more on the new coronavirus

SARS

SARS emerged in China in November 2002.  Local authorities, later removed from office in disgrace, initially failed to sound an alarm about the new disease, apparently thinking reporting it would reflect badly on them and hoping it would just go away if ignored.

The world first became aware of SARS as a public health threat in February 2003.  The disease was declared under control in July 2003.  By that time there had been 8000+ reported cases and about 800 deaths.  The overwhelming majority of the fatalities were in China.  The elderly and the very young were the age groups hardest hit.

the new virus

As of yesterday, there had been 2700+ cases of the new coronavirus reported and 80+ deaths.

There are four differences I see between the SARS epidemic and this year’s outbreak:

–faster reporting and more aggressive quarantining today (the disease is passed through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.  There’s no medicine that works against it, so isolating victims is the only “cure”)

–symptoms emerge on average about ten days after infection, pretty much the same as with SARS.   But unlike the case with SARS, where carriers only became infectious after they showed symptoms, carriers of the new virus appear to be infectious from day one, long before they become visibly ill

–China is a much larger part of the world economy today than it was back then.  While the US has grown by 80% (using conventional GDP) since 2003, China is 12x the size it was then.  So the slowdown in global economic activity that will result from quarantine measures in China today will be greater than it was for SARS.  If SARS is a good indicator–and it’s the only one we have, so it is in a sense our best guide–the current outbreak will be well past the worst by mid-year

–SARS happened just as the world was beginning to recover from the recession caused by the internet bubble collapse of early 2000.  The new virus comes during year 11 of recovery from the downturn caused by the near-collapse of the US banking system from losses that piled up during years of wildly speculative lending and securities trading.  In other words, SARS happened when profits were beginning to boom and stocks really wanted to go up; in contrast, this virus is happening when profits are plateauing and stocks want to go sideways mostly because interest rates are crazy low.

investment thoughts

During the SARS outbreak business travel came to a screeching halt because people feared becoming sick/being quarantined in a foreign country. If it’s correct that the new virus can be passed on even before the carrier shows symptoms, the risk in using public transport is substantially greater.  So too the possibility that one’s home country will temporarily bar returnees from virus-infected areas.

Securities markets in China are currently closed for the New Year holiday.  It isn’t clear that they will reopen on schedule.  In the meantime, China-related selling pressure will likely be redirected to markets like New York.  Alibaba (BABA) shares (which I hold), for example, are down about 6% in pre-market trading.  At some point, assuming as I do that the SARS analogy will be a good indicator, there’ll be a buying opportunity.  For me, it’s not today, although if I weren’t a BABA holder I’d probably buy a little.

It will be interesting to see how AI handles trading today.

 

 

Boeing

BA has lost about a quarter of its value since fatal accidents caused its newest 737 model civilain aircraft to be pulled off the market.  Stories are starting to circulate (that I’m hearing them suggests “starting” may not be the best word) that the Sage of Omaha is beginning to buy Boeing (BA) stock.   The rationale?   …a value investor‘s belief that the company’s woes are temporary and that all the probable bad news is already discounted in the stock price.  Buffett has positions in several airline companies and in at least one supplier to BA, so he arguably would have better insight than most into the BA situation.

initial thoughts

How plausible is this?  Is the rumor based on fact or simply launched by a third party with an agenda?  …if the former, is this a repeat of Buffett’s foray into IBM, another questionable trip down memory lane?  what’s BA’s price to book, price to cash flow?  I don’t know.

I’ve never owned BA during 25+ years managing other people’s money.  I’ve never felt a compulsion to investigate it, either, even though I worked for a long time in value-oriented shops where BA was often a topic of discussion.  But I was curious about what interest in BA might not only say about the company but also about the temperature of the market.  So I took a quick look.

