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Why this age of artificial returns must falter

January 2020 marks 12 years after the start of the financial crisis and it’s an important milestone for Australian investors. The S&P/ASX200 index has finally crossed 6,749, the previous peak set in October 2007. It may have taken more than a decade, but Australia’s largest listed companies have eventually recovered all of their lost market value. Time to break out the bunting.

Profits down in a decade

In fact, the headline strength of the Australian share market hides a deeper malaise. Consider this: 2019 company earnings for the S&P/ASX200 were 20% lower than in 2007. Or, said another way, the market today places the same value on the companies within the index as it did in 2007, despite the fact that these businesses are only 80% as profitable as they used to be.

Indeed, once we account for more than a decade of inflation, company earnings today remain woefully below their pre-crisis levels. Instead of earnings growth, the bull market, both in Australia and the rest of the developed world, has been underpinned by investors willing to pay substantially more for company earnings than they did before.

The driver for this investor largess has been a dramatic fall in interest rates. In Australia, base interest rates have fallen from 7.25% in 2008 to an all-time low of 0.75% in 2019. Falling interest rates increase the relative value of other future income streams, like company profits. Thus, even though company profits have fallen, the value of these earnings have become worth much more over the years.

Calendar 2019 exemplified this trend neatly. Basic earnings per share for the S&P/ASX200 index fell by 4% over the year, yet the index delivered a total price return of 23%, one of its best calendar years on record. The main driver was three interest rate cuts throughout the year. Similarly, earnings per share for the European and Japanese share markets also fell over calendar 2019, by 5% and 8% respectively, but these equity markets rallied by 26% and 21%.

In the US, earnings per share for the S&P500 index was unchanged over the year. The index however, delivered a staggering total price return of 31%, with three interest rate cuts by the US Fed drowning out any need for the traditional focus on business fundamentals or earnings growth.

In fact, shockingly, the US market today has reached a point where actual earnings are almost irrelevant. Close to 40% of all US listed companies lost money during 2019. Further, 74% of the IPOs that came to market during the year were for loss-making businesses.

To infinity and beyond

The logic of falling interest rates driving asset prices higher is clear. In a world where there is US$11 trillion of negative-yielding bonds on issue, asset classes that generate positive cashflows have become increasingly scarce. An even greater premium is put on companies that hold out the prospect of significant future earnings growth, even if they are loss making now, given today’s low-growth background.

Should we care? If the last 12 years have taught us anything, it is that ultra-low interest rates have re-written the rules of investing. Much of the world of fundamental analysis has been rendered redundant in the face of unprecedented stimulus by central banks around the world. In the process, the traditional role that the markets play in enforcing discipline, weeding out underperformers and rewarding innovation, has been greatly reduced.

Instead, perversely, financial markets have been carried higher on deteriorating economic fundamentals, characterised by low growth and stubbornly low inflation. Looking ahead, there seems few reasons to believe this paradigm is about to change. In Australia, where over 13% of the working population is either unemployed or underemployed, markets currently fully price in at least one further interest rate cut before August. Many anticipate further cuts after this, followed by quantitative easing. Through the current lens, the worse things get, the better the outcome for investors. If sluggish economies and low inflation drags down interest rates - and lifts asset prices in the process - should investors not just be cheering the process on?

Dancing the limbo: ‘how low can you go’?

There are three reasons why the current paradigm cannot continue indefinitely, even if it can persevere for several more years yet.

  1. Interest rates have a lower bound, effectively zero. A few countries have experimented with negative interest rates but even these have a finite lower level. If you start charging people too much money to lend their savings to the bank, they start putting their money inside a bank vault instead. That is a disastrous economic outcome, as capital is no longer put to productive use. While central bankers still retain some ammunition, mainly through quantitative easing, there certainly isn’t another 12 years of continual easing ahead of us.

  2. The current paradigm is predicated on interest rate moves being a continual one-way bet … lower. Central banks are not tasked with pushing up asset prices. Rather, their job is to support the economy and maintain price stability. The greatest challenge policy makers face today is how to deal with the next downturn when it comes. Historically, developed economies have had to cut interest rates by 5% to 6% to counter a recession and return an economy to growth. The fear is that having already cut rates so much, either through traditional interest rate cuts or quantitative easing, there will not be enough firepower left when it’s really needed. Regardless of how one-way the bet has seemed for so long, central bankers are desperate to raise interest rates as soon as the economy can support it, and they need to.

