Monthly Performance July 2017

  • July was again a very volatile month in the Listed Property sector and after falling heavily mid-month, the index rallied to finish down -0.1%. Normally July is a quiet month as property trust management cannot speak to the market in the lead-up to revealing their results in August.


  • The Fund slightly underperformed the index, declining by -0.3%, with the primary cause of being the position in Westfield which generates profits in USD and GBP. Westfield’s share price was impacted by the strength in the AUD/USD which surged +4% over the month to finish at US$0.80.

Go to  Monthly Newsletters for a more detailed discussion of the listed property market in July and the fund’s strategy

Half Year Report Card for Australian Equities

The last six months have been stressful for Australian equity investors, despite the calm suggested by the ASX200 delivering a total return of +3.2% (capital appreciation plus dividends). December’s Santa Claus rally/Trump reflation trade went a bit sour in January, similar to the feeling given by excessive consumption of four litre cask white wine from Southern Queensland. The market then staged a recovery from February to April, before grinding down slowly on weaker commodity prices, surprise bank taxes and the potential for higher global interest rates towards the end of 2017.

In this week’s piece, we are going to look at what has happened over the first half of the year, examine some key themes and analyse the catalysts that contributed to the best and worst performers.









Growth at any price

One of the key themes to emerge in the first half of 2017 has been a willingness among investors to bid up the share prices of companies delivering earnings growth. This activity seemed to ignore the high valuations paid to access these growing profits. This can be seen in the top performing healthcare, utilities and industrial sectors, whose performance was driven by companies such as CSL (Price to earnings ratio or PE 31x), AGL Energy (PE 21x) and Sydney Airport (PE 44x). Whilst these are all very solid companies that I have owned in the past, at current prices they offer little in the way of a valuation “margin of safety” needed when investing in equities.  The wisdom of being circumspect towards fully valued high growth companies can be seen in the performance in 2017 of companies such as Dominos Pizza and TPG Telecom, both of which have fallen heavily when their growth engines began to splutter.

The hunt for yield halts

The two worst performing sectors in 2017 have been the “yield” sectors of telecoms and listed property, though paradoxically the interest rate sensitive utilities sector continued to move higher. The yield sectors have been sold off as the US Federal Reserve increased their interest rate target to 1-1.25% and signalled a further rate rise later on in 2017. For foreign investors, this decreases the relative attractiveness of investing in Australian “yield” stocks such as Telstra (-12%) and Scentre Group (-13%). Domestically the RBA is taking a different stance, holding the cash rate at 1.5% in June and  that a further rate cut could occur later in 2017.

A mixed story for financials

From looking at the above table on the right, financials would appear to have had a reasonable start to 2017, returning a respectable 2% after dividends, however for investors it has been a bumpy ride.  The major banks performed well up until the announcement of a surprise bank levy in the May budget that wiped $14 billion off their collective market capitalisation. Commonwealth Bank (+2%) outperformed ANZ Bank (-4%) and Westpac (-3%), despite the latter two banks reporting in May lower loan losses and profits in line with expectations.

Whilst 2017 has been tough for investors in the banks, the sun shone down on the domestic insurers IAG (+16%) and Suncorp (+12%), as well as the fund managers Challenger (+17%), Magellan (+14%) and Perpetual (+14%) due to a combination of inflows and performance fees. QBE Insurance’s share price (0%) once again went up by the stairs and down by the lift. After reporting a solid result in February that suggested that the company’s turn-around was working, in June QBE unveiled higher than expected claims from its Asian and Latin American businesses, which caused the share price to fall 8%.

Large Outperforms small

Over 2017, the larger companies listed on the ASX (ASX100 +3%) have outperformed the smaller companies (Small Ords +1%). Outside the banks and the energy companies, the larger capitalisation stocks have had a pretty benign 2017, with the average return dragged upwards by the performance of CSL (+29%), Rio Tinto (+12%), Transurban (+11%) and Woolworths (+8%). The key drivers of small capitalisation index underperformance have been the underperformance of mining stocks Oceana (-12%), Independence (-27%) and retailers Premier (-7%) and Super Retail Group (-17%).  Company-specific issues caused falls in vitamin producer Blackmores (-7%) and retirement home provider Aveo (-20%).

