank investor at the moment and some fund managers are advocating avoiding them all together.

We view that at current prices, investors are being paid an attractive dividend yield to own solid businesses that have a long history of finding ways to grow earnings and navigate political minefields. Looking at the wider Australian market, the banks look relatively cheap, are well capitalised and unlike other income stocks such as Telstra, should have little difficulty maintaining their high fully-franked dividends. Additionally, the share prices of ANZ and Commonwealth Bank will see the benefit of share buy-backs, as the proceeds from the sales of non-core assets are received. The key bank overweight positions in the Maxim Atlas Core Equity Portfolio are Westpac, ANZ and Macquarie Bank.

Hugh Dive is Chief Investment Officer of Atlas Funds Management. This article is for general information only and does not consider the circumstances of any investor

Wednesday, 10 October 2018 20:35

Just how far will property prices fall

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Written by Roger Montgomery (CEO Montgomery Investments)

 

For the last two years, we were feeling rather lonely suggesting that the property boom would end abruptly. Today, property prices are falling, and we are no longer a lone voice. The question is: how much further will they fall?

A number of changes are contributing to the declines in property prices.

For a start, rising bank fund costs are leading to higher mortgage rates. Then there’s a tighter definition of responsible lending following the Royal Commission – which will mean fewer individuals qualifying for a loan to buy property, and those that do get a loan will receive less. And on top of that, there’s been the introduction of lower debt-to-income limits and a wave of borrowers being migrated from interest-only loans – which hit a peak of $159 billion in 2015 – to principal and interest.

These structural changes will continue to impact property prices for some time.

One indication that prices might fall further than the 10 to 15 per cent suggested by some of my fund manager friends, is recent research produced by UBS that suggests the sanguine attitude held by borrowers towards their loans is misplaced. The research reveals a widespread lack of knowledge exists among borrowers about the terms of their interest-only loans and the extent of the increase in repayments that will need to be made when they are moved onto principal and interest.

UBS has uncovered some startling facts. When asked why borrowers took out an interest only mortgage, 18 per cent responded they “can’t afford to pay P&I”, 11 per cent said they expected house prices to rise and to sell the property before the interest only period expires and 44 per cent noted it gave them more financial flexibility. One can safely assume some proportion of the 44 per cent were also in the can’t afford P&I camp.

When combined, there are a substantial number of borrowers who have taken out an interest-only loan for the wrong reasons.

Moreover, many of these borrowers don’t understand the product they have been sold. Among owner-occupiers only 48 per cent understand their interest-only term expires within five years, which is the maximum term typically offered. Meanwhile 18 per cent observed they don’t know when their term expires and 8 per cent believe their interest-only term will last more than 15 years. A 15-year interest-only loan doesn’t exist.

The serious problem, however, is not that many borrowers will be shocked by how quickly their life will change, it is how much it will change.

34 per cent of all interest-only borrowers stated they “don’t know” how much repayments will rise. Meanwhile, 53 per cent expect repayments to rise up to 30 per cent and only 13 per cent of respondents indicated they expect their mortgage repayments to rise more than 30 per cent. Repayments will rise by at least 30 per cent and that is without interest rate rises in the interim.

UBS have gone a step further and calculated the step up for investors and owner-occupiers with a $600,000 interest only mortgage moving over to P&I. Depending on the duration of the principal and interest mortgage, the step up can be as much as 91 per cent! In other words for some borrowers repayments could double. Clearly, the majority of this cohort are unprepared or underprepared for the inevitable increases.

But why are we concerned? And why are all these people being forced onto principal and interest loans? The answer is APRA, in response to the Financial System Inquiry some four years ago. APRA imposed on the banks a strict limit of 30 per cent of all new mortgages written that can be interest-only. In 2014 and 2015 up to 49 per cent of mortgages written were written on interest-only terms but when these loan vintages mature in 2019 and 2020, only 30 per cent, including any brand new mortgages written, will be permitted to be on interest-only terms.

