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What we have learned from reporting season

During the months of February and August every year, the majority of Australian listed companies reveal their profit results and most provide guidance as to how they expect their businesses to perform in the upcoming year. For fund managers, this is somewhat like Christmas, in that opening company results are like gift-wrapped presents: tearing the wrapping off starts to prove or disprove your reasons for owning a company.

In this piece, we will run through the key themes that have emerged over the August reporting season, the winners and the losers amongst Australia’s listed companies, and how our companies have performed.

 

 

Volatile price action on the day of the results

On the day of the result over the last month, we observed more over-reactions to profit results (both positive and negative) than usual.  We see that this occurs as the market price on the day of a company’s result is generally set by the short-term holders (i.e. hedge funds) and very short-term holders (i.e. machines) of equities, rather than the more measured long-term investors. Often the short-term investors trade with reference to whether a company misses or exceeds their expected earnings, rather than the drivers behind a company’s profits. For example, global packaging company Amcor fell -3.5% on the day of their result, which was weaker than expected due to higher resin prices. Whilst the market priced Amcor as if these headwinds were permanent, the nature of Amcor’s contracts with their customers means that rising raw material costs are passed on, albeit with a lag of several months. Conversely, construction company CIMIC (which we also own in the portfolio) had a good result that was above expectations, but probably not deserving of the +17% gain on the day of the result.When thinking about the noise that we face as investors, a great quote from Ben Graham, one of the titans of investing, comes to mind: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.” Short-term prices are dominated by sentiment and short-term holders, but in the long term, share price growth is delivered by those companies that can constantly grow dividends flowing into their shareholder’s bank accounts.

Comparison to 2017 and a look ahead

The August 2018 results season was in aggregate better than expected for Australian listed companies, which reported on average earnings growth of 8% for the 2018 financial year. However, there was a large degree of variation amongst the different companies, with earnings growth in the miners (courtesy of higher commodity prices and a falling AUD) offsetting stagnant earnings growth in the financials. Having listened to close to eighty management presentations over the past four weeks, the general tone feels more cautious than it was in February or August last year. Companies with global exposure were concerned about inflation and the impact of a trade war between the US and China, whereas companies that are exposed to the domestic economy spoke about increasing political uncertainty and the potential for radical policy changes that may result from a change in government in mid-2019.

Market favourites did well 

One of the key themes coming out of this reporting season was that, unlike in the February 2018 reporting season, high price to earnings (PE) stocks that are well-regarded by the market mostly lived up or exceeded high expectations and their shareholders were rewarded. Polarising pizza company Domino’s Pizza (+9%) and JB Hi-Fi (+12%) both saw the short interest in their companies increase in the lead up to reporting their results, which ended up being better than expected. Similarly, a2Milk (+20%), Xero (+19%), ResMed (+10%) and CSL (+16%) all were expected to deliver very strong profit growth and did not disappoint.  The exception to this group was Flight Centre (-14%) which was sold off despite growing profits by +17%.

Give me my money back

Capital management was again a prevalent factor in the recent reporting season and was understandably of interest to investors. A number of companies increased their dividends above expectations, including AGL Energy, Qantas, Magellan and Fortescue. Additionally, we saw a few companies announce special dividends; Suncorp, Woolworths and IAG which was well received by investors with the exception of IAG due to concerns about the outlook for 2019.Rio Tinto, BlueScope Steel, Janus Henderson, Qantas and Crown all announced buy-backs, which should support their share prices over the coming months. Bucking this trend of returning capital to shareholders, Transurban announced a $4.8 billion capital raising to help fund their share of Sydney’s WestConnex motorway, and Harvey Norman raised $164 million to reduce debt on their balance sheet.
Whilst buy-backs boost share prices in the short term, in the longer-term companies do need to retain cash to reinvest in their operations in order to grow earnings in the future without adding to debt.

Cost inflation

Rising costs was a common thread through this reporting season, with most companies mentioning rising costs in their results commentary. Higher labour costs were cited by resource companies Rio Tinto and Alumina, which took some of the shine off otherwise solid results as investors extrapolated the impact of rising costs and falling commodity prices over the near term. Unsurprisingly packaging companies Amcor, Pact and Orora all felt the impact of higher resin prices, though these additional costs are expected to be recovered via pass-through contracts to their customers in 2019. Qantas saw an additional $690 million in costs from rising jet fuel prices, so travellers can expect the company to recover this via higher fares over the next year.Rising energy prices delivered AGL Energy a record annual profit of over $1 billion which allowed the company to increase its dividend by 29%. Whilst this was positive for AGL shareholders, large electricity users such as the office and shopping centre owners GPT and SCA Property faced higher energy bills.