Star pupils and the laggards in 2017

Stars and what caused them to shine

In the table above on the left we have listed the top 10 stocks in the ASX 100, and from looking down the list of the stars it is mainly stock specific factors that have driven performance. Qantas benefited from continued falls in the oil price and higher fare prices, whereas BlueScope’s turnaround continues with the steelmaker reporting 200% profit growth in February and announcing a share buy-back. This caps an amazing recovery for a company that was in a very challenging position five years ago, which resulted in a massive equity issue almost 80% below the level at which the company is currently buying back stock.

As mentioned above CSL, Flight Centre, Cochlear and Aristocrat have benefited from the theme of buying earnings growth at any price. Building materials company Boral’s share price has surged based on a recovery in their US business and continued demand for construction materials to fuel the Australian housing boom.

Laggards and their negative catalysts

In every period there are stragglers as well as winners, and on the right side of the above table we have the worst 10 performing stocks. The common theme driving the underperformance of Harvey Norman, Vicinity, and Scentre are concerns that the impending entry of Amazon into the Australian retail market will destroy retailer profitability and result in vacancies in our echoing shopping centres.

Looking through the rest of the list, Santos has followed the oil price downwards, whereas Brambles and Domino’s Pizza have been de-rated on unexpected profit downgrades. The telecommunications sector was a glamour sector in 2016 but has been on the nose with investors in 2017. Increased mobile competition, lower margins, and uncertainty around the NBN have negatively impacted the share prices of Telstra and TPG Telecom.

Our Take

Looking to the second half of 2017 we see that the market has been predominantly negative on the “Amazon effect” and in August many of the affected companies will have the opportunity to reveal how their businesses are performing. Whilst Amazon has had a significant impact on US retailers and thus the owners of many US shopping malls, we see those concerns as being overplayed (though we are underweight retailers in the Atlas High Income Property Fund). Over the last 30 years the US has added a significant amount of retail floorspace such that it is now estimated at 2.2m² of retail floorspace per capita, this compares with around 1m² of retail floorspace per capita in Australia.   

Looking further afield, we expect the banks to show profit growth from the upward repricing of investor and interest-only loans, though it will be a balancing act for bank management teams, as they will find it harder to fight the bank tax with expanding profits.  The resouce companies are likely to report shrinking earnings with commodities drift lower as the effects of Chinese stimulus plans from 2016 continue to fade.   As global rates begin to rise in the back half of 2017, this will put downward pressure on the AUD which will benefit companies with USD earnings such as QBE, Incitect Pivot and Amcor.  In aggregate we expect Australian equities to deliver modest gains in the second half of 2017, mainly as equities continue to present a better investment option to bonds.

Monthly Performance June 2017

  • June was a very volatile month in Listed Property with the index initially gaining 2% before ending the month down -4.8%, mainly driven by a -3% fall on the final day of the month on a bond market mini sell-off.
  • The Fund’s unit price fell -3.1% as declines in share prices were offset to some degree by income received from distributions and calls that the Fund sold that expired worthless. In the broad based sell-off in late June there were few places for investors to hide.
  • The fund generated 1.3% in income over the month of June and we will look to increase the Fund’s ability to generate additional income from the assets held.
  • June was a significant month for the Atlas High Income Property Fund, which is now listed on the ASX’s mFunds platform (AFM01).