Of course the banks are fully aware of this situation and they understand that because it is the marginal seller of property – this weekend’s vendor – that will determine property prices for everyone, they must try to move as many people onto principal and interest that can afford it. That way those who can least afford the step-ups will be extended another interest-only loan for a further five years.

No wonder some of my friends who have mortgages – some have used them to fund purchases of real estate in Japan’s ski resorts – are already being asked to move over to P&I. By doing so it reduces the pressure on the banks to force people across who can least afford it.

Inevitably of course this creates an overhang of property that acts like a ceiling on prices at least until the next wave of buying breaks through it.

Until then expect even lower returns from residential property than those returns that were already locked in by paying a very high price.

Roger is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Montgomery Investment Management. Roger brings more than two decades of investment and financial market experience, knowledge and relationships to bear in his role as Chief Investment Officer. Prior to establishing Montgomery, Roger held positions at Ord Minnett Jardine Fleming, BT (Australia) Limited and Merrill Lynch.

This article appeared in the Weekend Australian Financial Review during the month of September 2018.

 

With the Coalition’s acts of self harm, the prospect of Bill Shorten’s imputation credit concoction becoming law, appear more likely.

Originally aimed at the “big end of town” it is important for investors to understand whether they are in fact impacted by this proposal.  Since the original announcement in March by the ALP to scrap imputation credit cash refunds, a concession to pensioners, and to some SMSF’s has been announced. The concessions allow for the cash payment of surplus imputation credits to continue for those on the age pension or allowances, or for a SMSF that has a member receiving age pension, as at 28thMarch 2018.

While this concession may lead to some SMSF’s thinking about recruiting a new member who is in receipt of an age pension to the fund, I would suggest SMSF trustees first consider the potential estate planning fallout from adding new members to their fund before proceeding.

The group left most exposed to Shorten’s attack are self funded retirees and SMSF’s, particularly those in pension phase. A perverse outcome of the proposal is that high income earners and ultra wealthy Individuals are likely to be largely unaffected leaving those such as middle class retirees bearing the brunt.

High profile fund manager, Geoff Wilson believes that “Investors should not give up the fight.  If Labor wins government at the next election, it may either realise the error of its ways due to public protest and abandon this flawed policy, or have it blocked in the Senate”

Therefore it would be wise to hasten slowly before making changes to investors portfolio’s in response to this proposal, however I am of the view that investors should begin thinking about how they may react if the proposal is ultimately legislated.  

Firstly, investors need to quantify the magnitude of the potential change on an asset by asset basis.  To illustrate this the graphic below shows total shareholder return of some Australian securities over the last financial year dissected between growth, income and imputation credit.

Source:  IRESS

The message here is clear, total return is the main game, and investors need to keep the value of imputation credits in perspective. A focus on investment fundamentals such as company earnings, which ultimately drive value, rather than focussing simply on franking would be of far more benefit to investors.

Bank Hybrids which have become a retail investor favourite should be reviewed as a material component of the return consists of the imputation credit.  Rather than focusing just on tax however, bank hybrids should be reviewed in light of the ALP’s proposed changes to negative gearing and its likely impact on the residential property market and by extension, bank earnings.

Investors in listed investment companies should not panic.  In our conversations with management of listed investment companies, it is clear they are already considering their own plan B which might involve a change in legal structure to protect investors from fallout of the ALP proposal.

Those investors who use multiple investment structures, such as SMSF’s, family trusts and or companies to house their wealth, should analyse which of those structures are likely to be able to continue to use imputation credits.  The aim would be to own assets paying franked income in structures where the imputation credit can be utilised, and own assets paying unfranked income in structures that can not.

Investment managers investing in global shares are one of the beneficiaries from a removal of imputation credit cash refunds.  Well known names such as Magellan, Montgomery Investment Management and Platinum Asset Management are likely to attract investors into their ASX listed investment trusts that pay unfranked income alongside solid long term performance track records.

So it’s time to plan now, and act later, unless investors wish to take up Geoff Wilson’s call and participate in online petitions such as those being conducted by Wilson Asset Management and Plato Asset Management.

