A Liquid Stimulus Plan in time for Christmas

Over the past six months, there have been numerous headlines around rising energy prices and their impact both on curbing global growth and in cutting domestic consumption as the costs of transporting people and goods around Australia were rising sharply. However, instead of climbing as expected, the oil price has collapsed by 30% over the past few months.

In this week’s piece, we are going to look at the beneficiaries of a decline in oil prices. Conceptually a fall in the price of oil is neither positive nor negative per se, but rather a transfer of wealth from oil producing countries and companies (such as OPEC, Norway, Exxon and Woodside) to energy consumers (OECD, South Korea, China, chemical companies and domestic consumers).

In early October, oil was trading above US$85 per barrel1. The price was forecasted to go above US$100 per barrel as US sanctions on Iran were expected to constrict supply and Saudi Arabia was incentivised to maintain a high oil price to help gain a high price for their upcoming float of Saudi Aramco – see The Biggest IPO of all time.

Over the past two months, the reverse has occurred with oil falling 30% to US$59 a barrel as oil inventories built on higher production out of the USA and Saudi Arabia (due to pressure from Santa Trump), weaker than expected Iranian sanctions and selling from speculators. Saudi Arabia actually lifted oil production in recent months, a move not particularly in their best interests. This has been ascribed both to pressure from President Trump and efforts to mitigate the impact of the journalist Khashoggi’s death in their embassy in Istanbul.

Falling equity markets have also probably played a role in placing downward pressure on the oil price. Macquarie Bank estimated that as a result of the market falls in October and November around $50 billion was withdrawn from commodity funds, which would have resulted in these funds being forced to sell holdings of oil. The chart below shows the price of a barrel of crude oil, for the purposes of analysing its impact on domestic consumers and companies, the price has been converted into Australian dollars.


What Happened

In early October, oil was trading above US$85 per barrel. The price was forecasted to go above US$100 per barrel as US sanctions on Iran were expected to constrict supply and Saudi Arabia was incentivised to maintain a high oil price to help gain a high price for their upcoming float of Saudi Aramco – see The Biggest IPO of all time.

Over the past two months, the reverse has occurred with oil falling 30% to US$59 a barrel as oil out of the USA and Saudi Arabia (due to pressure from Santa Trump), weaker than expected Iranian sanctions and selling from speculators. Saudi Arabia actually lifted oil production in recent month, a move not particularly in their best interests. This has been ascribed both to pressure from President Trump and efforts to mitigate the impact of the journalist Khashoggi’s death in their embassy in Istanbul.

Falling equity markets have also played a role in placing downward pressure on the oil price. Macquarie Bank estimates  that as a result of the market falls in October and November around $50 billion was withdrawn from commodity funds. This would have resulted in forced selling of oil held by these funds.

Australian consumers

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey reveals that households spend an average of $230 each month on fuel for vehicles. As a result of a falling oil price, motorists in Sydney have seen a litre of petrol fall from $1.65 to around $1.15, which was estimated by Commsec to result in a saving of around $70 per month or equivalent to a 0.25% interest rate cut on an average mortgage. Further falls in the oil price will only increase the impact of this de facto stimulus plan. For example, the sustained lower energy prices consumers saw over the period 2014 to 2016 resulted in an additional $1,100 per annum being added to the average household’s finances when compared to the period 2010 to 2013, with the greatest benefit being felt by those living on the periphery of the country’s major cities. Higher disposable income will also help Australia’s embattled trading banks, as consumers will have a greater capacity to service existing mortgages, keeping bad debts in check.

Higher consumer spending

On the ASX, the largest beneficiaries of the stimulus package of falling petrol prices will be the consumer staples and consumer discretionary retailers, as historically savings at the petrol bowser have been spent on food and liquor, as well as consumer goods such as electronics and clothes. As such, we would expect to see stronger sales figures in 2019 from Wesfarmers, Coles and JB-Hi-FI.

