Themes emerging from reporting season

This week saw the end of reporting season for 180 of the S&P/ASX200 companies and around 2,000 of the companies listed on the ASX. Over the past month these companies revealed their profit results for the last six months and provided guidance as to how they expect their businesses to perform in the upcoming year. Whilst we regularly meet with companies between reporting periods to gauge how their businesses are performing, during semi-annual reporting season companies fully open up their car bonnets to let investors have a detailed look at the their financials. Until this happens, investors don’t know for certain whether they are going to find burning oil and hissing pythons or see that the company’s growth engine is running to expectations.

We previously looked at what happens behind the scenes in reporting season and in this week’s piece we are going to run through the key themes that have emerged over the last four weeks.

Surprising strength

The February 2017 reporting season was on average benign for investors was generally better than expected due to strong earnings growth from the miners (BHP and Rio Tinto), banks (Commonwealth and ANZ) and healthcare (CSL). Earnings growth in these sectors offset weakness in profit in the industrial sector.  Overall we have seen approximately 18% growth in earnings over the 2016 financial year, though the bulk of this is due to the resource companies enjoying the benefit of resurgent commodity prices. Excluding the resources companies, earnings per share from Australian companies in aggregate climbed by +6% over the past year.

Rock diggers looking good
The market was expecting the miners to do well as commodity prices – namely coal and iron ore –  had received a boost. This was largely due to a Chinese stimulus plan in 2016 based on rapid rise in fixed asset investment in infrastructure, reducing real estate taxes and loosening lending standards. What surprised us was the commitment among the miners to controlling production costs, reducing debt and keeping a lid on capital expenditure. This allowed BHP to report a 65% increase in profits and a 150% increase in the dividend (that had been savagely cut in February 2016).  Rio Tinto paid off US$4.2 billion of debt and announced a share buy-back.

On the conference calls to investors, management teams promised to maintain capital discipline and not waste the windfall of temporarily higher commodity prices. I am hopeful that before I retire from the funds management industry sometime around 2050, I will have seen a commodities boom where shareholders capital in mining companies was not frittered away on questionable acquisitions and marginal projects at the top of the market!

Banks squeezing their pound of flesh

Whilst the banks and financials stocks performed well in the last quarter of 2016, January saw a significant sell off in their share prices of around -5% as investors became concerned about the impact of rising interest rates.  Commonwealth Bank reported cash profits of $4.9 billion, which was higher than expected due to cost controls and keeping loan impairment expense flat at 0.17%. Similarly ANZ reported that revenues were up +7% and there were minimal loan losses.  NAB reported a 1% fall in quarterly profits but echoed the other banks’ views on low loan losses.  We see that the banks are well placed to have a good 2017 as the repricing of their loan books will drive revenue growth.

Give me my money back!

Capital management was a feature of the recent reporting season and was understandably popular with investors. Rio Tinto, CSL, Coca-Cola and even QBE Insurance announced share buy-back plans. In the case of QBE Insurance we found it hard to get excited about their A$500 million buy-back given that they conducted a A$780 million capital raising 2.5 years ago at a price that was a 15% discount to the current share price.

At a dividend level AGL Energy, Transurban, Rio Tinto, GPT and Bluescope Steel all increased dividends to shareholders that were above market expectations. Across the market the dividend pay-out ratio remains high and is now approaching 80%. Increasing dividends and buying back stock boosts share prices in the short term  and plays to the current “search for yield” investment theme. However, in the longer term companies do need to retain cash to reinvest in their operations in order to grow.

Best and worst results

Over the month, the best results were delivered by Transurban, Rio Tinto, QBE Insurance, CSL, Boral, ANZ Bank, Invocare, Treasury Wine Estates and AGL Energy. The common theme amongst these companies was a solid control of costs and a profit result that did not rely on an improvement in the domestic Australian economy. Woolworths’ share price performed well after they announced sales growth that was ahead of Coles for the first time since 2009. However, shareholders paid for this market-share gain in the form of lower prices, which caused profits in food business to fall by $131 million to $811 million.

On the negative side of the ledger Blackmores, Genworth, James Hardie, Brambles, Domino’s Pizza and Primary Healthcare all reported disappointing results compared with other companies. The common themes among this group was high price-to-earnings rated companies not delivering on high expectations, or companies that had downgraded expectations and hence delivered results that were worse than expected. Telstra had a particularly tough reporting season with profits down -14%, but what concerned the market was the fall in mobile revenue and evidence of more intense competition.

Our take

In contrast to other reporting seasons, this one was relatively benevolent for quality-style investors avoiding both high priced growth stocks and companies with issues. After overall market earnings declines in 2015 and 2016, this reporting season provided evidence that company profits are rising again and that profit margins (ex financials and resources) are rebuilding. This positive view of the Australian economy was confirmed by the ABS GDP data released yesterday that revealed the Australian economy grew by +1.1% in the December quarter and by +2.4% in 2016, which was well above consensus forecasts and the strongest growth in four years. Whilst we expect the banking sector to have a solid 2017, commodity prices (which we expect to weaken) should dampen earnings for the remainder of the year.