    We have one real-time example of this occurring since the GFC. With the US economy regaining some of its footing between 2016 and 2018, the US Fed began a modest tightening cycle. Markets took this in their stride until late 2018, when the fear of moderately higher rates finally set in. From peak to trough the S&P500 fell by 19%, while high growth sectors fared much worse, notably the FANG (a share market index comprising the highly traded technology companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google) index fell by 27%. The only development that halted these falls was the US Fed switching back to easing mode, cutting interest rates three times throughout 2019 and sparking another large rally in the process.

  3. Finally, while 12 years of falling interest rates have propelled just about every asset class higher, fundamentally the drivers behind this are hardly developments investors should cheer on. In Australia, where share markets have just reached an all-time high, annual GDP growth currently sits near a 20-year low. Over two million Australians either can’t find work or can’t find enough work. Wage growth remains anaemic.

    Against this backdrop the RBA has been using the tools it has, cutting interest rates to support the economy, and in the process trying to return it to a more even footing. One day these actions might even work. When that day comes, we should expect falling asset prices and a healthier underlying real economy. Perhaps that is not a desirable outcome for investors, particularly those holding higher-risk assets. Far better than the alternative though. A central bank that has fired all of its bullets when facing up to a real recession.

 

Miles Staude of Staude Capital Limited in London is the Portfolio Manager at the Global Value Fund (ASX:GVF). This article is the opinion of the writer and does not consider the circumstances of any individual.

 

7 Comments
Ramon Vasquez
February 06, 2020

Very well said Mister Staude !!!

In an insane economic world l have resorted to one hundred percent cash , and await the Great Crash whenever it comes .

Best wishes , Ramon Vasquez , Economist .

Dean
February 20, 2020

Hi There, I'm confused with the last paragraph, should it have read increasing interest rates?

C
February 02, 2020

I see the problem as Governments pulling in different direction to Central banks. Central banks only have one lever to pull, interest rates. Government in Australia won’t support any raise in minimum wages ( which would flow through ), or increase Newstart allowance, which would all be spent and circulate and stimulate growth. Tax cuts just reduce the ability of Governments to fund much- needed programs. In America, the Government went for massive stimulus when it should have pulled back. The party has to end sometime. At one end, there is loads of money sloshing around, looking for higher returns, and not being terribly productive. At the other end, people aren’t spending, can’t get any or enough employment, retail is going down the pan and confidence is low. Keeping inflation within the target is all well and good, but without a change in direction from Government, l don’t see any likelihood of improvement.

Emma
February 04, 2020

Thank you for making the time to read our article and comment C. I find myself agreeing with much of what you say. In terms of a change in direction from Government, perhaps we would be better served by changing the job we ask the RBA to do for us. The mandate we give to the RBA today is designed to fight a war from a different time, inflation that was too high and dangerously uncontrollable. The challenges our economies face today, as you point out, are very different in our view.

Emma
January 30, 2020

Hi Rob and George

My name is Emma Davidson and I work alongside Miles Staude, I thought I would add to your comment. I agree that one way this could pan out is that, as you say, ‘somewhere, sometime it will blow”. An alternative, and hopefully more likely scenario, is that somewhere, sometime, underlying fundamentals start to slowly improve. In this scenario good economic news should start to become bad market news. As interest rates start to move higher, asset prices would begin to rebase lower, similar to what happened at the tail end of the recent US Fed hiking cycle. As Miles wrote in his article, while that would be unpleasant, it would hopefully be far more desirable than the alternative – that the RBA keeps cutting interest rates until there is no further it can go.

George
January 30, 2020

Indeed, Rob, that is the challenge. Not whether but when.

Rob
January 30, 2020

Of course negative rates are stupid, of course it will end badly when investors figure out that lending money at negative rates, to countries that are arguably technically insolvent, with unfunded future pension and health liabilities..

The problem is, that we would have said that two years ago! Somewhere, sometime it will blow but given the entire world is now addicted to free money and any upward movement will smash the Global economy, picking the turn will be a challenge!

 

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