Higher retail sales will also benefit retail listed property trusts such as Vicinity and Scentre as a large proportion of retail spending is still done in bricks and mortar stores. The last twelve months have proven to be very volatile for Australia’s retailers and shopping centre owners. In late 2017, virtually all companies connected to retail saw their share prices fall significantly on news that Amazon was entering the Australian marketplace. The impact of the US e-commerce giant has been fairly muted so far, with Australian retail sales in shopping centres up between 2 and 4% in 2018. Undoubtedly Australian retail sales have been assisted by the government legislating that from the 1st July 2018 online retail sales below $1,000 would be subject to GST, a move that helps level the playing field between foreign websites and Australian retailers .

 Large energy users

Among the companies that consume large amounts of hydrocarbons, Qantas is the most obvious beneficiary of a falling oil price. In 2018 Qantas spent $3.2 billion on jet fuel and Australia’s carrier has seen a 25% decline in the price of jet fuel over the past few months. Due to hedging, Qantas will not see the full benefit of this fall in 2019, though the carrier will see a nice boost to profits especially as travellers are still paying over $400 for a one-way flight from Sydney to Melbourne and the flights are all pretty full.

Miners such as Rio Tinto and BHP are both significant consumers of petrol and diesel and sell commodities such as iron ore that is priced independently of the oil price. Moving dirt consumes a large amount of energy in cracking the rocks, removing overburden through explosives, and moving iron ore and coal to the ports on the coasts off Western Australia and Queensland. In the first six months of 2018 higher oil prices reduced Rio Tinto’s profit by $200 million, though the miner should see some relief in the second half of 2018. Previously BHP saw a limited benefit from falling oil prices by virtue of its US onshore oil and gas assets, though these were sold in June 2018 for US$10.8 billion.

Oil importing nations

Whilst falling energy prices will be causing much angst in the oil exporting nations, these declines should provide a boost to the major oil importing economies of China, Europe and Japan. Improving sentiment in the US and Asia will have a bigger impact on the prospects for global growth and Australian exports than oil-induced recessions in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Iran.

The nation that is likely to see the biggest benefit from falling oil prices is China, which in 2017 imported $162 billion worth of crude oil and is the top oil importer globally. Interestingly in 2015, the USA was the largest global importer of crude oil. However, the development of the shale oil industry has reshaped the oil industry, as it has shifted the USA from being an importer to an exporter of oil. Clearly, a factor such as falling oil prices that stimulates the economy of Australia’s largest export partner will have a positive impact on a number of Australian listed companies from miners and tourism operators, to exporters of wine and food.

Our Take

The positive impact of the 30% fall in the oil price over the past two months has not received much attention by the market. There has been a greater focus on what has happened to FANG’s (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) share price in overnight trading in New York, selling Australian stocks when these are weak.

We see that falling oil prices will provide a nice boost to Australian corporate earnings if maintained for a period. The additional cash from falling oil prices improves the balance sheet of the nation’s consumers, causing either spending on consumption or on paying down debt, and at no cost to taxpayers! By contrast, Kevin Rudd’s “GFC economic security package” from October 2008 delivered a one-off $1,400 to pensioners and $1,000 per child to families and was credited as boosting GDP by 1%, but cost taxpayers $10.4 billion.




IPO Watch Coles

In March Wesfarmers announced their intention to demerge Coles into a new separately listed company, with the new company expected to list on the ASX next Wednesday. Existing Wesfarmers shareholders will receive 1 share of Coles for every Wesfarmers share they own and the parent company will retain a 15% ownership stake in Coles. In this week’s piece, we are going to look at Coles, a new ASX Top 20 company that was last seen as a separately listed company 11 years ago.

As Wesfarmers shareholders, we have closely analysed the 400-page demerger document in an effort to understand how the new company will be structured. Additionally, unlike IPOs (initial public offerings) we like demergers because investing in the newly de-merged child company is frequently very profitable. See our piece Breaking Up. Unlike IPOs where private equity owners are frequently looking to maximise their exit price when a large company is spinning off one of their business units, they are incentivised to give the new company a solid, well-capitalised start with every chance of success. Obviously, when the parent company is giving shares in the new company to their existing shareholders, they don’t want the new company to fall flat on its face just after listing!


Coles started life as a single supermarket in Melbourne in 1914 and grew via organic expansion and acquisitions in the supermarket, department store (Kmart), and liquor retailing areas until the company was merged with Myer in 1985 to create Coles Myer. In the 2000s this sprawling retail empire underinvested in their retail offering and underperformed the resurgent Woolworths. This led to management selling the Myer department stores to private equity firm Newbridge in 2006, and Wesfarmers taking over Coles in 2007 in a cash and scrip takeover valued at $19.3 billion. During the last ten years, Wesfarmers have invested in Coles to rebuild their profit margins and improve efficiency to win market share back from Woolworths.

