Monthly Archives: August 2019

We can’t match America’s muscle

Why has the US sharemarket reclaimed its pre-financial crisis high when the Australian sharemarket is still 25 per cent short of it? Because in important ways, the Americans are better than us.
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The US economy was the epicentre of the global crisis and half a decade later it is still struggling. Its debt-to-GDP ratio is too high at about 75 per cent and is expected to grow by less than 2 per cent this year, as automatic government spending cuts totalling $US85 billion feed in.

Australia’s new national accounts reveal this economy expanded by 3.6 per cent last year.

The annual run rate was 2.6 per cent in the second half of the year and the Reserve Bank is watching the slowdown closely, but Australia will log its 22nd year of growth in 2013 and probably outpace America.

Sharemarket investors buy the near future, rather than the present or a more distant future where, in America, structural problems become impossible to ignore. When they look at the US market they see potential. They also see better value: even after racing ahead of Australia to reclaim its pre-crisis high, the American market is cheaper.

The surge in America’s jobless rate that accompanied the global crisis came as companies laid off workers. The productivity gains that flowed will be largely retained as new jobs are created. After falling from 10 per cent cent in October 2009 to 7.9 per cent, America’s jobless rate is still 2.5 percentage points higher than Australia’s, but it is falling.

Australia is posting productivity gains after losing its way for most of the past decade. The gain in 2012 was 3.3 per cent, better than the 2.5 per cent growth rate in the mid-’90s, when Australia famously collected a deregulation dividend. National productivity will get another boost as resources projects that have sucked up capital begin producing and generating returns. Companies are also on efficiency drives as they look to offset soft demand.

If you are betting that this economy will be more productive than America’s over the long term, you are assuming a sea change. However, America’s long-term productivity growth rate of about 2.2 per cent a year is twice as good as Australia’s.

The US economy is also on the verge of harvesting an economic dividend as its massive reserves of shale gas underpin a heavy industry renaissance. Cheap domestic gas will deliver a cost advantage for decades.

American intellectual property sits behind market hot spots including information technology, and US companies are being protected in their deep home market and supercharged in export markets by a US dollar that is being kept low by the US Federal Reserve’s zero-interest-rate regime and quantitative easing. They hold record cash reserves of about $US5 trillion, have healthy balance sheets after the crisis purge and are borrowing money at historically low rates.

Australia has higher borrowing costs and higher domestic energy costs, and its currency is at levels that hurt export competitiveness and open up companies to low-priced import competition. External factors including zero interest rates and quantitative easing in America are behind the Australian dollar’s strength, but it is what it is.

This economy is also attempting a delicate shift in activity to the industrial sector as the resources boom cools. Private capital expenditure led by the miners contributed almost two-thirds of Australia’s 3.6 per cent GDP growth in 2012, but it fell by 6 per cent in the December quarter and will fall more this year. The question, not answered in the latest national accounts, is whether the non-mining economy will accelerate and close the gap.

Despite all that, and despite the fact the S&P/ASX 200 share index is 25 per cent below its November 2007 high of 6828.7 points, the Australian market is more expensive than Wall Street.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which hit new highs on Tuesday night US time, is valued at about 12.5 times expected earnings in the next year. The S&P index of 500 top US shares is 1.6 per cent below its high and valued at 13.6 times expected earnings. Our S&P/ASX 200 is trading at 14.5 times expected earnings.

While the resources boom was raging, cracks in the industrial economy were being papered over. Now the boom has cooled. Commodity prices have eased, mining profits and mining company share prices have fallen and as interest rates and the Australian dollar remain relatively high, pressure on the industrial sector continues. Earnings growth has been outpaced by share price rises and our market has moved to a price-earnings premium.

Australian companies still offer dividend yields that look good compared with fixed interest and the productivity gains are great news. A fall in the value of the dollar will be a game changer, and it will eventually happen. For now, though, this market has some pressure points. It is short of its pre-crisis high for good reason.

