Thursday, 18 April 2019 14:28

Roadsigns to Recession

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Mark Draper (GEM Capital) wrote this article for the Australian Financial Review and was published during the month of April 2019.

 

With the graphs of leading Australian economic indicators taking on the shape of a waterfall, investors would be wise to dust off the play book about how to invest in a recession.  While not in recession yet, we are likely to know in the next few months whether Australia will enter recession, and it depends on whether some indicators, that we examine here, can change direction.

Many investors have not seen an Australian recession during their investing life, with the last one taking place in 1990/1991.  During that recession the economy shrank by almost 2%, employment reduced by just over 3% and the unemployment rate moved into double digits.  Business failure rates increased along with bank bad debts, and two of Australia’s major banks were in financial stress with share price falls of at least 30%.

At the epicentre of the current downturn is the residential property market.  Property values have been heading south, rapidly, particularly in the eastern states.  The further and faster property prices fall, the greater the probability of recession.  The IMF believes the downturn is worse than previously thought.  This is one of the few times that property prices have fallen without the RBA raising rates or from rising unemployment.

The second key indicator is housing credit growth.  Housing credit growth is currently below the level seen during GFC and below the level witnessed during the 1991 recession.  Credit approvals are falling, particularly in the second half of 2018.  This reflects tightening of lending standards by banks, but also that Australian consumers may have reached their capacity to take on new debt.  Investors need to ask what will alter this environment.  Previous episodes of weak demand for credit have been met with cuts to official interest rates, but with rates currently at 1.5%, the RBA does not have much ammunition to fire.

Building approvals are collapsing.  While there is currently enough work from buildings currently in progress to keep tradesman busy, building approvals point to a more troubling future.

Falling property values can create a wealth effect where consumers feel less wealthy and as a result defer purchasing decisions.  This can be seen in new car sales figures and 2018 saw its worst annual result since 2014.  This is against a backdrop of strong population growth during that time.

The weakening economic outlook is unfolding during an election campaign that the ALP are favoured to win.  The ALP is proposing to significantly increase the overall tax levied, (ie franking credit changes, CGT and negative gearing changes) which is likely to suck further money out of the economy and act as an additional handbrake.

If Australia were to enter recession, there are several investment sectors where investors should tread carefully.

Given that 60% of the Australian economy revolves around consumer spending, discretionary retailers are most at risk to a consumer under pressure.  Caution should also be taken with the price paid for food retailers who may also come under pressure as consumers seek to lower their expenses during a downturn.  The recent Woolworths profit result shows the food retailers are already operating in a very difficult retail environment.

Travel is another sector at risk as consumers in a downturn could turn their focus away from discretionary leisure spending.  Businesses too could replace interstate travel with more teleconferences in tighter economic times.

Banks are obvious investments to suffer in an economic downturn as demand for credit weakens and bad debts rise.

Property investments with a focus on property development profits should also be scrutinised.

The currency could be one of the few safe havens as the Australian dollar most likely depreciates during recession.  Beneficiaries of a weaker currency are those Australian companies who earn income from overseas or unhedged International investments.  Australian exporters who have not hedged currency can also benefit from a lower Australian dollar.

Investors should pay attention to the next few months of leading economic indicators to determine whether Australia is likely to break the 27 year recession drought, and position their investments accordingly.  

Thursday, 18 April 2019 14:23

Montgomerys' Best of the Best Report - April 2019

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Montgomery Investments have recently produced their 'Best of the Best Report' for April 2019.

 

In this edition, they cover:

1. The recent company reporting season - opportunities for investors

2. Sydney Airport - is the runway for growth likely to continue?

3. Their view on Challenger

 

To download the report - please click on the image below.

 

April 2019 Best of Best image

Friday, 01 March 2019 17:47

Knowing when to sell

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Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes a monthly column for the Australian Financial Review.  In his January 2019 article he outlines some of the triggers investors should look for that provide clues for when to sell.

 

7 flags to tell you ‘it’s time to sell’

The days of the ‘buy and hold’ strategy has long been a ‘dinosaur’ and probably always was. Regular changes to technology, regulation, consumer tastes not to mention competitors can turn today’s hero investments into tomorrows dogs. 

Successful investing involves not only buying assets for a reasonable price, but also knowing when to sell.

The term ‘red flag’ is referred to by professional investors as events that take place that act as an early warning signal to sell.

Here are 7 red flags to help investors sell before ‘it hits the fan’:

  1. When directors sell shares in their own company, particularly when more than one director sells in a short period of time, investors should be nervous.  History is littered with examples of director selling followed by dramatic falls in share prices.  In August 2016 the CEO and Chairman of Bellamys both sold a combined total of 365,000 shares at around $14.50 per share.  In June 2018 two directors of Kogan sold 6,000,000 shares at $7 per share. The share price charts below tell the rest of the story.  INSERT Bellamy’s and Kogan charts (attached PDF’s)
  2. Crowded trades takes place when consensus opinion on an investment is universally positive which usually coincides with excessive valuation.  The ‘investment that can not lose’, verbalised by cab drivers and instant experts at barbecues  is usually a place to avoid.  Crowded trades could also be referred to as fads.