Best and worst results

Over the month the best results were delivered by A2Milk (+20%), Magellan (+17%) and CSL (+16%) The key theme amongst this diverse group of companies all in different industries was a strong profit result and expanding profit margins combined with a positive outlook for 2019. QBE Insurance’s (+11%) shareholders were rewarded when the insurance company produced a result absent of negative surprises the market has come to expect from this stock.On the negative side of the ledger Origin Energy (-19%), Iluka (-18%), Ansell (-12%) and Challenger (-12%) all reported disappointing results compared with other companies. The common themes amongst this group were the profit results coming in below expectations combined with bearish management commentary for the coming year, mainly due to higher costs.

How we fared

Overall, we were reasonably pleased with the results from this reporting season for the Atlas Concentrated Australian Equity Portfolio.  As the Atlas High Income Property Fund focuses on owning conservative Trusts that are rent-collectors, reporting season offers few surprises especially as most of the Trusts we own pre-announced the distributions several months ago in June. Positions in Amcor, Pact and Flight Centre were offset by strong results from CSL, Wesfarmers, JB Hi-Fi and QBE Insurance.

As a long-term investor that is interested in delivering income in the portfolio to investors, something we look closely at is the dividends paid out by the companies that we own and whether or not they are growing. Following the great quote from Ben Graham mentioned above, we look to “weigh” the dividends that our investors will receive, as we view that talk and guidance from management is often cheap, but physically paying out higher dividends is a far better indicator that a business is performing well. Using a weighted average, the dividends that our investors will receive will be +11% greater than for the previous period in 2017.  Using this measure, we are pretty happy with how the recent reporting season went.

Monthly Newsletter August 2018

  • In August, the Fund gained +0.8%. This return is around expectations given our conservative positioning towards higher yielding rent collectors with recurring income and away from Trusts relying on development profits.
  • The Australian Listed Property had a strong month in August though this was primarily driven by those Trusts with a large proportion of development earnings, which historically expand earnings towards the end of a housing boom. As developers such as Goodman are trading on 20 times forward earnings, the market is effectively assuming that this source of profits will both grow and continue indefinitely. We view that as a heroic assumption, given the visibly cooling Australian residential market.

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

The little Aussie Battler under pressure

In the press, large movements in the Australian dollar are often erroneously presented in the press as a vote of confidence in Australia as a nation or the management (or mismanagement) of our elected leaders. A falling Australian dollar is often viewed as a negative event, raising the cost of online purchases, imported cars and overseas travel.

Over the last year, we have seen the AUD fall 8% vs the USD, continuing the volatility in the AUD that we have seen over the past decade since the AUD peaked at 1.10 vs USD in 2011. Over 2018 we had seen the AUD slide downwards from a peak of 0.81 in January to 0.725 as uncertainties over the leadership of the country have increased. Political instability is likely to continue to weigh on the AUD in the short to medium term, as over the next year Australia faces a National election and a likely change in government to a party that has few business or investor-friendly policies.

In this week’s piece we are going to look at currencies, the AUD and in particular the winners and losers from currency movements.

 

Fixed Rates

For much of the last 200 years currencies have been fixed either against another stronger currency or commodity such as gold. For example, following the second war the Bretton Woods agreement pegged currencies against the USD, which was fixed to gold at the rate of US$35 per ounce.

When a country has a fixed currency and faces adverse economic conditions, their treasury inevitably uses the nation’s stock of foreign currency reserves to prop up a faltering exchange rate. The outflow of foreign currency reserves occurs as investors seek to exit and sell the county’s currency which is viewed as overpriced based on the changing economic circumstances or market sentiment.  A great example of this occurred in Russia in 2008, which saw Russia chew through US$200 billion in carefully hoarded foreign currency reserves in a futile attempt to defend the value of the rouble before eventually devaluing the exchange rate.

Additionally, fixed rates can attract the attention of speculators that may look to profit from a forced reset in the exchange rate, where the rate is perceived to be fixed at a rate higher than the currency’s fundamentals. For example, in 1992 the GBP was set at a rate of 2.7 DM to the GBP as part of the European Rate Mechanism, fundamentally this over-valued the GBP as it the UK’s inflation rate was three times that of Germany’s. Speculators famously led by George Soros shorted the GBP, after spending large amounts of foreign currency reserves defending the GBP and raising interest rates from 10 to 12%, the GBP was ultimately devalued, netting Soros’ fund a profit of GBP1 billion.

