We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett
Commodity prices continue their downward spiral sending former diamonds like ArcelorMittal, Glencore and Lonmin to record low valuations. Humans find it difficult to allow for the possibility of a positive outcome in a negative environment, and vice versa. Fear has set in: Is this the time to be greedy?
We’re going through an exceptional period
A number of “game-changing” trends are currently combining to form unique challenges to investors and policymakers and make visualising the end-game difficult.
Record-low rates: Interest rates are at 500-year lows! This has induced excessive speculative gearing creating invisible fault-lines. Remember how the LTCM dream team collapsed in 1997! (Article)
QE vs Structural Reforms: Poor policy making over a long period has left many governments with few levers to pull. The current governments of India and Indonesia stand out as an elite few that are bucking the trend with structural reforms (hindered by all the disadvantages that democracy and an inherited bureaucracy and vested interests does bring). In many countries (Greece, Portugal, France and Spain in particular) the political will to shrink government and encourage the private sector to create jobs does not exist.
Plummeting commodity prices: The commodity super cycle spurred resource companies to expand excessively during the past few decades, leaving the industry with significant surplus capacity at a time when demand is falling. There is no doubt that we’re in a commodities bear market and the bottom will only be reached when the excess capacity has been removed.
A new type of war? November 2015 added a new upward twist to the terror threat from fundamentalism. Combined with a refugee crisis, Europe now faces increased extremist attacks like those in Paris and elsewhere. A full US/NATO invasion of Syria will add to the complexity and increasing cycle of retaliation. This combined with the already existing political and economic problems Europe has to grapple with means that interest rates in Europe will remain low and that the Euro will continue to drift lower.
A planet under strain: The effects of El Nino are everywhere and remain underestimated. Thailand’s H1 2016 rice crop will be severely affected, and countries like Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa are suffering from below-average rainfall whereas Peru has declared a state of emergency and cancelled the Dakar rally going through their country to cope with the effects of excessive rainfall typically associated with an extreme El Nino year. Food prices WILL go up, and this could lead to increased social unrest in many countries. Higher food prices and higher unemployment form an explosive combination. Rising maize and rice prices are going to have a big impact on the poor in South Africa and also on manufacturers’ margins. We have been surprised about how resilient consumer spending has been, but the pressure is beginning to mount.
Not the time to speculate on re-rating of cheap companies:
Markets have reacted to many of the risks described and many sectors such as mining look optically very cheap. The choice investors face is: Invest in quality companies with long track records of growing shareholder value (even in tough times like now) when they’ve been de-rated or speculate on a re-rating of really cheap companies that have poor track records over the long-term. Re-rating vs. compounding
The optical valuations are telling us to be greedy, but in the light of the above, I would advise to be discerning.
Feet on the ground
Our company visits over the past three weeks (Turkey, Greece, Indonesia, Thailand and India) have confirmed a few important points:
- Meeting management teams face to face one-to-one in their own building is vital,
- Doing this consistently over many years compounds the value of these meetings exponentially, and
- Having financial models with 15 years+ data on the company helps tremendously both in preparing for, and during meetings with management. The answers are checked against their track record.
Our findings on this trip
- Companies with good management teams (and countries with good governments) come through tough periods much better. They are on the front foot and preparing for next year, while poor management teams are dealing with problems relating to the past. There are many excellent game changing companies in emerging markets (think Capitec in South Africa).
- When deciding on the valuation of a company, judging the CEO and his team is vital.
- This is very important: In many cases the SOE’s are in distress (state owned enterprises – think Eskom or South African Airways). This grabs the headlines and takes the attention away from the private sector. Even in the distressed economies there are strong companies that are reporting good earnings and growing shareholder value.
- The noise about higher US interest rates, weak currencies and emerging market outflows is distracting investors from the underlying structural positives in good emerging markets:
- Good policy making combined with attractive demographics and very low financial penetration. India and Indonesia are two good examples.
- Global investors have been selling EM’s for 23 consecutive weeks – a spring tide into the US dollar. As sure as day follows night, tides turn!
Emerging markets are not alike
Emerging market dynamics and policies differ like day and night. Not all emerging countries are struggling. India and Indonesia, for example, have GDP growth rates exceeding 4.5% during what is arguably one of the toughest global environments in many years.
Their governments understand that facilitating private sector job creation is their best guarantee to get re-elected.
When considering the effect of El Nino on emerging markets, some countries (e.g. Peru) have been pro-active; others like Brazil and South Africa have done nothing for five to 10 years and are set to reap a bitter harvest.
The currency movements reflect a combination of commodity prices and policies (comparison below). Note India and Korea.
Investors in mining companies are at risk of losing capital. Investors who want to benefit from a “mining rebound” can do so much better by investing in quality emerging market companies at considerably lower risk.
What does this mean for investors?
As said: Cash generation and quality of management are important. Our studies across many countries show that had you invested in the best quality, but more expensive, banks in 2004 or Jan 2009, generally they outperformed their seemingly cheaper peers. Over time consistent compounding of shareholder value adds more value than re-rating. Investing is not one dimensional, it’s the combination of valuation, consistency and rate of shareholder value growth and risk that is vital. If you’re going to invest – invest in higher quality compounders. We’ve done considerable research on this topic.
The Sanlam Global Financial Fund (managed by Denker Capital) has underperformed the past few years. This was largely due to share price and currency declines resulting from the herd stampeding out of global financials and emerging markets. But the companies themselves have continued to grow shareholder value and are on the front foot. Our visits the past few weeks confirmed that.
This has been a brutal liquidity cycle, in which specifically bank and small market cap shares suffered. We don’t know when the cycle will turn (we only know it will), but valuations are low and NAV/share keeps growing.
Be greedy when others are fearful?
When Buffett says that when everyone is fearful it is a good time to search for opportunities, he certainly isn’t condoning buying something just because there’s fear and it’s cheap as a result. In this market there are plenty of minefields and sometimes fear is justified.
Indeed, fear creates irrational and exagerated dislocations in the prices of assets from their underlying value. At this point intimately knowing the company you’re investing in, its management, and the market it operates in is crucial to make sure you aren’t stepping on any proverbial land mine, and this is where Denker’s strength lies.
In certain markets we can buy some of the highest quality companies in the world who continue to grow shareholder worth at valuations we haven’t seen in decades.
Being greedy within our circle of competence will enable us to enjoy the fruits of our greediness with you in many years to come.
27 November 2015