Behind the scenes in reporting season

Over the last two weeks and for the next fortnight, visitors to the Sydney CBD may have noticed stressed analysts and fund managers in sharp suits moving about with unusual velocity and with a slightly greater degree of self-importance than normal. Simultaneously, stories from financial journalists are migrating to the front page of the paper. The cause of these phenomena is the ASX-listed company profit reporting seasons, which occurs twice a year with the regular timing of the Serengeti wildebeest migration.

Reporting season is a stressful time, as it reveals how a company is performing in financial measures such as profit, margins, debt and free cash flow, as against the expectations in analysts’ models that are used to derive a valuation. When companies reveal unpleasant surprises or point to problems in the future, the company’s stock price can decline sharply. Alternatively, it can be very pleasant when the company reports a good result which validates the investment case for owning their shares. In this week’s piece, we are going to go through how Atlas approaches each day during reporting season and what happens during a typical day in the earnings reporting season.

Before the day
In mid-January and July (in advance of the August season), Atlas reviews the companies in the portfolio and looks at our expectations for key factors against both the company’s guidance and consensus analyst forecasts. The purpose of this exercise is not so much to identify companies performing ahead of expectations, but to find those in the portfolio that have the potential to cause losses on results day. Take for example Primary Health: the weak Medicare data coming through over the past few months combined with ongoing uncertainty over Government health policy would have alerted investors to the possibility that the company was facing tougher conditions that the market expected.

On results day all is revealed
Companies normally post their results with the ASX around 9am, which gives investors some time to digest the numbers and develop a view before the stock begins trading at 10am. During this period, we will be combing through the profit and loss, balance sheet and cash flow statements, comparing our forecasts to what the company delivered. Also, it is important to compare how a company has performed against their peer group. For example, Woolworths report their results next Wednesday (22 February) and the share price reaction will be strongly influenced by how the grocery business performed relative to Coles (+1.3% sales growth and 4.6% profit margin).

Company management will then formally present their results to shareholders on a conference call or at their offices during the morning, generally between 9:30am and midday. These presentations are directed towards the institutional investment community and are effectively closed to the media and public. They can take between thirty minutes and two hours, with the management having the opportunity to explain their results and discuss factors that will influence future profits. If the company has had a poorly received result and the stock price is falling, this will give management the opportunity to calm the market and clear up some uncertainties.

The most informative part – in our opinion – is always the questions section at the end as it gives investors the chance to see how confident management are in dealing with the issues that investors may have with the financial accounts after they have departed from the prepared scripts. Earlier this week, many investors observed that Australia’s largest office landlord Dexus Property struggled when explaining the amounts and accounting treatment of the cash used to break interest rate hedges. Whilst this sounds innocuous, listed property trusts exclude the payment for breaking these hedges from their current profits, yet highlight the earnings growth from lower interest costs in future years. In our view this is accounting smoke and mirrors!

Typically, it will only be the sell side analysts asking questions of management in the results presentation, with the large institutional investors saving their questions for their own individual meetings with management. However occasionally fund managers become frustrated when company management receive “soft” questions from the sell-side analysts after releasing a result that disappointed the markets. These soft questions can be the result of some sell side analysts wanting to protect their relationship with the company. The last time that I asked a question was a few years ago at a QBE Insurance result. The stock price was down 10% on the day due to some surprise provisions. Here I was frustrated by the analysts asking benign questions about future years’ depreciation charges, and this prompted me to inquire as to “What comparative advantage does QBE have in writing Argentinian workers compensation insurance?”.

In the week after the results, the company will organise one-hour meetings with their domestic and international institutional shareholders. In these meetings, it is important to be well prepared to maximise the value of the time that you get with management, as this is often a key factor when deciding whether to commit investors’ capital to the company. Whilst these meetings can be either quite hostile or very friendly, they are a valuable forum for both parties to give feedback on not only how our clients’ capital has been managed in the past, but also how that capital should be employed in the future.
In recent meetings, one of the key topics that I have discussed with management is their attitudes to debt and gearing. Currently investment grade companies can obtain debt at historically low prices and –  more importantly  – with long duration, which would suggest that companies should raise their gearing to boost returns. The counterpoint to the thesis of increasing borrowings is the lingering memories of the GFC. Accordingly, many companies are reluctant to pay high prices for existing assets or do not have sufficient confidence in the economic outlook or political stability to spend capital.

Trading – measured decisions not made in haste
Whilst the stock-broking community would clearly prefer that fund managers trade immediately and often based on company results, the decisions to make dramatic changes to a position for fundamentally-based fund managers will only occur after sober analysis of the company’s results. The fund manager will then examine what changes are made to valuations and look at the set of competing investment opportunities and their expected returns including cash. We believe that most of the trading volume on the day of a result is either due to short term momentum-based hedge funds, or most likely the machines behind algorithmic trading. This may explain moves such as we saw earlier this week with Treasury Wine, who after reporting was down -5% on Monday, but gained +4% on Tuesday.

Reporting season is like Christmas for investors, in that we get to have a close look at the companies in which we have entrusted our capital, examine the financials, and ask questions of the management teams running these companies. Additionally it can give us a greater insight than ABS statistics into what is actually happening in the economy.

Hugh Dive CFA
Chief Investment Officer