Here is a link to Wilson Asset Management's online petition if you have not already joined it.

Sign the Wilson Asset Management petition here

Friday, 05 October 2018 16:27

No mysteries behind rising power prices

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Over the past few months, rising energy prices have dominated newspaper headlines, treating readers to the sight of politicians wringing their hands, promising to get to the bottom of this issue and find out who is responsible. Large power generators, energy retailers and transmission companies are accused of being behind the rising cost of lighting, heating and cooling our nation’s homes.

Whilst the profits that companies such as AGL Energy, Spark Infrastructure and to a lesser extent Origin Energy have increased over the past decade, we see that a significant proportion of the increase can be attributed to energy decisions made by various governments. As an economist, these price increases were predictable based on changes in the supply and demand curves of energy in Australia. There is scant evidence that they are the result of a long-term insidious plan by energy companies to capture a greater share of the nation ’s pay packets.  In this week’s piece, we are going to look at energy prices impacting Australia’s consumers and industrial users alike.

Energy prices this century  


The above chart shows household gas and electricity prices in Australia and compares them to inflation. Using June 2000 as the baseline year, the CPI [Consumer price index which measures the prices paid by consumers for a basket of goods and services including energy] has risen by 61%. Over this same period, electricity has risen by +226% and natural gas by +207%.  As you will note from the above chart, energy price rises roughly matched inflation up until 2008, however energy prices have accelerated in relation to CPI particularly since 2012. It is worth noting that electricity prices are influenced by natural gas prices in that gas is used in gas-fired power peaker plants that can be fired up in response to peak periods of electricity demand.
 

 Gas Prices Up – a new source of demand


Due to the size of the Australian continent and the absence of pipelines linking the major fields off the coast of WA with Eastern Australia, gas prices are greatly influenced by geography. As you can observe from the below table, due to the lack of physical infrastructure WA’s gas from the giant offshore LNG fields is sold to consumers in Seoul and Tokyo rather than Sydney and Melbourne.


 
Until the construction of the construction of three liquefied natural gas (LNG where natural gas is cooled to -161 C to allow transportation) in the last five years, producers of natural gas on the East Coast of Australia could only sell their gas into the East Coast domestic market. This resulted in gas being priced below world prices for East Coast consumers. For example, in 2008 the wholesale price of 1 gigajoule of natural gas was $15 in WA versus $5 in NSW. The opening of these three export LNG plants in Gladstone in Queensland by Origin Energy, Santosand BG in 2015 and 2015 allowed the export of natural gas from  Eastern Australia to Northern Asian customers that were willing to pay over $10 per gigajoule.

Additionally, unlike in WA which mandates that 15% of gas produced in the state is reserved for domestic consumers, no such gas reservation scheme was enacted on the East Coast of Australia. AGL’s plan to construct an LNG import terminal by 2020 to serve the Victorian gas market will further link the prices that Australian consumers pay for natural gas to the world market, with gas expected to be imported from the USA and Qatar.

Consequently, with a new source of demand for natural gas being introduced and East Coast gas markets opened up to world prices, domestic prices naturally gravitated towards the higher export price. The construction of these three LNG export terminals has not only had negative consequences for consumers but due to the elevated construction costs of around $71 billion have also been a burden for shareholders with returns below expectations.
 

Gas Prices Up – new sources of supply halted


At the same time that demand for natural gas was increasing, a range of decisions were made by governments in NSW and Victoria to restrict new supply. Arguing about the benefits and harms of coal seam gas is beyond the scope of this piece, but economics dictates that if demand is going up and supply is unchanged, prices will naturally rise. In 2012 Victoria imposed a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and in 2015 the NSW government banned new gas exploration. This saw AGL announce that it would not proceed with their projects in NSW and that they would be relinquishing their exploration licences. This action contributed to the energy company recording an impairment charge of $640 million in 2016.  We note that in April 2018 the Northern Territory reversed its ban on gas exploration outside towns and conservation areas in a move designed to put downward pressure on power bills.