I went to the Fidelity research area to get some relevant ratios, in this case the P/CF and P/B.  I found:  $185 billion market cap, P/B of negative $7+ or so a share and P/CF of 30x–not what I would have called a “value” buy.  I decided to take another step and look at BA’s September quarter 10-Q  on the SEC Edgar site.

the latest 10-Q (9/19)

random-ish figures:

–BA has total assets of $133 billion.  Of that $13 billion is plant and equipment, $12 billion is goodwill and other intangible assets and $75 billion is customer financing.  So this is not a plant and equipment story.  It’s about intangible assets, craft skill/ proprietary company know how, being a national champion.

–Book value is negative.  How so?  The most important reason is that over the years BA has spent over $50 billion buying back its own stock, including $1 billion+ during the first nine months of 2019.  Accountants deduct that expenditure from net worth.  Another $15 billion gets subtracted though”comprehensive loss” related to pension plans.  Ex those items, book value would be about $65 billion, meaning the stock is trading at about 3x adjusted book.  Again, not an obvious value story.

–Cash flow, which was about $12 billion during the first three quarters of 2018 is slightly negative for the comparable period of 2019.

my take

The idea behind the typical value stock is that the company has assets that have lost value for now because of economic circumstances or lack of skill of current management.  Once economic conditions improve and/or management is replaced by more competent executives, their value will shine through again.  That’s because the assets haven’t been destroyed, they’ve just been misused.

I don’t think that’s the case here.  The assets in question are intangible.  The strongest, I think, is that BA is one of only two global large commercial aircraft manufacturers–and the only one in the US.  As for the rest, if press reports are correct, BA tried to solve a hardware problem (very heavy engines) with software, a dubious proposition at any time, according to my coder son-in-law.  Worse than that, BA may have been less than forthcoming with regulators about potential risks with this solution.  As for myself, I’d go to considerable pains to avoid flying on a 737 MAX, given that the penalty for a mistake is so high.

So I don’t get bullishness about BA for two reasons:  I think intangibles like craft skill and industrial software can melt away in short order in the way, say, a chemical processing plant can’t.  Also, given what I think is the severity of BA’s problems, I don’t think a loss of a quarter of the company’s stock market value is an overreaction.  If anything, I think it’s an underreaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

starting out in 2020

The S&P 500 is trading at about 25x current earnings, with 10% eps growth in prospect, implying the market is trading at around 22.7x forward earnings.  During my working career, which covers 40+ years, high multiple/lower growth has virtually always been an unfavorable combination for market bulls.

Could the growth figure be too low, on the idea that forecasters give themselves some wiggle room at the beginning of the year?

For the 50% or so of earnings that come from the US, probably not.  This is partly due to the sheer length of the expansion since the recession of 2008-09 (pent up demand from the bad years has been satisfied, even in left-behind areas of the country–look at Walmart and dollar store sales).  It’s also a function of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Washington policies the have ended up retarding growth–tariff wars, suppression of labor force expansion, tax cuts for those least likely to consume, no infrastructure spending, no concern about education…  So I find it hard to imagine positive surprises for most US-focused firms.

Prospects are probably better for the non-US half.  How so?  In the EU early signs are emerging that structural change is occurring, forced by a long period of stagnation.  The region is also several years behind the US in recovering from the recession, so one would expect that the same uptick for ordinary citizens we’ve recently seen in the US.  Firms seeking to relocate from the US and the UK are another possible plus.  In addition, Mr. Trump’s life-long addiction to risky, superficially attractive but ultimately destructive, ventures (think:  Atlantic City casinos) may finally achieve the weaker dollar he desires–implying the domestic currency value of foreign earnings may turn out to be higher than the consensus expects.