Go to  Monthly Newsletters for a more detailed discussion of the listed property market in May and the fund’s strategy

Not all Great Ideas turn into Great Companies

In my experience, most professional fund managers and equity analysts are frequently given unsolicited stock ideas from clients and friends. Generally, these are small companies, with a great idea that is either going to turn them into the next Amazon or revolutionise a particular industry.  Frequently these companies are difficult for investment professionals to value as they are often at a very early stage. They tend to be long on promise, but short on profits and assets that provide the basis of most valuation methodologies. Inevitably the person presenting the idea knows much more about the exciting technology behind the company and is very enthusiastic about its prospects.

In this week’s piece, we are going to look at the processes and questions that investors should ask when looking at early-stage listed companies.  Atlas is not endorsing any of the companies mentioned in this piece, they are only mentioned in the context of the process that we use in evaluating early-stage companies.

1. How much runway do management have?

The first thing that I look at when reviewing one of these speculative companies is how much time or financial runway management has in which to commercialise their idea before running out of cash. Whilst companies can look to raise additional equity to extend this runway, this is almost always done at a discount to the prevailing share price and relies on supportive investors. Few early-stage companies are financed by debt, as the interest rates charged are likely to be high to compensate for the risk of lending to an unprofitable company.

Investors should look at the company’s cash flow statement to gauge how much cash the company has been burning for the past six months. Compare this against how much cash is on hand on the balance sheet. The reason for using the cash flow statement is that this represents actual cash flows and is harder to manipulate than the profit and loss statement. For example, when I looked at cloud call recording software company Dubber in February, the company reported a cash burn of $4M in the previous six months, yet had $5.2M cash on hand. Here unless there is a dramatic change in the company’s fortunes, one could expect another equity raising within the next 9 months.

Conversely, technology company Fastbrick Robotics had no debt and $10M of cash on hand. This is sufficient to fund the company’s development of a bricklaying robot beyond 2019. Without making any judgement as to the relative investment merits of the two companies, the second company has more flexibility to weather delays, without coming to the market to raise more equity to keep afloat. Obviously, the spectre of near-term equity raisings provides a cap on a company’s share price, as outside investors know there will be discounted share issues in the future.

In more extreme circumstances, the lack of a financial runway has seen companies with solid ideas or assets going into administration, with these assets later picked up by competitors.

2. Management’s record and shareholding

The next step is to look at the experience of management and board of the company in question.  Here what I am looking for is not so much experience at large and well-known corporations such as General Electric or Westpac, but rather experiences in guiding small and more financially unstable companies through to an IPO or trade sale. Large companies have little difficulty in getting attention from potential investors or banks and managing cash flows. Additionally, executives from large organisations are unlikely to have had experience of running a number of business areas while also having a laser-like control of costs.  Looking at job management software GeoOp, it was apparent that the chairman and CEO have solid experience in the digital space and in running start-up ventures.

Additionally, investors should look at the percentage of the company owned by management, as a management team with a significant portion of their personal wealth invested in the company are more likely to act as good agents on behalf of the other shareholders. Here investors should look at existing holdings, as well as the share options granted when management hit certain targets such as profitability and specific share prices.

3. Who else is on the share register?

The presence of larger corporations or well-regarded fund managers on a fledgling company’s share register should be viewed as a good sign. This can indicate that others have done the due diligence on the company, and it is often helpful that they have the voting firepower to stand up to management and scrutinise decisions. The presence of competitors or corporations in similar industries could indicate the possibility of a takeover at a later stage. In the Dubber example mentioned above, the presence of small capitalisation manager Thorney on the share register at 6.4% is a positive sign.

However, the presence of well-known fund managers on the register should not by itself be viewed as sufficient grounds for investment.  Most if not all small capitalisation fund managers have positions in their fund that they now regret and may be quite illiquid at the size of their investment. What may seem to be a significant investment for an individual investor may only represent 0.25% of a large fund.