Generation Costs Up – changing the mix and reducing supply


In the electricity market prices have been driven higher by the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Target. This will require electricity retailers to acquire a fixed proportion of their electricity from renewable sources and is likely to result in  33,000 GWh of Australia's electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020. Politicians seem surprised that regulations have added to electricity costs, following the closure of coal-fired base-load power stations in favour of more expensive renewables. For example, in 2017 Energie closed the Hazelwood power station that had previously supplied up to a quarter of Victoria’s electricity and AGL have announced that they will be closing the 1,680-megawatt Liddell coal-fired plant in 2022. Whilst we recognise that burning coal to generate electricity releases carbon into the atmosphere contributing to global warming, it is also a very cheap and consistent method of generating electricity. Additionally, coal-fired power plants are well-placed to provide a base-load of consistent generation, as these plans can generate electricity continuously, without requiring the wind to blow or the sun to shine.

Until the battery storage technology catches up to allow generators to store significant amounts of electricity, relying on solar and wind power generation requires natural gas-fired generation to step in to maintain consistent supply. As discussed above, this source of electricity generation is more expensive today that it was 10 years ago. Switching power generation to renewables – whilst socially desirable – comes at a cost, and this is reflected in higher energy bills. Further, in any market when supply is removed and demand remains relatively constant, prices tend to rise. This effect has proven profitable for incumbents who have generators, such as AGL Energy.

Our take

Rising energy costs have impacted consumers and industrial users alike, but they have not arisen in a policy vacuum nor as part of a conspiracy. We see that they are the logical outcome of decisions that have changed the supply and demand for energy and that various companies have predicably acted to generate profit from these shifts. In the Atlas equity portfolio, we own positions in AGL Energy and Spark Infrastructure, both of which have benefited from changes in the energy markets in Australia over the past ten years. Neither of these companies are involved in the LNG export terminals that at this stage look to be a poor investment for shareholders.

Hugh Dive CFA - Atlas Funds Management

Wednesday, 05 September 2018 08:03

Best of the best - August 2018

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Every two months Montgomery Investment Management prepares a report for investors that contains information about today's financial markets.

 

This issue has several interesting articles including:

 

1. US Market Overpriced, but is it a problem?

2. Rising rates, a falling $AUD put the squeeze on mortgagees

3. Catalysts that ended prior bull markets

 

To download your copy, click on the image below.

 

Thursday, 16 August 2018 09:54

Learning to be a better investor from a billionaire

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This article appeared in the Australian Financial Review during August 2018 and was written by Mark Draper (GEM Capital).  The article was sourced from a 30 minute interview with Kerr Neilson (Platinum Asset Management).  The audio track can be heard at the bottom of this article.

 

 

 

 

What can private investors learn from one of Australia’s best investors?  I recently spent 30 minutes privately with Kerr Neilson, founder of Platinum Asset Management and Top 100 Global investor, with a view to share his wisdom.

Think about how the world is likely to be

Neilson suggests investors should spend time “conjuring up an image of the world as it is will be, rather than what is now”. This focuses on forward looking rather than relying on the past to develop an investment playbook.  “Investors need to remain agile to cope with the idea of new possibilities rather than reverting to the ways of the old”

Australian investors should be reminded of this by the current position Telstra finds itself in, and they should also be thinking now about to what extent Fintech companies including Apple and Google may disrupt the banking sector.

It is the competitor response that matters most

It is not just the behaviour of the company you are investing with that matters.

One of Neilson’s signature thought processes centres around “It is how the competitors respond that matters most”.  

Investment Research into retailing for example, would be incomplete without reference to Amazon.

Deal with the media overload.

Neilson believes the biggest problem investors face is dealing with the media overload.  This can create huge biases in behaviour of investors.  The most common is ‘availability bias’ where there is an obsession about the current news item which encourages investors to limit their scope to the most recent news and potentially lack perspective.  This can lead to either pain or opportunity.

