Investor uncertainty and market volatility appear to be increasing as the economy continues to strengthen, leading to higher bond yields and eventual interest rate rises.
Australian equity investors trying to navigate the choppy waters that lie ahead should ignore the day-to-day ‘noise’ of the markets and instead focus on seven key questions. The answers to these will help investors better understand the approaching dangers and opportunities.
Will Aussie banks keep paying out big dividends?
Banking has been the principle beneficiary of the 25-year bull market in residential mortgages that has followed in the wake of Australia’s housing boom.
Bank share prices have powered ahead over recent years, fueled by the sustained and predictable earnings that strong mortgage lending delivered. Retail investors in particular have been drawn to the strong growth in (franking credit-enhanced) bank dividends.
Banks have been able to capture generous mortgage lending margins because the regulatory environment has prioritised banking solvency. The banks’ balance sheets further benefitted from the 30-year decline in bond yields.
However, regulatory focus may now shift from institutional stability towards promoting customer interests, following the Royal Commission.
Meanwhile, global bond markets are now moving into a period of rising yields, even if Australian interest rates are unlikely to increase for some time yet. These trends will not be positive for bank valuations.
Moreover, personal debt in Australia has reached historically high levels, leaving many recent homebuyers looking vulnerable. The most highly indebted are now worryingly exposed to a downside shock.
Credit conditions for borrowers are continuing to tighten, as maximum earnings multiples fall and living expenses are considered more cautiously by loan officers. Buy-to-let investors and first-time buyers with modest deposits appear to be withdrawing from the market now that home prices are falling in Sydney and Melbourne.
Why are Aussie consumers looking so glum?
The high level of indebtedness is having a significant impact on consumer spending in Australia. Under-employment remains high and wage growth for large parts of the labour force remains fairly stagnant.
Families who bought their home more recently at elevated price levels and now face increasing mortgage payments are especially impacted.
This is leading many families to look much more closely at their weekly spending, especially those seeking to pay down debt.
The retail sector is seeing shoppers switch their spending to market challengers such as Aldi, where private labels are priced at a significant discount to the major grocery stores, which is forcing down pricing on the majors’ own goods.
Investing in price cutting is not expected to be sustainable over the long-term and could detract from the major supermarkets’ earnings.
A wider range of businesses that depend on such price-sensitive shoppers will struggle to grow earnings as real wage growth remains subdued and debt servicing costs rise.
When will the next capex boom ride to the economy’s rescue?
The end of the mining investment boom led to resources companies taking an extended capex holiday that has been a major drag on the Australian economy. However the depletion of older mines is now leading to investment in new facilities.
Meanwhile Federal and State governments are continuing to support infrastructure investment, often as part of asset recycling programs in an attempt to grow productivity levels.
Australia’s growing population faces energy supply limitations as many base load power generation assets need upgrading or replacement and renewable energy targets loom large. This will require a capital investment uplift in power generation and transmission assets.
Finally Australia’s LNG market is moving from a period of oversupply during which capex was highly restricted, to one of undersupply. This is leading to a renewed surge of investments in brownfield sites.
This is likely to present the opportunity for well-positioned developers and contractors to grow earnings over the next phase of the capex cycle.
How can Australia make beautiful returns from a Beautiful China?
President Xi recently announced the intention to build a “Beautiful China” that would reduce the country’s toxic levels of air, water and soil pollution.
Older polluting coal power stations are likely to be shut. However, while the country is expected to continue importing high volumes of Australian coal, cleaner fuels such as LNG may grow in relative importance. Australian companies are expected to continue to benefit throughout this shift as they begin to invest in new LNG projects again.
In addition to ongoing demand for high-grade seaborne commodities, Australian companies exposed to China’s growing demand for clean energy, electric vehicles and batteries have the opportunity to grow earnings.
How will regulatory change impact companies?
The Federal Government in Canberra is now intervening much more actively across a number of areas of the economy. This is motivated by a desire to bring down those costs to voters and companies that threaten the economic recovery and the government’s political fortunes.
This is especially impacting regulated infrastructure companies, where some have been assigned especially low rates of return by regulators. Consequently, the less attractive earnings outlook may start to be reflected in companies’ market valuations.
Therefore, investors should be cautious about the wider regulated utility market, especially transmission assets facing government pricing decisions. The implementation of the National Energy Guarantee by the end of 2018 is likely to influence the returns and valuations of a range of energy businesses.
Meanwhile, gaming reform that impacts margin bets, advertising and taxation poses a potential threat to companies in the sector.
However media deregulation may well permit increased consolidation in the industry, which will potentially be supportive of earnings and valuations.
Which companies will be bitten by rising bond yields?
Rising global bond yields have been signaling the start of the return to more normal levels of interest rates for some time now. The rate-hiking cycle is well advanced in the US and has now started in the UK and some other markets.
Such an environment is generally considered to be negative for the market valuations of companies whose earnings are relatively stable and predictable. These include those in the infrastructure, listed real estate and telecommunications sectors. This is because as bond yields rise, investors apply a higher discount rate to their expected earnings, which reduces the implied valuation levels.
Therefore a cautious approach to these sectors is likely to be appropriate during the next phase of the business cycle.
However, certain companies in these markets are nonetheless able to grow earnings independently of the business cycle. These include real estate companies exposed to the growth of data centres and e-commerce, which are poised to outperform the market even during a period of rising interest rates.
Should I be investing in growth or income companies?
Australian growth companies have strongly outperformed value/income stocks since the last round of Chinese economic stimulus. This is to be expected during a stage of the economic cycle when earnings growth is generally positive and interest rates remain at historically low levels
However, the valuations of growth companies are now notably high, trading at large premiums to their 10-year average price/earnings ratio and relative to the wider Australian equity market.
Such lofty valuation levels require very strong and sustained earnings growth in order to justify the present market premiums. Therefore many growth companies appear to be highly vulnerable to any events that slow the upward path of corporate earnings.
Hence investors may now find more attractive opportunities in companies that are characterised by sustainable dividend payouts and/or more attractive valuation levels.
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