Floating Rates

In the 1970s as a result of inflation induced by spending in on the Vietnam war, the US abandoned fixing the USD to gold and allowed the USD to float freely in line with market demand. The free float of the USD eventually forced other major currencies to follow suit, with the AUD switching to a floating rate in 1983.

By allowing its currency to float freely, a country loses the ability to control its exchange rate, but it gains control of its monetary system. Before 2000 (when the Greek Drachma was fixed to the €), the current Greek debt situation would have arguably been much less painful to the Greek economy. The current Greek debt crisis would have seen the Drachma being sold down heavily, thus making summer holidays on the Aegean and Greek olive oil much cheaper than similar products offered by Italy or France.

History of the AUD

In 1983 when the Hawke government came into power, one of their first decisions was devalued the AUD by 10% and float the Australian dollar, assuming that this action would cause the AUD to fall and improve our international competitiveness and stimulate the export sector. Before 1983, the value of the AUD was set each day by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the Federal Government and either directly pegged to the foreign currencies such as the GBP or USD or pegged to a trade-weighted basket of currencies.

Corporations had to apply to the RBA to buy foreign currencies to buy imported goods or make investments offshore, with the RBA selling the company USD or GBP in exchange for their AUD at the official fixed rate.

Two floors of the RBA Building in Martin Place were occupied by Exchange Control staff whose job was to make it hard and discouraged for Australian businesses and investors wanting to invest offshore. While this sounds archaic, this level bureaucratic obstruction may have prevented BHP US shale gas debacle or Wesfarmers UK hardware expedition, both of which resulted in significant transfers of wealth from Australian shareholders to companies domiciled in the US and the UK.

 

 

 

Since floating in 1983 the AUD/USD has averaged 76c. However, the AUD was in a downward trajectory from 1983 to 2002. This was broadly due to Australia’s higher relative inflation rate. The strength in the AUD over the past ten years has been a result of China’s industrialisation and its unprecedented associated explosion in demand for Australian minerals since China’s integration into the global economy after joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001. More recently the interest rate differential between Australia and the US and Europe has boosted the AUD; though rate cuts since 2011 and higher US rates have closed this gap. In the medium term, we would expect the AUD to move towards fair value based on purchasing power parity, which we estimate, is approximately US$0.66.

WINNERS

The companies that are likely to benefit from a weaker AUD fall into four categories;

  1. Import substitution:  Companies that produce something in Australia and compete with the now more expensive imports such as steel (BlueScope), fertiliser (Incitec Pivot) or tourism (Crown).
  2. Exporters: Companies that have production costs such as wages in Australian dollars but sell a commodity globally like iron ore that is priced in USD (Rio Tinto) or Grange Hermitage wine (Treasury Group). Here a falling AUD translates into higher revenue for the same quantity of goods sold.
  3. Companies with inflation linked-pricing: When a falling AUD results in inflation, companies like Transurban should see an expanding profit margin. Here their road tolls will increase with inflation, while a proportion of these companies’ costs remain fixed, thus resulting in higher profits.
  4. Offshore Operations: The falling AUD also benefits companies with substantial offshore operations such as CSL, Atlas Arteria and Unibal-Rodamco-Westfield, as their USD or Euro denominated earnings are worth more when translated back into AUD for Australian investors.

Losers

The companies that are likely to hurt from a weaker AUD fall into three categories;

  1. Resellers: The companies that are typically hurt by a falling AUD are those that buy goods offshore for resale to Australian consumers such as retailers Myer and JB Hi-Fi.  Here Australian consumers wages are not impacted by a fall in the currency, but a new iPhone or LED TV’s cost has gone up.
  2. Users of foreign content in their production process: Similarly, a falling AUD presents a challenge for companies like Qantas and Seven West Media that earn revenue in AUD from domestic consumers, but have significant USD-denominated costs such as aviation gas or television series produced in the USA.
  3. Unhedged borrowers of offshore debt:  Further, companies that have significant un-hedged USD borrowings such as Boral will see their interest costs increase, especially if the company does not have USD earnings to service their debt. This situation occurred in 2010 and required Boral to raise $490 million to keep the company within their debt covenants.

Our Take

We expect the AUD to continue to trend down towards 66c in-line with purchasing power parity, diminishing interest rate differentials between Australian and other Western economies and expected further falls in commodity prices. Accordingly, we have structured the portfolio to benefit from a falling AUD. One additional benefit in having a strong bias towards companies with earnings offshore is that the variability of domestic political decisions and the uncertainty brought on the turnover in leadership will have less of an impact on profits and dividends.