Neilson quotes China as the perfect example of Availability bias.  “Certainly the country has too much debt, as do many countries, and yet we can find companies with attractive valuations that are growing at 15 – 25% per year and we are paying around 12 times earnings.  He adds “it is not as if all these companies are going to be forced to do things by their Government.  To the extent that this is a threat, we adjust the price we are willing to pay.”

Anchor decisions on fact, not momentum

Investors need to understand the reasons for owning particular assets and be clear about their expectations from them.  It is only then that an investor can take comfort in the face of an upset.  One of the problems he sees with passive investing (via index funds and ETF’s) is investors are simply buying momentum and the belief that ‘it has worked so well since the crash, why should we not do it’.  He believes investors should question passive investment from the perspective of “what are the circumstances that have created this and why should they persist”?  

Be aware of limitations of financial modelling 

While the rise of Artificial Intelligence is already at work in investment management, Neilson is of the view that financial modelling of companies has its limitations.  “It’s easy to observe winners in retrospect” he says. Recognising real talent, such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), before it is priced to perfection is where the real investment opportunities exist.

Great investors continually build their knowledge

The sources of available information has exploded with the internet.  Neilson highlights that if he wants to learn about computer chip design he can attend a lecture on YouTube.  “I agree with Buffett, it’s all about reading extensively and broadly” Neilson said. He also recommends investors should visit the website of companies they are investigating and listen to (or read the transcript) the quarterly/half yearly investor calls.  The Q & A section of these calls where management is put to the test by analysts is an excellent source of insight. 

Humility

The final take away from my time with Kerr Neilson was humility.  When asked what are the greatest mistakes he sees investors make, he came back with “We all make mistakes so we should be careful not to point the bone too eagerly”. When pressed on his proudest moment in investment management, Neilson’s response after a long pause was “pride comes before a fall, we don’t spend a lot of time on pride.  We at Platinum spend a lot of time on thinking about how many mistakes we have made and how to reduce those”.  

From my personal experience meeting with Institutional investors for over 20 years, the best investors are humble.

 

Below is a podcast of the interview.  Alternatively a full transcript can be seen by clicking on this link Full Transcript 

Thursday, 16 August 2018 09:32

The damaging visible hand

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This article is written by Hugh Giddy, Investors Mutual and has been reproduced with their permission on our website.

 

Students of economics learn early on that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, an expression of the scarcity of resources. Those resources include things like labour and time as well as physical resources such as arable land.  Given that resources are not unlimited, much of early economic theory was devoted to the optimal and most efficient allocation or use of resources, as well as their valuation.  

Classical economics provides a foundation for much of our understanding of the economy.  Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations of 1776, describes the benevolent workings of the invisible hand of the market. Self-interested competition in the free market tends to benefit society in general by keeping prices low, while still building in an incentive for a wide variety of goods and services to be produced and supplied.  
The workings of the free market break down where there are monopolies, where prices would not remain low without some supervision or restraint, and where there are negative externalities that are not naturally priced or costed such as the quality of the environment.

The poor performance of planned economies in general (leading to the fall of the Soviet block and evidenced in the disparity in wealth between North and South Korea) is generally attributed to the removal of useful price signalling and incentives that exist in free markets.  Free markets and the invisible hand undoubtedly have flaws, but history has shown price controls and manipulation inevitably lead to shortages, inefficiencies and distortions.

Over time most economies have begun to adopt several measures to mitigate against some of the undesirable or politically unpalatable effects of free markets including minimum wages, universal minimum healthcare, and public housing, as well as competition bodies to ensure that industries do not become so concentrated that the markets no longer operate effectively.

Modern economies have one outstanding characteristic that is different to traditional economies: there is potentially no scarcity in money that is not backed by something physical like gold. Furthermore, interest rates and therefore the credit markets are explicitly manipulated by governments or their agencies.  It is one of many areas where the visible hand is quite dominant, and the influence is far from benign.

We are living in a period where growth is much slower than it was before the GFC, arguably because some of the credit excesses pre GFC have not been erased by an extended recession, and a proper reset did not occur.  Despite quite high levels of overall prosperity and high material standards of living across much of the developed world, rising income inequality and upheaval in traditional service and manufacturing industries has contributed to political polarisation and a rise in populist parties and leaders.  This in turn has made politicians in general more populist and likely to meddle in markets and more reluctant than ever to embrace any necessary but unpalatable economic policies.