Who can forget the mantra in 2007/2008 about peak oil theory, when the oil price was around $150 per barrel.  Investing in energy was a one way bet according to common beliefs of the day, providing an excellent example of the crowded trade.  Oil today of course trades today at around $60 per barrel.  

  1. Poor behaviour from management which include directors/management using company assets for private use, related party transactions such as the company renting premises from directors and excessive management remuneration.
  2. A google search of Nepotism reveals “the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs”.  Whether employing a relative or friend of management, or the company expanding into an unrelated business, so that a relative can run it, rarely results in getting the best person for the job.
  3. Most investors appreciate that a company’s share price follows the earnings.  Earnings should follow cash flow, so when earnings rise without a corresponding rise in cash flow, investors should beware.
  4. My father always said to me ‘everything comes from the top’, and how true this is with respect to investing.  Changes to management can play a big role in share holder returns.  A Financial Services executive employed to run a healthcare company?  A Milkman running a Childcare company?  True situations that didn’t end well for shareholders.  Investors should consider the background and experience of new management that is appointed to satisfy themselves that they are fit for the role.
  5. Valuation is the ultimate red flag. Buy low and sell high sounds simple but the only way an investor can do this is to first hold a view of what an asset is worth.  While this seems elementary, I continue to be surprised by investor behaviour which clearly demonstrates no regard for valuation.

Let us pay tribute to the poor souls who invested in Cisco Systems at the height of the dot.com bubble paying well in excess of 100 times earnings.    Almost 20 years later, the share price is still not back to its level at the peak of the dot.com boom.

And there were many examples of this behaviour in Australian technology stocks in the dot.com boom that didn’t even have a price earnings ratio due to the fact that the company’s didn’t have any earnings to show.  Crypto currency is possibly the most recent example of investors chasing returns from an asset without regard for intrinsic value.

7 flags to help investors keep from trouble.  As the great Kenny Rogers song said, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold em’, know when to walk away and know when to run.  Happy investing!

Livewire recently interviewed arguably two of Australia's best Global Investors.  They are Andrew Clifford (CEO Platinum Asset Management) and Hamish Douglass (CEO Magellan Financial Group).

The interview discusses their current views on the financial landscape and is a must see for investors.

 

Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes a monthly column for the Australian Financial Review.  This article outlines the generational opportunity that is before investors in the doubling of the Chinese middle class in the next 5 years.  It was published during February 2019.

 

The growth in Chinese middle class is one of the strongest demographic opportunity for investors in a generation.  Most investors however, including the Global indices, have little in the way of exposure to this theme.

Chinese middle class is forecast to double from around 300 million to 600 million people in the next 5 years.  While the definition of middle class varies widely, it is commonly characterised to include those but the poorest 20% and the wealthiest 20%.  It is natural as more people enter the middle class they will have more disposable income to spend on discretionary purchases.  Buying cars, property, healthcare, mobile phones and a change of diet are all examples of the opportunities that exist for investors from this demographic trend. 

Vihari Ross, Head of Research at Magellan Financial Group points to coffee consumption in China as a long term opportunity. Those with even modest discretionary income can afford this ritual.  Chinese annual coffee consumption is less than 1 cup per year per capita, versus the US consumption of around 300 cups per year per capita.  

Growth in Chinese coffee consumption is one of the key drivers behind Magellan’s investment into Starbucks according to Ross. There are currently 3,400 Starbucks stores currently in China,  the company is forecast to open 600 new stores in China each year for the next 5 years, which equates to annual growth of 15%.  With a pre-tax return of 85% on investment from these stores the investment case seems compelling.

Source: Magellan Financial Group

Andrew Clifford, CEO Platinum Asset Management says “China is the world’s largest physical market – not just for iron ore and copper but everything imaginable:  aeroplanes, autos, mobile phones, semiconductors, running shoes and luxury handbags.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a physical market for which China is not the largest customer.”

Source: Platinum Asset Management

With growing car ownership in China, comes the need for insurance.  This helps explain Platinum’s investment into Ping An Insurance Group, the number 1 global insurance company on the 2018 Forbes Global 2000 list.  Ping An, which trades on a price earnings multiple of around 11 is growing rapidly and boasts a technology-first mindset.  Its Fintech capabilities are world class and its health business and life insurance businesses are also booming.  Needless to say, there are very few listed companies in Australia trading on a price earnings multiple of 11 that are growing their earnings.