This demerged Coles is not the same as the 2007 version, as Wesfarmers have invested around $9 billion in the Coles business, growing the number of stores and their liquor business. Additionally, the Officeworks, Target and Kmart assets are remaining with Wesfarmers. Essentially the new Coles will comprise three major divisions:

  • A full-service supermarket providing fresh food, groceries and general merchandise with 809 supermarkets throughout Australia (80% profits)
  • Coles Express that operates 711 petrol station convenience stores under an alliance agreement with Viva Energy (10% profits)
  • Coles Liquor, a liquor retailer with 899 stores under the Liquor land, First Choice Liquor and Vintage Cellars brands (10% profits).
Can the business be readily understood?

Yes. Unlike some companies on the ASX, Coles is a business that most Australians will interact with on a weekly basis. It employs around 112,000 Australians. As a retailer they order goods from wholesalers that are delivered to Coles’ distribution centres, these groceries and wine are then delivered to Coles’ supermarkets, convenience and liquor stores, to replace goods sold. Unlike consumer discretionary retailers such as Myer, consumer staples retailers don’t tend to get stuck with goods that have fallen out of fashion. Famously clothing retailer GAP had a downgrade a few years ago after over-estimating the demand for lime green and mustard yellow coloured leather coats.

How does it make money?

Coles is a high volume or revenue business with low-profit margins and a low return on capital. It operates in a mature and highly competitive industry, which primarily reflects the nature of the supermarket industry. In Australia, this industry operates as an oligopoly with significant barriers to entry, mostly based on brand name and an extensive store network. The low return on capital is exacerbated by the significant goodwill and intangible assets recognised on the acquisition of Coles in 2007.

However, it is not all bad news for investors. Coles has a cash conversion ratio of greater than 100%, which is unusual. The cash conversion ratio measures the profits that are being turned into actual cash receipts. Most companies will have a ratio of less than 100%, as companies buy raw materials to convert into finished goods that are subsequently sold. Alternatively, the company will have a percentage of their customers that might be late paying their accounts.

Coles achieves a cash conversion ratio of greater than 100% because suppliers such as Kellogg’s deliver a box of Just Right Cereal to Coles and are paid at a later date, generally between 60 and 120 days. When Coles sells that box of sugary cereal to me for cash within two weeks of delivery, Coles has received cash for selling the box of cereal before they have actually paid for it. Here Kellogg’s have effectively funded Coles’ working capital. This is obviously a positive for shareholders and supports a high dividend payout ratio.

Why is the vendor selling?

The seller’s motivation is one aspect we look at closely when analysing a new company. Historically investors tend to do well where the new company or IPO is a spin-off from a large company exiting a line of business or the vendors are using the proceeds to expand their business. Here Wesfarmers are demerging Coles and are giving their existing shareholders a share in Coles for every share of Wesfarmers they own, and Wesfarmers intend to retain a 15% share in the Coles business.  Under these conditions, Wesfarmers have a strong incentive for Coles to be successful and to provide it with the best start to its life as a new company. Conversely, where the new company is an IPO conducted by private equity owners that are not retaining any ownership, the sellers are incentivised to maximise their exit price rather than the long-term health of the business.

Coles operates in the highly competitive domestic food and liquor business and going forward their growth will essentially track Australian GDP growth. Currently, Coles holds a 33% market share of Australian supermarket spend and 16% of retail alcohol sales. Realistically it would be very hard for Coles to increase their market share meaningfully in either of these categories, without provoking an immediate reaction from competitors Woolworths and Aldi. Fundamentally Coles is a stable, low growth mature business.

Investors more cynical than us might look at remuneration conditions for senior management in the Wesfarmers Annual Report and notice that a large portion of the CEO’s bonus is tied to delivering a high RoC (return on capital). Notably, removing Coles could make it easier to hit those targets. For example, in the last six months, Coles delivered a RoC of 9%, whereas Bunnings Australia (which is remaining with Wesfarmers) had a RoC of 47%!  In the last 12 months, Wesfarmers management has made some pretty significant changes to their business, exiting the UK hardware market, divesting their coal assets and now spinning off Coles.