Examples of poor policies abound and three Australian examples are discussed below: the insulation scheme, energy policy and the NBN. The focus will then turn to interest rates and credit.

Insulation scheme

The Rudd government, as part of a package designed to combat the economic effects of the financial crisis of 2007-8, announced a home insulation programme in February 2009.  By the time the scheme was abruptly abolished in February 2010, four installers had died and a Royal Commission was then set up to investigate the deaths.  By artificially boosting demand for insulation in a very short period, against the advice of the companies who made insulation, the government ensured huge distortions in the market.  The local producers, CSR and Fletcher Building, had to step up production and import product to keep up with soaring demand.  Knauf, a private German company saw the demand bonanza and set up in Australia for the first time using imports from the USA.  Insulation is a product one would normally not ship between distant continents as it is bulky and of low value, but the policy led to significant higher cost imports.  When the scheme was aborted:

  • huge excess inventories of insulation had to be destroyed at considerable cost to the producers (as insulation has a shelf life because it is packaged tightly to minimise space at the end of the production process)
  • a new competitor was introduced who arguably would not have spent the money setting up distribution, warehousing and sales channels
  • four people had died in the rush to take advantage of subsidies without reference to safety and training.  

Energy Policy

In Australia we have had a very inconsistent approach to energy policy in the area of renewables and carbon emission minimisation. Going through all the history in detail would no doubt be an insomnia cure for readers, the intention is simply to highlight that government meddling has distorted normal business economics.  

Renewables have needed subsidies to make them economically viable, particularly in Australia where we have traditionally had abundant cheap coal and gas.  Gas drilling has been outlawed in several states creating a shortage.  Elsewhere new coal power plants are currently being built delivering electricity at much lower cost than power prices in Australia, while locally coal would not be considered as a new source of power.  
Over time renewables will come down in cost, and in the distant future we might conceivably get all our electricity from hydro, wind and solar combined with battery storage, but that is some time away. In the meantime, Australian manufacturing is struggling, shrinking in an environment of very high power prices. Because we have disincentives for power from our cheapest and most reliable base fuel source, the consequence is higher power prices. Of course many people disapprove of coal and the carbon emissions, but at present we can’t have the luxury of being green and having the cheap power manufacturers require to be competitive internationally.

At present, owners of coal and gas generation have little incentive to invest in new generation or allocate capital to existing power plants.  Not only do renewable power sources receive subsidies, renewable plants have priority in supplying electricity to the grid, and it is expensive for baseload power to turn generation up and down depending how much wind there is.  Unsurprisingly, coal fuelled Hazelwood has closed in Victoria, almost all generation except renewables closed in South Australia and Tasmania, and Liddell (coal) is scheduled to close in NSW in 2022.  The previous excess supply of electricity has disappeared, and electricity prices have increased.  We have built renewables but of course renewables need the sun to shine or the wind to blow at the same time as there is demand for electricity.  Gas peaking plants are used to supplement renewables but are more expensive.  

The Government, wearing a populist hat, does not like the higher electricity prices which have resulted from uncertainty and their policies, and hence is seeking to restrain prices.   This will remove incentives to invest in the sector and possibly lead to shortages and emergency measures as happened in South Australia, and in Tasmania which had to buy expensive diesel generators because the rainfall was insufficient to provide all the required hydro power.  It is almost certain that government intervention in recent years has destroyed effective market signals, and politicians don’t welcome the unintended consequences.

NBN

In the telecommunications sector, the newly elected Federal Government decided in 2007 that Australia should have a national fibre optic network to carry broadband telecommunications, in a spirit of “nation building”. Tenders were submitted by various private parties including Telstra but none were accepted and overnight the Government Telcommunications Minister Stephen Conroy instead decided to form the NBN Corporation as a monopoly and to use Government funding to construct and operate the new network.  Estimates of the build cost quickly rose from tender levels (less than $10bn) towards $30 and $40bn, with the final number (over $50bn) still outstanding for a network that is not going to consist of as much fibre as originally claimed and speeds that have so far disappointed most users. The sorry tale of this white elephant will no doubt be material for a lengthy book in future.

