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Wood for the Trees | September 2022
1 September 2022
September proved an eventful month for all the wrong reasons. Substantial declines across the globe characterised price action, with the US setting the tone from the middle of the month after another poor inflation print. Central bankers, determined to get the ‘transitory’ inflation genie back in the bottle, continued to push tighter monetary policy, with significant moves taking place in interest rate expectations in September. Tighter monetary policy, a cloudy growth outlook, roaring energy costs, and escalating geopolitical tensions (Russia annexes 4 Ukrainian regions in September) all conspired against the possibility of an October rally. With bulls firmly in the penalty box, bears ran rampant; the US bellwether S&P500 dropping 9.3% in September. This was largely mirrored by most global equity indices, with China the outlier to the downside in the month, struggling with the twin evils of a harmful Covid-zero policy, as well as a wobbling property market, resulting in declines in the order of 14% for our friends in the East.

This month the team spends a bit of time looking at the outlook for global advertising (a big driver in some tech earnings) and moves in global interest rate expectations. On the local side, we cycle back to topics we have covered in previous updates, looking once again at SA listed property (one of our biggest listed property companies now offering yields close to 14%). We also comment on SA bank credit exposure.

Enjoy the read.

International section

By the Numbers

Three-month rolling returns were a lot easier to look at than the one-month number. September proved to be an awful month, with US bellwether, the S&P500, dropping more than 9%. Losses were widespread globally, with a rampant dollar adding further pain to dollar-translated returns for international indices. For the month, the Hang Seng dropped 14% in USD, a dramatic fall by any measure. Talking of the dollar, the DXY strengthened a further 3% in the month against a weighted basket of global currencies, capping off a dramatic strengthening of 17% YTD. Bottom of the barrel in the US was FedEx, which missed Q1 earnings and revenue estimates. Seen by many as a possible indicator of what could be in store for the US economy in the future, it sent the bulls running. A 30% drop on a 7% earnings miss gives one a sense of how cautious investors are at the moment. A strong move came from Twitter, which remains tangled in the ‘on again off again’ desires of the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Biogen shares climbed 36% in the month; in fact, they jumped 45% in pre-market trading on the 28th of September after announcing positive results in a new drug they have developed which slows the cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s. KION Group (German forklift manufacturer) led Europe lower in September after it issued a profit warning for the full year, the magnitude of which the market was not expecting. The business swung into a loss-making position, citing challenges with intensifying supply chain shortages and higher cost increases for materials, energy and logistics – something which most investors are concerned with at present.

What a difference two months make

Investors are currently searching for evidence that the tightening cycle is ending to move back into equity markets. Fed Chair, Jerome Powell, got investors excited in July when he mentioned that its 75bps hike was the peak and that the Fed would look to pivot in the future. Investors eagerly took this as a cue that the Fed was nearing the end of the tightening cycle. The S&P 500 rallied 15.34% from July 13th to August 11th. Jerome Powell used the Jackson Hole gathering of Central Bank governors to reset the market’s perceptions and reiterate the Fed’s hawkish stance and determination to do what it takes to bring inflation under control.

As we approached the Fed meeting on September 21st, forward rates suggested that another 75bps hike was a near-certainty, with a slight chance of a full 100bps hike being on the cards.

As expected, the Fed raised rates by 75bp, taking the Fed fund rate to 300-325bps. Fed Chair Powell also reiterated his hawkish stance on inflation.

The September meeting also saw the Fed members update their forward expectations for various important economic figures and their views on where rates will be over the next three years.

There are several points that investors question based on these expectations.

Firstly, the Fed members suggest that they can successfully navigate this inflation cycle without triggering a recession.

Secondly, the Fed expects the unemployment rate to go from 3.5% in July to 4.4% in 2023. History suggests that a movement in the unemployment rate of this magnitude almost always triggers a recession.