Is the business profitable?

Yes, over the 2018 financial year Coles had revenues of $39 billion that resulted in a profit of around $1.4 billion. Coles operates in a constrained environment with 30% market share in each of the Australian grocery and liquor markets, which are dominated by large, well-resourced competitors selling the same or similar products sourced from a small pool of manufacturers. Any aggressive moves to grow market share via reducing price would be met quite swiftly by Woolworths and Aldi. Outside of growth in the Australian grocery spend, the main avenue for Coles to increase profits is via cutting costs. Strategies might include improving distribution efficiencies or boosting the number of home brand items on their shelves (while cheaper for consumers these have a higher profit margin for Coles and Woolworths).

However, Coles’ recent 8-week Little Shop campaign of tiny collectable toys based on branded in-store goods (small plastic jars of Vegemite) has been estimated to have generated an additional $200m in sales in the first 2 months of FY2019. This was not a big surprise as the father of an 8-year-old girl who was aggressively pestering adults that she knew to shop at Coles during this period.

Returns to Shareholders

Coles are expecting to pay out between 80-90% of earnings in dividends, which will result in Coles being a high yield, low growth company. Interestingly, whilst Wesfarmers had an excess franking account balance of $978 million as of June 2018, this will remain with Wesfarmers so at birth Coles will start with a no franking credits.   This is not particularly unusual, for example when BHP spun off S32 in 2015, BHP’s franking credits remained with the parent. This approach is often connected with demerger tax relief from the ATO. Tax relief means that Wesfarmers shareholders defer any tax payable until they sell their Coles shares. Given this large franking account balance, we would not be surprised to see Wesfarmers announce a capital return in 2019 in an effort to return this to shareholders.

Financial stability

Coles will be listed with gearing of around 35%. From the demerger documents, Coles will be taking with it a high proportion of Wesfarmers’ debt ($2 billion) relative to the EBIT that it generates, though this is a business with stable cash flows that can handle debt. When we raised this item with management, we were told that the higher percentage of group debt that Coles are assuming reflects the large percentage of capital Wesfarmers have put into Coles over the past decade, which we consider a fair response.

How attractive is the price?

With a price not being set, it is tough to make a judgement as to valuation, other than that the dividend yield is likely to be attractive. We expect Coles will have an enterprise value between $16 billion and $19 billion – making it a top 30 company – and it will trade at a multiple of about 10- or 11-times EBIT and a PE ~ 16x (a 10-20% discount to Woolworths). Back solving for these numbers, Atlas expects that Coles will have a share price between $14 and $15.50.


Coles faces the potential for store sales to migrate online in the future, fuelled by Amazon – although food and liquor is not an area in which Amazon is focusing in Australia. Coles and Woolworths have both been pre-emptively investing in their online offering to protect their existing business. We note that in much more densely populated Germany, Amazon offers fresh food delivery in only 10 major cities. Conceptually, fresh groceries are less desirable for Amazon in Australia, as many items such a meat, milk and fruit need to be refrigerated. This would necessitate Amazon building separate refrigerated distribution centres in addition to the centres housing books and headphones.

As part of the separation, Coles announced that they would be consolidating five existing distribution centres into two automated sites (one in Sydney and one in Brisbane). This is expected to cost ~$700 million over the next 5 years and will help lower Coles’ operating costs. Automation and consolidation of distribution are designed to allow Coles to compete with Woolworths, Aldi and Amazon.

Our take

Generally, it is hard to forecast how a new company will perform post IPO, as often the market is not that familiar with the new company and its register might be populated by short-term shareholders such as hedge funds that are seeking to make short-term gains. Sometimes (such as in case of the recent spin-off of OneMarket by Westfield) shareholders – including Atlas – aggressively sold their holdings of the spun-off company, because a tech company with no dividend and significant capital requirements was quite different from the parent, a distribution-paying property trust. In the case of Coles, we don’t see this to be an issue, as one of the main reasons for owning Wesfarmers was to gain access to Coles.