The effect of the NBN has been to decimate the fixed line revenues and earnings of incumbent operators from Telstra and Optus to TPG and Dodo.  Unsurprisingly, companies reacted to mitigate the loss.  In particular, TPG has sought to cherry pick sites that would ordinarily be profitable for the NBN such as CBD buildings and apartment blocks where density makes for excellent economics in the context of pricing that is set with a view to cross subsidizing costly services to remote areas.  TPG has also bought spectrum to allow it to offer mobile services in the densely populated east coast cities, with the principal intention of offering mobile broadband as an alternative to the NBN (circumventing the NBN’s charges) rather than to become a major mobile player in itself.  The Government’s visible hand has greatly disrupted the industry, and few could argue that the project has been or will be an economic success.  It is certainly not living up to the fanfare with which it was announced.

In a low growth environment where many companies face challenges to maintain and increase profits, dealing with government interference can create significant unforeseen headwinds.  It is also hard for investors to anticipate these headwinds because they not only create market distortions; it’s often hard to find any beneficiaries other than lawyers and lobbyists as neither consumers nor businesses benefit over time, and hence such irrational policies are difficult to forecast.

Interest rates and credit

The greatest influence on the corporate and investment landscape by the visible hand of government is through interest rates and money.  Over time governments and their agencies have effectively devalued money through years of inflation which would not have been possible with disciplined monetary policies.  Inflation effectively favours borrowers over savers and therefore redistributes income without growing the value of the pie.  In recent decades credit growth has vastly outstripped income growth as banks have competed to lend to customers with increasingly poor creditworthiness, as lower interest rates have improved the affordability of the interest portion of loan service.

Because interest rates are effectively set or at least manipulated by governments, the huge expansion of credit is a direct result of government policy or at least government complicity.  Since the GFC the deliberate expansion of money and credit has been very explicit as Quantitative Easing has been pursued in many developed countries despite there being little or no evidence of any efficacy other than boosting financial asset prices.

Credit tends to support both asset values and consumption as many people now buy things they cannot immediately afford whereas a few decades back people only could buy what they had already saved up for.  Easy liquidity has driven up many asset values such as real estate, shares, commodities and bonds of varying quality.  Very low and even negative interest rates have destroyed useful market signals that would normally occur as investors have been pushed to take on risk beyond their usual preference in a desperate hunt for yields greater than the near zero safe yields.  

This in turn has allowed highly speculative companies and start-ups to prosper because they have had access to unusually cheap funding, in turn creating problems for their established competitors who may be relatively disadvantaged by having a more traditional and conservative approach to funding.  As Amazon has proved, it is very difficult to compete with a business that is very well funded by investors and lenders without having to deliver profits or cash flows for years.  A business that can sell things very cheaply and offer great service overall will virtually always succeed assuming that a lack of profits in the medium term is not a problem for the lenders and backers.  These are unusual times in that a lack of profitability is not necessarily perceived as a problem.  Abnormally low interest rates may have assisted consumers by creating competition in the short term but will not have helped should the disruptors become so strong they are effectively monopolies.

Governments’ visible hand in fostering the huge build up in debt and very loose credit conditions globally has also created a great deal of vulnerability for the economy.  High debt levels mean anything that changes perceptions of risk and therefore the willingness of private lenders to extend credit could have a major negative impact on the economy.

At IML we are very cognisant of the heightened risks in the economy and therefore continue to favour more defensive companies with more reliable and steady earnings.  This style has underpinned returns for our investors through a number of booms, busts and fads, and will continue to do so.

 DSC8761This article was written by Mark Draper and appeared in the Financial Review in the month of July 2018.

Mark writes a monthly column for the Australian Financial Review.