 

The biggest saving grace for stocks may be the relative unattractiveness of fixed income, the main investment alternative.  The 10-year Treasury is yielding 1.81% as I’m writing this  That’s 10 basis points below the dividend yield on the S&P 500, which sports an earnings yield (1/PE) of 4.  I say “may” because, other than Japan, the world has little practical experience with the behavior of stocks while interest rates are ultra-low.  In Japan, where rates have flirted with zero for several decades, PE ratios have declined from an initial 50 or so into the low 20s. Yes, Japan is also the prime example of the economic destructiveness of anti-immigration, anti-trade, defend-the-status-quo policies Washington is now espousing. On the other hand, it’s still a samurai-mentality (yearning for the pre-Black Ship past) culture, the population is much older than in the US and the national government is a voracious buyer of equities.   So there are big differences.  Still, ithe analogy with Japan holds–that is, if the differences don’t matter so much in the short term–then PEs here would be bouncing along the bottom and should be stable unless the Fed Funds rate begins to rise.

That’s my best guess.

 

The consensus was of viewing last year for the S&P is that all the running was in American tech industries.   Another way of looking at the results is that the big winners were multinational firms traded in the US but with worldwide markets and very small domestic manufacturing and distribution footprints.   They are secular change beneficiaries located in a country whose national government is now adamantly opposing that change.  In other words, the winners were bets on the company but against the country.  Look at, for example,  AMZN (+15%) vs. MSFT (+60%) over the past year.

The biggest issue I see with the 2019 winners is that on a PE to growth basis they seem expensive to me.  Some, especially newer, smaller firms seem wildly so.  But I don’t see the situation changing until rates begin to rise.

 

Having said that, low rates are an antidote to government dysfunction, so I don’t see them going up any time soon.  So my practical bottom line ends up being one of the gallows humor conclusions that Wall Streeters seem to love:  the more unhinged Mr. Trump talks and acts–the threat of bombing Iranian cultural sites, which other governments have politely pointed out would be a war crime, is a good example–the better the tech sector will do.  As a citizen, I hope for a (new testament) road-to-Damascus event for him; as an investor, I know that would be a sell signal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

thinking about 2020

where we are

The S&P 500 is trading at around 25x current earnings, up from a PE of 20x a year ago.  Multiple expansion, not earnings growth, is the key factor behind the S&P rise last year.In fact, earnings per share growth, now at about +10%/year, has been decelerating since the one-time boost from the domestic corporate income tax cut cycled through income statements in 2018.  Typically earnings deceleration is a red flag.  Not so in 2019.

EPS growth in 2020 will probably be around +10% again.

About half the earnings of the S&P come from the US, a quarter from Europe and the rest from emerging economies.  The US will likely be the weakest of the three areas this year, as ongoing tariff wars take a further toll on agriculture and manufacturing, as population growth continues to wane given the administration’s hostility toward foreigners, and as multinationals continue to shift operations elsewhere to escape these policies.  On the other hand, Europe ex the UK should perk up a bit, emerging markets arguably can’t get much worse, and multinationals will likely invest more abroad.

 

interest rates:  the biggest question 

What motivated investors to bid up the S&P by 30% last year despite pedestrian eps growth and Washington dysfunction?

Investors don’t buy stocks in a vacuum.  We’re constantly comparing stocks with bonds and cash as alternative liquid investments.  And in 2019 bonds and cash were distinctly unattractive.   The yield on cash is close to zero here (elsewhere in the world bank depositors have been charged for holding cash).  The 10-year Treasury started 2019 yielding 2.66%.  The yield dipped to 1.52% during the summer and has risen to 1.92% now.  In contrast, the earnings yield (1/PE, the academic point of comparison of stocks vs. bonds)) on the S&P was 5% last January and is 4% now.

The dividend yield on the S&P is now about 1.9%.  That’s higher than the 10-year yield, a situation that has occurred in our lifetimes only after a bear market has crushed stock valuations.  In my working career, this has happened mostly outside the US and has always been a clear buy signal for stocks.  Not now, though–in my view–unless we’re willing to believe that the current situation is permanent.

The situation is even stranger outside the US, where the yield on many government bonds is actually negative.

In short, wild distortions in sovereign bond markets, a product of unconventional central bank measures aimed at rescuing the world economy after the 2008-09 collapse, have migrated into stocks.