Lastly, while the forward markets were already in line with the Fed’s 2022 Fed fund exit rate of 4.4%, they differ on how 2023 will turn out. The Fed suggests that they will exit 2023 with rates at 4.6%. However, the markets are not convinced that the Fed will be able to continue to raise rates in a weakening economy and are therefore pricing in flat rates or even seeing some cuts in 2023 . Time will tell.
In the interim, investors, sitting on some of the largest cash positions and waiting to re-enter the equity markets, continue searching for turning points in industrial production, unemployment rate and inflation.
Covid and the resulting economic situation have created challenging dynamics for companies, particularly their advertising spend. Companies are under pressure to protect profits for shareholders in the near term, while at the same time they have to keep their eyes on the future to remain competitive in a post-pandemic world. So how do companies protect profits in the near term and set a course for revenue growth over the longer term? And which Ad-Tech companies stand to benefit?

During these unprecedented economic conditions, we are paying attention to what companies and industry experts say about the ad ecosystem. Notably, as many companies face margin pressures due to cost inflation, the easiest string to pull is to cut marketing budgets and reduce ad spend to protect margins. For some companies, this cut in ad spend is also due to product availability. Supply constraints have limited product availability, reducing the need to advertise or stimulate demand.

Additionally, demand has been so strong that it took minimal effort to make sales. The sole driver of sales has been nothing more than having products available for customers. Auto manufacturers substantiate this, as vehicle inventory has been very lean due to the shortage of semiconductor chips required for car production. “We’re selling every vehicle we can make right now,” noted the CEO of General Motors in their most recent earnings call. “They’ve been waiting, and all indications are they remain ready to buy.”

As supply chain constraints begin to iron out and availability returns, we hear that these companies are planning to increase ad spend in the second half of the year.

Nestlé was one of these companies that made a tactical move to cut ad spend due to supply chain disruptions, saying that you “should not promote what you can’t sell”. The Hershey Company’s CEO said, “it didn’t make sense to make those investments given some of those constraints. But we very much look forward to re-upping the investments as we look at the second half [of the year]”.

Unilever seconded this: “And as far as the second half is concerned, we’ll continue to invest more in brand and marketing investment.” This ad spend is going digital, as noted by the comment: “…investment in digital, whether that be in our supply chain, our marketing, or in our relationship with customers and platforms.”

So again, we see the recurring theme where marketing budgets were cut and companies are now planning to increase their ad spend and marketing investment.

There are other trends that are coming to the surface when looking past the irregularities mentioned above. There are opportunities for companies to transform their ad spend and placements. As companies reflect upon the best strategies to optimise their ad budget, it has become increasingly important to use AI, data, and analytics to find the most effective measures and return on investment (ROI). This has led to the revolution of ad spend that is disproportionately favoured towards digital advertising. Digital continues to be a key driver of global ad market growth and remains on an upward trajectory.

Digital advertising is performance-driven and has taken a more analytical approach. This is important, especially under the current macro conditions where companies want to optimise their budgets and see an ROI. This trend has benefitted companies that earn revenue selling advertising like Google, which has increased its market share due to its focus on value and ROI. Facebook also has an ad platform, but it doesn’t have quite the same impact or ability. Both work on a cost-per-click basis, allowing customers to only pay when an end-user clicks or reacts to the advertisement.

Companies also see the benefits of different ad partnerships to help advertisers reach customers in innovative ways. Walmart is building on the recent expansion of its ad partner program by adding ‘innovation partners’, which will help advertisers reach customers in new ways across the shopping journey. Tapestry, which sells designer bags and shoes, is also following the social commerce trend to reach customers. In their most recent earnings call, management said they continue to invest in their marketing program as they test innovative ways to engage with customers and expand their use of influencers on social platforms.