 

Good investors are rewarded for not just what they purchase, but just as much by what they let pass.  Could it be that much maligned short sellers could actually help investors avoid some of the stock market ‘bombs’.

Short selling is defined as the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller or that the seller has borrowed.  Short selling profits when the value of an asset decreases in price, enabling it to be bought back at a lower price.  By examining what short sellers typically look for as their targets can help retail investors avoid investment traps.

With this in mind I spoke with Andrew Macken, Portfolio Manager at Montgomery Investments who spent several years working with world famous short seller Jim Chanos.

Short sellers are sophisticated investors looking for weaknesses in businesses and business models.  Macken believes “there are 4 key characteristics that make a great short”.

  1. Structural decline at industry level.  These are structural headwinds within an industry that are likely to last for years not quarters.  Technological obsolescence is a good example of this characteristic such as video rental stores being disrupted by online content providers.
  2. Divergent Expectations.  This exists where market expectations built into the share price are overly optimistic.  Dominoes Pizza is currently one of the most heavily shorted stocks in the Australian market as short sellers question whether future growth may be at a lower level than what is currently reflected in the share price.
  3. Asymmetric risks.  This is when the downside risk is unequal, or greater than the upside risk.  These characteristics can lead to waking up one morning and seeing a share price down 30%. A stretched balance sheet is a good example of this, where one day the business is fine, and the next day the business fails to meet a debt covenant or refinance commitment.  Centro Properties was a high profile case study of this.
  4. Misperceptions.  These are instances of aggressive or creative accounting.  There are numerous ways in the accounting world that a business can be portrayed in a manner that is more flattering than the reality.  This can commonly occur during acquisitions where adjusting items such as goodwill can result in overstating future earnings. Fraud is the ultimate misperception. The Dick Smith IPO, which was labelled the “Greatest Private Equity Heist of all time” by Forager Funds Management is a classic example of a misperception and a detailed analysis on this can be found on their website.

Andrew’s ideal approach is to consider shorting companies that exhibit all four of these characteristics.

Those who own shares in a company that is being heavily shorted, means that sophisticated investors are flagging that some or all of these problems may exist in that company.  An increase in short selling activity could be an early warning signal that a problem exists.  So how can investors determine the level of short interest in a company.

ASIC provides a daily list of short positions on Australian listed companies on their website.  This information should also be available from a stock broker or financial adviser.  The information expresses how much of the company’s shares in percentage terms have been short sold.

Investors may be alerted to potential issues by watching trends of short selling activity and establishing whether the short positions are increasing.  

Clearly short sellers do not always get their calls right, just ask those who recently got burned being short in the Healthscope takeover offer.  But investors would be wise to keep an eye on short activity.  This could allow investors time to reconfirm (or otherwise) the investment case for a stock they own, or intend to buy, that is subject to material short interest.  As they say in sport, the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins, and maybe short sellers can help retail investors make fewer mistakes.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018 16:48

Australian Sharemarket Outlook - July 2018

Written by

GEM Capital recently hosted a client function with John Grace (Deputy Head of Equities - Ausbil Investment Management).  Ausbil are excellent investors who have enjoyed a very good track record over a long period of time.  They have enjoyed a very good investment return in the last 12 months as well.

The function was relaxed and conducted on a "Question and Answer" basis.

Here is the video of the function, together with a summary of the key topics discussed, together with the approximate time stamp in the video.

Topics covered:

0. Introduction to Ausbil and fund performance (1.00)
1. Overview of Macro Economic themes (2.30)
2. Banking Royal Commission (6.30)
3. One stock that has been our best call .... Bluescope Steel (10.00)
4. Telstra (and Telco sector) (12.00)
5. Question - Impact of Trade War threat (20.00)
6. Thoughts on household debt levels (30.00)
7. Benefits of Company Tax Cut (34.00)
8. Flight Centre (40.00)
9. Bionomics (46.30)
10. China - how is it changing (53.00)
11. Gold (56.00)
12. View on Australian Interest Rates (58.30)
13. Woolworths and Coles and Retail sector (59.30)

 

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