How long will this situation last and how will it unwind?

 

more on Monday

 

 

 

 

public utilities and California wildfires

public utilities

The idea behind public utilities is that society is far worse off if a municipality has, say, ten companies vying to provide essential services like power and water to citizens, tearing up streets to install infrastructure and then maybe going out of business because they can’t get enough customers.  Better to give one (or some other small number) a monopoly on providing service, with government supervising and regulating what the utility can charge.

The general idea of this government price-setting is to permit a maximum annual profit return, say 5% per year, on the utility company’s net investment in plant and equipment (net meaning after accumulated depreciation).  The precise language and formula used to translate this into unit prices will vary from place to place.

The ideal situation for a public utility is one where the population of the service area is expanding and new capacity is continually needed.  If so, regulators are happy to authorize a generous return on plant, to make it easier for the utility to raise money for expansion in bond and stock markets.

mature service areas

Once the service area matures, which is the case in most of the US, the situation changes significantly.  Customers are no longer clamoring to get more electric power or water.  They have them already.  What they want now is lower rates.  At the same time, premium returns are no longer needed to raise new money in the capital markets.  The result is that public service commissions begin to reduce the allowable return on plant–downward pressure that there’s no obvious reason to stop.

In turn, utility company managements typically respond in two ways:  invest cash flow in higher-potential return non-utility areas, and/or reduce operating costs.  In fact, doing the second can generate extra money to do the first.

How does a utility reduce costs?

One way is to merge with a utility in another area, to cut administrative expenses–the combined entity only needs one chairman, for example, one president, one personnel department…

Also, if each utility has a hundred employees on call to respond to emergencies, arguably the combined utility only needs one hundred, not two.    In the New York area, where I live, let’s say a hundred maintenance people come from Ohio during a blackout and another hundred from Pennsylvania to join a hundred local maintenance workers in New York.  Heroic-sounding, and for the workers in question heroic in fact.  But a generation ago each utility would each have employed three hundred maintenance workers locally, most of whom have since been laid off in cost-cutting drives.

Of course, this also means fewer workers available to do routine maintenance, like making sure power lines won’t get tangles up in trees.

the California example

I don’t know all the details, but the bare bones of the situation are what I’ve described above:

–the political imperative shifts from making it easier for the utility to raise new funds (i.e., allowing a generous return on plant) to keeping voters’ utility bills from increasing (i.e., lowering the permitted return).

–the utility tries to maintain profits by spending less, including on repair and maintenance

The utility sees no use in complaining about the lower return; the utility commission sees no advantage in pointing out that maintenance spending is declining (since a major cause is the commission lowering the allowable return).   So both sides ignore the worry that repair and maintenance will eventually be reduced to a level where there’s a significant risk of power failure–or in California’s case, of fires.  When a costly failure does occur, neither side has any incentive to reveal the political bargain that has brought it on.

utilities as an investment

In the old days, it was almost enough to look at the dividend yield of a given utility, on the assumption that all but the highest would be relatively stable.  So utilities were viewed more or less as bond proxies.  Because of the character of mature utilities, no longer.

In addition, in today’s world a lot more is happening in this once-staid industry, virtually all of it, as I see things, to the disadvantage of the traditional utility.  Renewables like wind and solar are now in the picture and made competitive with traditional power through government subsidies.  Utilities are being broken up into separate transmission and generation companies, with transmission firms compelled to allow independent power generators to use their lines to deliver output to customers.

While the California experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime extreme, to my mind utilities are no longer the boring, but safe bond proxies they were a generation or more ago.

Quite the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Score, September 2019

I’ve just updated my Keeping Score page for September 2019.  No sign so far of the traditional actively-managed mutual fund selloff in advance of the Halloween yearend.  I wonder why.  Is this a function of the AI era?   …the fact that passive money under management exceeds actively managed?   …is selling just late?

Will no selloff now mean no 4Q rally?    …that would be my guess.

America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.