Another topic of discussion is the ad-supported tier that streaming services like Disney, HBO, and Netflix offer. Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) and the convergence of the internet and television has enabled access to new ad space and increased the addressable media possibilities. Over 50% of content viewed is via SVOD, while only 10% of marketing budgets currently target this format. This is where AI and algorithms step in to measure and analyse cross-platform metrics and findings. Microsoft has recently partnered with Netflix on its prospected ad-supported streaming service, making the massive streaming audience available to marketers and brands, while endorsing Microsoft’s full-stack ad platform in this profitable ad market.

Another one of our holdings involved in the ad market, Apple, has recently announced that it would expand its ad business and increase its advertising inventory due to strong demand. This move comes at a time when Apple is investing to increase its revenue from services and strengthen its recurring revenue.

In the near term, catalysts exist that will boost ad spend and benefit our Ad-Tech holdings. Towards the end of the year, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is forecast to have a $2bn ad spend. With the US midterm elections on November 8th, political spending will boost ad revenue in September, October, and November and is estimated to hit a record of $9.7bn. Keeping in mind that this spend goes over and above the annual festive advertising around Black Friday and the seasonal holidays.

If companies are to flourish in this ad space, platforms should allow for easy and flexible ad management options and a variety of ad placements while responding quickly to ever-changing consumer and market demands. This allows the customer to be more tactical and efficient, thereby protecting profitability for shareholders.

Customers are looking to buy value as the environment gets more constrained, and this ad spend will be drawn to an increasingly performance-driven ad ecosystem. There is a fundamental shift in advertising. As we enter into a new ad era, we look to hold companies that show competitive strength in all aspects of digital advertising across all sides of the value chain. For these reasons, we believe Google, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, and ITV stand to benefit from these advertising trends.

Local section

By the Numbers

On a relative basis, local markets held up OK in rand terms this month. The market dropped a shade less than 3% for the month – a far cry from the double-digit drops in most first-world countries. However, when we build back rand weakness (losing almost 5.5% in the month to the dollar), we find we’re playing on the same field again. Relative outperformance came from resources in September, closing largely flat. Financials (including property) with the wooden spoon this month, although it feels like property has dropped too far once again. The team has written a piece this month, relooking at valuations. Even with slower growth and a 10yr that’s blown out, Redefine still trades at a 4% yield premium to SA 10yrs (you read that correctly – forecast to yield 14% in the next 12 months). Capitec took the wooden spoon on the banking front, with the market not sure what premium to pay for the business post their interim results to August. Good numbers by and large, with the debate about Capitec always being whether there will continue to be enough growth in the future to justify the premium rating. Nice bounces from the likes of Anglos and Billiton this month, with Omnia exploding higher as well – couldn’t resist the pun. For those who are unaware, one of Omnia’s subsidiaries is the leading supplier of explosives to the open pit mining and quarrying industries. Also, a solid monthly return from Woolworths, as they reported robust full-year results during the month, including upgraded guidance from the management team. Notable in the results was an improvement in Australia, with the management team indicating that David Jones remains a possible disposal option should the right buyer emerge.

SA listed property: time to start paying more attention

A sector garnering more and more attention for all the right reasons is the SA listed property environment. Results season showed strong performance across the board as debt levels continue to decline, rental reversion rates begin to stabilise, net asset values (NAVs) continue to grow, and dividend payouts continue to climb. The strong performance has begun to grab market players’ attention but has struggled to gather strong positive price momentum as the macro environment pulls the handbrake on those wanting to dip their toes into the sector.

Discounts to underlying NAVs remain excessive

The price to underlying NAV is a strong sentiment indicator as it shows how the market is pricing property names versus their underlying asset valuations. A premium suggests that the underlying assets are growing faster than the cost of equity, while a discount suggests that asset prices will weaken. On average, across the listed property sector, the market is pricing in a discount of around 40%. The integrity of the underlying NAV is a critical component, as an incorrect estimation could skew this metric. However, results show that property sales are taking place at or close to NAV. Therefore, the accuracy of the NAV is sound, and the discount being priced in by the market can be attributed to pessimism towards the sector.