4. Who are the Company’s competition and what is the size of its addressable market?

All successful small companies face the spectre of competition from large industry players. In some cases, large competitors may be watching the target company closely, learning from their mistakes, before launching a competing product or technology drawing on the larger company’s scale and market access.  Whilst “disruptive” financial technology companies or fintechs are very much flavour of the month at the moment, I find it hard to believe that the big banks and insurance companies are not keeping a close watch their activities. A great example of this is mobile payments company Mint Payments which in 2013 went from 2c to 40c per share on expectations that the company’s wireless point of sale would enjoy spectacular growth. The share price has slid back to 6c as the banks and technology companies such Apple launched competing payment products.

When looking at the prospects for a company and its potential growth, it is important to look at the size of the market to which its products can be sold. A small niche market might not attract competition from larger players, but significant share price growth is unlikely to come from dominating a very small market. Additionally, investors should be wary when a company suggests that it has no competitors, often this is a case of no competitors yet.

5. What barriers to entry are there?

A small company’s prospects of enjoying significant share price gains are significantly decreased if there is little in the way of barriers to stop other firms from entering into their industry. The technology sector in particular has been an elephant’s graveyard of large companies laid low by smaller, more nimble competitors that jumped over the low barriers to entry.  Examples of once exciting companies that only had low barriers to entry include AltaVista, Netscape and Myspace.

Recently we looked at social media marketing company VAMP that was planning on listing on the ASX and was backed by high profile Nova Scotian Qantas and Fairfax Media director Todd Sampson. The social media marketing firm had an exciting buzz as it was designed to capitalise on growing demand from advertising agencies and high-profile consumer brands to connect with Instagram ‘influencers’. However, on reflection, this particular antediluvian fund manager thought that the barriers to entry into social media marketing are quite low.

Our Take

Whilst most small companies have an exciting good, technology or concept that is inevitably presented in a form that will result in large gains in the share price, we see that it is helpful for investors to have a five-point checklist to look at when evaluating a small, exciting, yet unprofitable company. Atlas would like to thank our supporters whose ideas helped in writing this article.

Party like it is 2007???

Party like it is 2007???

The Australian listed property sector has performed solidly over the past five years, climbing its way out of the depths of despair reached in March 2009. As many investors clearly recall, that the sector fell 70% between September 2007 and March 2009 as many over-geared trusts struggled to refinance debt, jettisoned recently acquired assets and conducted highly dilutive equity issues.

While launching the Atlas High Income Property Fund, one of the questions I am frequently asked is “aren’t we headed towards a collapse in the Listed Property sector like in 2007?” In this week’s piece, we are going to compare May 2017 to May 2007 and see that the Listed Property sector is not partying like it is 2007!

May 2007

Prior to the Global Financial Crisis, Australian listed property trusts appeared to be taking over the world. With the financial press and investors cheering, many trusts hoovered up property assets in Europe and the United States. Arguments were made that trusts should be treated more like shares than boring rent collectors, due to the trading and business income that was being earned. Various trusts such as Centro were dubbed “the Macquarie Bank of Property Trusts” due to their aggressive and innovative use of debt to create global property empires.

 Passports ready? Pack your bags

In the below chart the grey bars indicate the proportion of offshore real estate assets held by the Australian LPT sector. In 2007 over 40% of the assets held by the listed trusts were located outside Australia. The rationale for this empire building was that management would be able to increase earnings per share by buying higher yielding offshore properties using cheap short term debt sourced from the wholesale market. This strategy resulted in Australian LPTs owing a cornucopia of properties ranging from apartments in Tokyo, industrial properties in Düsseldorf, shopping centres in Poland, office towers in Brussels and suburban low rise offices in Seattle.  Whilst this provided shots of shiny new assets in the annual reports and exotic site tours, during the GFC it became clear that management teams paid too much for assets they didn’t really understand and were hard to administer from headquarters in Sydney or Melbourne. Additionally, few Australian investors could accurately judge the changing fundamentals of the real estate markets on the other side of the world.