 We own Wesfarmers in the Atlas Core Australian Equity Portfolio and will be receiving Coles shares next week. Coles passes our internal quality filter model and we see that exposure to food and liquor offers investors a defensive earnings stream with sustainable comparative advantages in their key markets. We also see that in the medium term, the new Coles could lead to more rational competition in the Australian grocery market and healthier returns for the major participants.

Monthly Newsletter Atlas High Income Property Fund

  • October was a tough month for investors globally with equity indices down between -5% and -10%, driven by concerns over higher interest rates and declining global growth. In this broad-based market correction, listed property held up relatively well with the ASX200 A-REIT declining “only” -3.1%, far better than the ASX 200 that fell-6.1%.
  • The Atlas High Income Property Fund declined by -2.4% in October, with share price falls were cushioned by gains in the value of the put options owned by the Fund and the position in SCA Property (+7%) that defied the prevailing market gloom.
  • October was a month where fear was the dominant emotion and the market ignored some very positive quarterly updates from the retail and office trusts which showed sales growth in the nation’s shopping centres and strong demand for office space. Indeed GPT (-1%) declined despite the trust upgrading profit and distribution guidance for the year.



Go to Monthly Newsletters for a more detailed discussion of the listed property market and the fund’s strategy going into 2019.

Banks Reporting Season Scorecard 2018

On Monday this week, Westpac ruled off the 2018 financial year-end 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. In addition to the CEO of one major bank losing his job, the revelations of the Royal Commission on Financial Services resulted in remediation provisions and a spike in legal fees (which should see new sports cars and beach houses at Palm Beach being left by Santa for sections of the legal community this Christmas). Numerous fines have also been levied on financial institutions, and credit growth has slowed. These factors have combined to create an environment of fear that has weighed on bank share prices.

In this piece, we are going to look at the common themes emerging from the banks in the October 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.


Scaling back the empire

The main theme from 2018 was the banks breaking down the allfinanz model that they have carefully built up over the past 30 years. Allfinanz or bancassurance refers to the business model where one financial organization combines banking, insurance and financial services (such as financial planning) to provide a financial supermarket for their customers. This model 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. Operating in this way obviously creates some of the conflicts of interest that have been on display at the Royal Commission over the past eight months.

Over the past year, we have seen Commonwealth Bank sell their life insurance business to AIA as well as their asset management business a week ago to Mitsubishi UFJ for a very solid price. Similarly, over the past year ANZ have exited both their wealth management and life insurance businesses. NAB also announced plans to sell MLC wealth management by 2019. Additionally, Westpac has continued to reduce its stake in BT Investment Management (now renamed as the Pendal Group). These moves can be seen as acknowledging that the costly exercise of creating vertically integrated financial supermarkets was a mistake. They might also have been motivated by concerns as to what recommendations the Royal Commission is likely to make in 2019.  If adverse rulings are made on vertical integration in the Royal Commission’s Final Report, most of the banks 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

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

Westpac reported the strongest cash earnings as a result of keeping costs under 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.



Gold Star

Bad debts

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 create 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 principal factors causing this fall have 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 attract the lowest level of defaults.




Gold Stars

Shareholder Returns

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

In 2018 dividends were maintained across the banks, which was a surprise in the case of NAB, as we expected a dividend cut. In 2018 NAB 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, dividends growth is likely to be subdued in 2019 as the banks digest the outcome from the Royal Commission. ANZ and CBA shareholders can expect capital returns in the form of share buy-backs to offset the dilution from asset sales. In 2018 ANZ have bought back $1.9 billion of their own stock, with an additional $1.1 billion to be bought back 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%, quite an attractive alternative to term deposits.



Gold Star

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 in 2019 margins should recover courtesy of a rate rise of around 0.15% announced in mid-September. In 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.




Gold Star


Total Returns

In 2018 all the banks have delivered negative absolute returns, also trailing the ASX 200 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 raised earlier in the year about the bank’s lending standards in their $400 billion mortgage book, though we are yet to see any evidence in the form of rising bad debts to back up these claims.

No stars given

Our View

Whilst it is hard to be a bank investor at the moment and some fund managers are advocating avoiding them all together, our view is 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 in maintaining their high fully franked dividends. Additionally, the share prices of ANZ and the Commonwealth Bank will see the benefit from share buybacks, 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.