Strong performance across the sector noted in results

The continued focus by management teams to bolster balance sheets, increase dividend payouts, and get a handle on rental reversions while reducing vacancy rates as much as possible is a general theme across the sector. LTV ratios continue to fall, with most around the 40% level.

We have seen a marked difference in the strength of the underlying tenants, with retail, in particular, starting to turn a corner. Industrial continues to show strength, and office is doing its best despite the environment.

Retail: getting there, but it might take a bit more time

The biggest exposure across the SA property universe is to the retail sector. Covid created a perfect storm, and tenants forced the hand of landlords to provide Covid relief in addition to opening years of rental negotiations favouring the tenant. Given the risk of vacancy over reduced rentals, power shifted away from landlords and into the hands of retailers. The past year has seen a marked improvement in the retail sector. Covid discounts have largely washed out of results, and trading densities have increased – an important factor for future rental negotiations. The SA consumer continues to show incredible strength despite the challenges of high unemployment, inflation, and rising interest rates. Results from the major retailers and banks have been strong and clearly show that the underlying SA consumer continues to show resilience.

Almost all retailers are pushing ahead with expansion programs and hunting down space to meet those demands. Fairvest, in its pre-close results call for FY22, spoke of the strong demand from anchor tenants, noting that Shoprite, Boxer and Pick n Pay are aggressively looking for space. Truworths, TFG, Shoprite, Pick n Pay Stores and Woolworths have all provided store expansion plans in recent results.

While demand is picking up, negotiations remain tricky as major retailers continue to push for the most favourable terms possible. Growthpoint acknowledged that while things were looking far stronger, negotiations with the big retailers remain “hectic”, yet they remain cautiously optimistic on the sector. We are seeing a shift in power from the tenant back to the landlord – a considerable driver for demand in the SA listed property space.

Industrial: moving in the right direction

The industrial space has remained resilient over the past few years, and the rhetoric amongst the management teams is that the environment is starting to normalise, with valuations moving in the right direction. Vacancies are at low levels and continue to improve, with demand for space remaining despite the challenges that loadshedding has created in the manufacturing sector. SA Corporate reported negligible vacancies on their industrial book, while Growthpoint has indicated their expectation for rental reversions to turn positive in the next few months – a positive for the sector.

Office: looking up, but pressure remains

Tenants are starting to return to the office: smaller tenants are re-entering the market, while big corporates continue rightsizing. The demand for smaller space is increasing, existing tenants are taking up additional space, and tenants are committing to slightly longer leases than before. While there are shoots of recovery, the sector, in general, remains under pressure, with the Sandton area, in particular, an issue due to oversupply.

Vacancy rates have fallen in some areas, but renewal rates remain negative, although to a lesser extent than in the past. Landlords continue to sell non-essential buildings where appropriate. When pressured by investors on their plans for further sales in the office space, many have stated their intention to hold onto properties which, in their opinion, hold far more value than what is currently being offered in the market. The potential to repurpose office assets is constantly evaluated but only becomes economically feasible after a reduction in rent per m2 following a shift from office to other use. Growthpoint highlighted how the high cost of new developments is not feasible, which has provided some support, but the overall recovery in office is primarily tied to the economic growth in South Africa. Most management teams shared these sentiments.

Management confident enough to provide guidance

Historically, SA listed property has been in a position to provide clear guidance on distribution expectations. The uncertain macroenvironment of 2020 and the years which followed saw guidance removed from financial results, with the sector choosing to hold its cards close to its chest. The latest results season showed a change for the better, and we began to see guidance on FY23 distribution expectations. The decision to place this information in the hands of investors shows the confidence of management teams going into 2023, as the repercussions of coming short of these expectations can be severe.

Looking at distributions in detail, we have seen strong dividend declarations across the board. Net property income showed solid performance, with payout ratios climbing from the required 75%. The result saw strong distribution growth across the sector.