Current Position

After billions of dollars of real estate was sold off in the period 2009 to 2014, the foreign real estate exposure on the ASX is limited to 21% and is comprised of Westfield (trophy shopping centres in the US and UK) and Goodman (industrial property predominately in Asia and geared towards facilitating e-commerce).  Unlike the property assets bought in 2004-2006, these trusts own assets that are narrowly focused and not owned by the trusts for a short-term boost to earnings per unit.


In the short term, a trust like any company can distribute all their profits to shareholders and artificially boost dividends or distributions. Whilst this sugar hit can be sweet for the share price, in the medium term all corporates need to retain earnings to maintain the quality of the assets owned by shareholders. If this doesn’t happen the assets and their earnings power can degrade. Property Trusts need to retain profits to pay for maintenance capital expenditure such as repairs to lifts and escalators, new tiles in reception areas, air-conditioning and – in retail and office – incentives such as fit-outs.  Additionally, if a trust is distributing all of its earnings there is no cushion to protect distributions if market conditions change, such as if a significant tenant goes out of business.

Ten years ago, on average the entire property sector was paying out 95% of earnings, with some trusts paying out over 100%. In that environment, maintenance capital expenditure was financed either by borrowing or issuing more equity; neither of which is desirable for long term shareholders.  Additionally, when market conditions changed, investors saw significant cuts to distributions. For example, Investa Office cut their distribution from 9.7 cents per unit in 2009 to 3.9 cents per unit.

Current Position

Currently the payout ratio is a more modest and stable 82%. This allows trusts to pay for maintenance capital expenditure and incentives out of current earnings and creates a distributions stream for investors that is inherently more stable. Additionally, the listed trusts are more capable of weathering the inevitable changes in market conditions, without immediate and drastic cuts to distributions.


Shaky Debt

Ten years ago, the property sector was both highly geared (debt/debt+equity) and paying a much higher rate on their debt. “Innovative” property trusts such as Centro Properties were riding high, delivering earnings and distribution growth by buying assets around the globe. The strategy employed by many of the ASX Listed Property Trusts was to boost earnings by arbitraging the difference between the higher rental yield on acquired properties and the lower rate at which they could borrow on the short-term wholesale money market. Whilst longer term funding was available, it was at much higher rates which would not have delivered the same earnings growth. For example, when Centro Properties acquired a portfolio of 469 small shopping centres across 38 US states for A$3.9 billion in May 2007, the trust upgraded its forecast for 2008 financial year distribution growth to 19%!

The flaw in this strategy is the assumption that current benign credit conditions will continue forever, allowing the mismatch of funding of the “long-term” property asset with “short-term” one year debt. In the case of Centro Properties, the trust faced significant problems in late 2007 in refinancing US$5.5 billion of debt that was due to be rolled over in a very challenging market. Under these conditions trusts were either forced into administration or, like Goodman, were forced to conduct a series of dilutive equity issues, as shareholders forced to dip into their pockets to pay the debt that had become due.

Current Position

Currently the overall gearing is quite low at around 30% and the trusts overall are paying a much lower rate for their debt. Critically in our mind, the quality of the debt is much higher as the chief financial officers of the trusts have a greater diversity in the sources of funding and have lengthened its term. For example, SCA Property has 30% of its debt due in 2029, 35% in 2021 and the residual in 2019/2020. The critical difference between 2017 and 2007 has been the larger property trusts being able to access the US debt markets, which has allowed them to place long term debt at attractive rates swapped back into Australian dollars to avoid currency risks.

One of the questions that I posed to a range of Property Trusts after the recent results season, is: “Given you can access long term debt at attractive rates, why don’t you increase gearing?” The response was that the investor base of grizzled and cautious fund managers won’t support this due to their memories of the GFC!

Our Take

Whilst Property Trusts have performed very well over the last five years, the underlying financials don’t suggest that the management teams are exposing investors to the same risks that were present a decade ago. Over the last quarter, we have seen the ASX-200 A-REIT index fall 5%, which in our mind has taken some of the heat out of the market and is showing some attractive entry points for a range of Listed Property Trusts.