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A weaker dollar would benefit those with northern exposure

As the Australian dollar drifts lower it is worth revisiting stocks whose earnings get a boost from a weaker currency.
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There are a host of stocks with substantial northern hemisphere operations that can benefit from a softer local currency. These include James Hardie, News Corp, Treasury Wine Estates, Sims Metal, Cochlear and Computershare. Others cheering the Aussie lower are domestic companies competing against cheap imports. Among this group are BlueScope, Capral and Select Harvest.SDI Ltd

A smaller company that should thrive in a lower-dollar environment is dental manufacturer SDI (ASX code SDI). We wrote about the company last year, emphasising the cost reduction program under way, a move that inspired a doubling of the share price. The company recently upgraded its earnings guidance for the year to June 30, 2013, to between $4 million and $5 million net profit. This places the company on a price-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 13 times.

SDI generates about 90 per cent of its income offshore, in Brazil, the US and Europe. The Aussie has been weaker against all three currencies in recent months, providing a tailwind for SDI’s earnings.

A further benefit is the softness in the silver price. SDI’s amalgam products require a significant amount of silver to manufacture.Mayne Pharma

Another company that could look smart if the currency descends below US96¢ is pharmaceutical upstart Mayne Pharma (MYX), revamped with the arrival of Scott Richards as chief executive.

When the Australian dollar was trading around $US1.04 in October, the company announced the acquisition of US-based generic drug developer and manufacturer Metrics Inc for $US120 million. The deal was struck on a historical earnings before interest, tax and depreciation (EBITDA) multiple of about six times. Metrics swamped the existing Mayne business and effectively made the company a pharmaceutical play in the US.

Mayne said in its half-yearly results that Metrics was operating to budget. This has proved sufficient to push the stock up 10 per cent to 42¢, more than double where the company struck its rights issue to buy Metrics.

It is difficult to justify Mayne’s valuation on 2013 earnings but with a full-year contribution from Metric in 2014 it should be able to generate EBITDA of about $30 million, for an EBITDA multiple of 8.3 times. While this is not cheap, Richards will use the Metrics acquisition as a launching pad to build a larger US operation.K&S Corp

The Melbourne-based transport group (KSC) has been on a tear over the past year, jumping 70 per cent compared with a 15 per cent rise in the All Ords.

We wrote about the stock last year when the share price was $1.60, believing it offered the dual attraction of a cheap entry into a cyclical upswing in the economy and the injection of fresh management. Today it’s $2.30.

The company lived up to its word by announcing earnings of 11.3¢ a share for the first half, up 37 per cent on the previous corresponding period, achieved on a modest 8 per cent increase in revenue, showing how leveraged a transport business can be. It also benefited from a robust performance of K&S’s West Australian Regal Transport.

It must be remembered that besides the strong results in WA, few areas are firing for K&S. It has a major exposure to the much-maligned domestic steel industry and the depressed housing market.

If we double the first-half result, the company is trading on a 2013 price-earnings (P/E) multiple of 10 times. This compares favourably with the larger Toll Holdings that has jumped out to a P/E of 13.

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Lenders find it tougher going in Asian markets

Two of the biggest foreign banks in Asia have underlined the tests facing lenders in the region, as profits are constrained by slower growth and stiff competition.
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In a sign of the challenges facing ANZ, which is targeting Asian banking as a key source of growth, UK-listed Standard Chartered reported slowing income growth in several key Asian markets, as its 2012 profits edged up by less than 1 per cent to $US4.79 billion, compared with 12 per cent growth a year earlier. Standard Chartered, heavily focused on emerging economies, said its income growth in Hong Kong had slowed to 6 per cent, from 19 per cent in 2011, and income in Singapore rose 5 per cent, compared with 27 per cent a year earlier.

While it had experienced a surge in income from China, the bank described the previous year as ”challenging” and predicted this would continue into 2013.

London-based HSBC, one of the biggest banks in the world with a major presence in Asia, also this week reported that its net interest margin had narrowed in the year to December to 2.32 per cent, from 2.51 per cent a year earlier.

Group finance director Iain Mackay said its margins in Asia outside Hong Kong had been squeezed by the slump in global interest rates, but were holding up ”remarkably well”. He made the comments after HSBC handed down a 6 per cent slump in pre-tax profit to $US20.6 billion, after it was hit with hefty fines in relation to money-laundering charges in the US and Mexico.

The results come after ANZ Bank last month said its margins had been squeezed by more competition in Asian markets, which are also a focus for Commonwealth Bank, NAB and Westpac.

Although HSBC and Standard Chartered were optimistic about China’s growth prospects, their results highlighted the challenge created by economic uncertainty and more competition in the region. HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver said the bank was expecting economic growth of 8.6 per cent in China this year, compared with growth rates in developed economies of just 1 per cent.