Despite the improving health of the sector, dividend forecasts continue to translate into very high dividend yields on the back of severely depressed share prices. Most property stocks, including the top-tier names, are trading at double digits.
Significant value remains

The underlying performance of the listed property sector continues to show much improvement from the dark days of 2020: balance sheets are stronger, vacancies continue to decline, reversions are beginning to see the light, and dividend payouts are solid. Retailers are demanding more space, and with it, a change in the tide from tenant to landlord is imminent. Market commentators, analysts and investment houses are starting to acknowledge the deep value that property presents, yet the market remains overly pessimistic in the face of macroeconomic challenges. As such, listed property is yet to feel significant demand from the greater market, and remains severely undervalued in our opinion. We are buyers of listed property at current levels.

SA banks: credit quality concerns are overblown

There is a general concern that banks’ profitability and balance sheets will come under significant pressure as consumers battle high costs and rapidly rising interest rates, leading to credit defaults.

Recent bank results show strong performance, reflecting a resilient operating environment. Credit demand remains robust, while management teams focus on disciplined credit origination with tight credit criteria. Revenues and profits continue to grow at double-digit rates.

Although some data suggest that consumers are under increasing pressure, other metrics such as excess savings, debt-to-disposable income, and instalment-to-income levels suggest that consumer finances are still in reasonably good health.

Furthermore, banks are beneficiaries of the rising interest rate cycle. The endowment effect on their existing loan books should continue to drive strong net interest income growth. Every 100-basis point increase in interest rates will positively impact net interest income ranging from 0.5% to 6.06%. Given that interest rate increases for 2022 will likely amount to 300 basis points, banks will benefit from a double-digit tailwind in net interest income in 2023 when the full impact of the rate increases materialises.

Worth noting is the fact that net interest income is five times more than the credit impairment expense. As such, a 10% increase in net interest income suggests that credit impairments would have to increase by 50% before the interest income benefit is eroded.

This is not a scenario we believe will happen as provision levels remain elevated, with the provision coverage ratio materially above pre-pandemic levels. It is therefore unlikely that banks would have to raise additional provisions, with excess provisions acting as a buffer should any unexpected decline in credit quality materialise.

We estimate that excess provisions for the big four banks amount to R33 billion, and the potential impact of releasing these provisions ranges from a 24% to 45% uplift in earnings per share.
Valuations remain attractive

Robust earnings supported an improved return on equity (ROE), while increased capital levels also supported healthy dividend payouts. In most cases, ROE levels are now above the cost of equity (COE).

Valuations continue to reflect significant upside potential, with our 12-month target prices suggesting an upside range of 20% to 45%.

On average, price/book (P/B) valuation multiples remain below their 5-year historical range and our calculated fair value P/B multiples. FirstRand, however, is trading in line with our targeted P/B.
At current valuation levels, we believe the implied ROEs are conservative as they are below historical averages. In the case of Nedbank, ABSA, and FirstRand, these implied ROEs are below the last reported levels. This is not reflective of medium-term return expectations or a incremental upside in the near term, given the potential for further provision releases.
We believe the current economic conditions will continue to support banks’ profitability and balance sheet growth. The banks stand to benefit from the rising interest rates and strong credit demand, while provision levels remain elevated, and excess provisions act as a buffer for any unexpected defaults. As such, we maintain that this growth will continue to improve ROEs and that current valuations remain attractive.

Closing Comments

Thanks for reading through this brief monthly update. It’s not easy out there at the moment, and it is in times like these that everyone’s resolve is tested. Staying the course is probably the best advice that we can leave you with this month. If history is anything to go by, the best medicine for short-term market volatility is an appropriately adjusted long-term view, while ensuring one owns shares in quality companies – which we have already taken care of for you. If you would like to discuss anything regarding your portfolio composition, please do not hesitate to reach out to your respective portfolio manager.