Yesterday I outlined the McKinsey argument that a substantial “equity gap” will emerge in developing economies between the demand for stock financing for capital expansion and the money that investors are willing to make available to the firms that need it.
I believe the qualitative story
To recap: The qualitative argument the consultant makes starts with the idea (which I think is correct) that stock markets in almost all emerging nations are hazardous to investors’ wealth. The companies listed may be the politically connected dregs of the local economy, not the stars. Financial statements may not be reliable. Corporate management may not have shareholder welfare as a primary goal. The regulatory playing field is probably heavily tilted toward insiders. It’s ugly out there.
Firms may not find it easy to raise money under these conditions. Foreigners are unlikely to help, either, since in the developed world an aging investor base isn’t likely to have risk assets to spare.
Therefore, emerging economies will only fill the potential we all believe they have if their governments make substantial changes in their stock markets. Otherwise, companies in these countries will come up $12.3 trillion short of their equity funding needs by 2020.
This is a problem, not only for these countries but also for any investors who have bought emerging markets index funds or ETFs banking on emerging economies to flower fully.
It’s the quantitative stuff that I have problems with. Specifically,
1. starting with a quibble…
McKinsey projects that global financial assets will be worth $371 trillion in 2020. It’s not $370 trillion. It isn’t $372 trillion, either. The precision of the figures implies that McKinsey can forecast the state of financial markets almost a decade ahead with an accuracy of +/- .25%. All the empirical evidence is that no one can forecast with this degree of accuracy even one year ahead. Stock market participants know the limitations of forecasts, because the real world beats them over the head with their misses every day. Why isn’t McKinsey aware?
…or maybe not
The “equity gap” McKinsey forecasts amounts to $12.3 trillion (not $12.2 trillion…). That’s 3.3% of projected financial assets in 2020. How much of the “gap” would remain if McKinsey didn’t stick with overly precise point forecasts?
2. using local GDP to forecast corporate profits
McKinsey assumes that the profits of publicly listed companies in a given country will rise in line with nominal GDP. Three reasons why I think this is a mistake:
–many parts of the local economy may not be represented in the stock market. On Wall Street, for example, autos, housing and real estate–all pretty sick sectors at the moment–have virtually no stock market representation
–in the US and UK, at least, publicly listed firms tend to represent the best and the brightest of the local economy. Private equity and trade acquisitions winnow the elderly and the infirm from the herd.
–in the developed world, foreign sales and profits make up a considerable portion of the stock market’s total. In the UK, for instance, maybe 75% of the earnings of the FTSE 100 come from outside that country–explaining its dominant stock market size in the EU, despite not being the largest economy. In the US, the best guess of S&P is that foreign earnings make up about half the total. The figure is rising.
My conclusion(s): the method McKinsey uses will understate corporate profits, and thereby the size of future equity market. This is not new news. Wall Street has been actively discussing the increasingly non-US nature of S&P profits for the past two decades. In other markets, it’s been a key subject for much longer.
3. we live in a post-internet world
It isn’t just the internet, either. Other key factors as well have conspired over the past couple of decades to substantially decrease the capital intensity of business.
–development of sophisticated supply chain control software, combined with internet communication and the rise of specialized logistics/transport firms, means everyone holds smaller inventories
—for many industries, today’s capital spending = servers and software, not machine tools and buildings. The rise of technology rental, software-as-a-service, for example, means decreasing capital intensity
—e-commerce has vastly decreased the requirement for repeated expensive advertising campaigns and ownership of physical retail outlets as tools to make potential customers aware of a product or service.
—the separation of design and manufacture that the internet allows means that companies use less capital intensive processes to make products in low labor-cost countries
in developing economies, too
There’s no doubt that emerging nations will still need a lot of development in capital intensive areas, like power generation, chemicals, water, roads, ports and related infrastructure. But there’s no reason to believe that these economies won’t also avail themselves of the same capital-saving devices in other areas that developed nations now do. For instance, eastern China is already outsourcing some manufacturing operations to lower labor-cost countries.
My point: in projecting the future capital needs of publicly trade firms the McKinsey assumption that companies will be as capital intensive as they have been in the past is the simplest one. I don’t think it’s right, though. In fact, the more I think about it, the odder it sounds.
A final thought on this subject: as prices change, behavior adjusts. If the cost of equity capital were to begin to rise, companies will rethink their spending plans and economize/substitute.