”Whilst the operating environment for financial institutions remains difficult, our core business will continue to reap the benefit of recovering economic growth in mainland China and its positive impact on other faster-growing regions,” he said.

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House brands squeeze out Tahbilk

Over a barrel: The high dollar and private-label brands are taking their toll.Establishment winemaker Tahbilk has fingered private-label wines and low-cost imported wine for swamping liquor store shelves and reducing the space once given to proprietary brands.
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Tahbilk chief executive Alister Purbrick said the growth in house-brand wines was not limited to the major liquor chains owned by Woolworths and Coles, but was also becoming a feature of the large independent banner and supermarket groups.

The other hidden impact, according to Mr Purbrick, was the strength of the Australian dollar, which made imports more competitive.

”So you have got the double whammy of own-brand and imports taking space away from us, up go our promotional slot costs and there is less opportunity for us in any case,” he said.

Mr Purbrick said Tahbilk would walk away from uneconomic promotional and discount deals with retailers.

Last year Ross Brown, the former boss of 121-year-old winery Brown Brothers, used an industry function to launch a spray against leading retailers for flooding stores with private-label wines that he said were ”hollow”, ”copycats” and ”masquerading as real brands”.

The retail squeeze affected Tahbilk’s sales for the 2012 financial year, with domestic sales weaker for the 153-year-old winemaker. But the resilience of its popular Tahbilk Wine Club bolstered the bottom line and allowed the family-owned company to post an improved full-year profit.

Revenue for 2011-12 was $13.187 million, down slightly from $13.675 million in the previous year, while pre-tax profit increased to $776,768 from $736,430. However, after accounting for a dividend payment of $113,805, Tahbilk’s full-year profit was $51,168 against $235,137 recorded in 2011-12.

”Our wine club generates about 65 per cent of the total Tahbilk branded sales,” Mr Purbrick said.

He said the wine club allowed the company to perform well in the face of the strong Australian dollar and collapsing margins.

”There is not a lot of margin in exports, so the best way to describe our exports at the moment is that we have them in a holding pattern. We are not going out aggressively to grow because we can’t make margin out of it, but we want to maintain our presence in those markets.”

China is still a growth market, as the exchange rate with the yuan is more favourable to exporters such as Tahbilk.

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Fels calls for tougher laws

Twenty years after the toughening of the competition test for mergers, the architect of the changes, Professor Allan Fels, has called for more action to deter anti-competitive behaviour by large companies.
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Speaking at an event in Sydney to mark 20 years of the merger test, Professor Fels said Parliament should consider tougher laws to deal with creeping acquisitions. He also wants more effective laws on abuse of market power by large companies and powers to seek court orders for divestiture when they abuse their power.

His suggestions come as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigates whether the big two supermarkets, Woolworths and Coles, are misusing their market power to exploit suppliers. Banks have also come under scrutiny over their failure to pass on interest rate cuts.

As chairman of the Trade Practices Commission and later the ACCC, Professor Fels was instrumental in convincing the government in 1993 to change the law so mergers could be blocked if they were likely to lead to a substantial lessening of competition.

Before that, mergers were blocked only if a company would dominate the market.

The change, fiercely opposed by business, gave the ACCC teeth to block several mergers, though it has still allowed powerful duopolies to develop in supermarkets, hardware, airlines and packaging.

Professor Fels said it was time for more change. For instance, when a large retailer acquired a small shop in a country town, the effect might be profound in the town, but would not fall foul of the current test, which requires a substantial lessening of competition.

”It would be useful if the law more explicitly addressed creeping acquisitions,” he said.

In the case of section 46 abuse of market power cases, Australia had opted for a requirement to prove that the actions were for the purpose of abusing that power.

”The US and the European Union have an effects test and it is much better to focus on the economic outcome of the act,” Professor Fels said. ”Our system induces a cops-and-robbers mentality, where regulators are focused on finding emails and the like to prove the purpose.”

A change in the test would be significant for the supermarket suppliers who allege the big two use their power to drive down prices of commodities such as milk.

He also wants divestiture added to the armoury of penalties, though the penalty should be available only where a court has established abuse of market power.

”It would add much more clout to the act if companies knew there was a prospect of divestiture,” Professor Fels said.

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