To help put further perspective on what the next 5 years might look like for Chinese middle class, we look back 5 years. Dinner party conversations will be enriched by wheeling out some of these Chinese growth statistics.  In 2014 there were 25 million motor vehicles sold in China and in 2018 the number was 28 million.  Chinese box office revenue in 2014 was $5bn and in 2018 it took in $9bn. There were 640 million internet users in 2014 and in 2018 there were more than 800 million.  109 million overseas visitors entered China and in 2018 the number of tourists was over 150 million.  14 billion express post parcels were delivered in 2014 and in 2018 parcel delivery grew to over 50 billion parcels.  32 million Chinese passengers flew domestically every month in 2014, rising to around 50 million passengers per month in 2018.  (statistics courtesy of Platinum Asset Management)

To cope with the surge in air travel, China plans to build over 70 new civil airports by 2020 to make the total 260. That’s up from 175 in 2010.  The opportunity for inbound tourism into Australia is enormous (and bolsters the investment case for Sydney Airport).

The numbers are phenomenal and difficult to grasp for many Australians.  More importantly, investors who base the majority of their investments domestically are ignoring this generational tailwind.

Clearly there will be peaks and troughs in the Chinese economy, although it is still growing at around 6% per year, good by Western measures.  Just the growth of the Chinese economy each year is larger than the entire Australian economy.

Investors would be wise to look through the short term economic cycles and embrace the extraordinary opportunity that is before them.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 13:34

AMP - two bagger or falling knife?

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Mark Draper wrote this article which appeared in the Australian Financial Review during the month of December 2018.

After spending the last 20 years despising AMP and selling any shares we ever came into contact with, it is interesting that we find ourselves potentially interested in buying AMP shares now that they are trading at an all time low.

Every investor dreams about picking the turnaround story that doubles in value.  Is AMP a two bagger or a falling knife?

It’s hard to find much in the way of positive news flow around AMP at present, which is normally a good place for investors to start as it can imply most investors have already headed for the exits.  The recent sale of AMP’s life insurance division was the last instalment of poorly received news with some in the market labelling it a ‘fire sale’ or ‘AMPutation’.

After the sale of AMP’s Life businesses, consensus earnings estimates are around 25 cents per share according to Skaffold software, which puts AMP on a current price earnings multiple of 10.

Skaffold which models intrinsic value based on assumptions of future cash flows currently has the share price trading at a small discount to intrinsic value.  

Source: Skaffold

What is often overlooked by investors is that AMP still has 3 key divisions, which are Wealth Management (platforms and advisers), AMP Capital (funds management) and AMP Bank.

AMP Capital has assets under management of $192.4bn, with around two thirds of this coming from their internal channels such as AMP aligned financial advisers.  This division is currently in fund outflow.  The key question for investors is whether AMP can regain the trust of investors and stem fund outflows, or whether fund outflows are permanent?  

AMP Bank has a lending book of around $20bn and the loan book saw a small decline for the first time since 2015.  This division carries the same risks of the other retail banks in the event of potential for bad debts.

Nathan Bell, portfolio manager at Intelligent Investor says “within a few years after the recent AMP Life disposal and the sale of its New Zealand wealth management business slated for next year, AMP could have around $1.5bn of capital that could either be returned to share holders or reinvested to grow earnings. Incoming CEO De Ferrari (who starts on 1st Dec 2018) needs to increase the company's return on equity to 15% to earn all his bonuses, so theoretically investing the money would increase earnings by $225m, which in turn could see earnings per share move closer to 30 cents per share”.

Bell then suggests that if AMP was subsequently re-rated to 15 times earnings, assuming no deterioration or improvement from other divisions, the share price could be $4.50 (15 X 30 cents per share earnings). The dividend yield for investors with an entry price of $2.50 would also be attractive under this scenario according to Bell. 

The problem with finding investments that can produce such a high return at the tail end of a bull market is that these opportunities often come with ‘warts’, and AMP’s business units are under immense pressure, which is why Bell is eager to hear De Ferrari's strategy. There are also suggestions De Ferrari will renegotiate his contract, as his bonus targets will be very difficult to achieve following the board's widely condemned deal announced recently to sell its AMP Life business.

It is always useful to understand how senior management is incentivised and the incoming CEO receives a large incentive if the share price reaches $5.25.

Matt Williams, Airlie Funds Management is watching AMP closely but has rarely invested in the company over his career. He cites a revolving door of management and a business with high fixed costs that is not really a leader in any of its market segments as reasons to be cautious.  Airlie have recently met with AMP management but remain on the sideline at this stage.

Risks for AMP include De Ferrari not being able to restore the company’s reputation, continued fund outflows, financial market downturn which decreases fee revenue from funds under management, bad debts from the banking division not to mention the outcome from the Royal Commission with respect to vertical integration among other issues.

The best investment decisions are often the ones which make investors feel the most uncomfortable and on that count AMP rates highly, given the uncertainties.  The strategy from the incoming CEO is the next piece of the puzzle for investors to help determine whether AMP is a turnaround in the making or a falling knife.

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?

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.

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