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Wood for the Trees | November 2021
15 November 2021
Unfortunately, there was only ever going to be one lead image for our November newsletter: Omicron. You will all have read by now the controversy surrounding the measures taken by international governments against South Africa in a poorly researched response to the outstanding work done by our local virologists. As it turns out, the ‘South African’ variant was, in fact, present in various parts of the first world before being discovered by South African scientists, but this has done little to change the devastating status quo. As we write in December, our tourism industry lies in tatters, with billions of rands in cancelled bookings in response to South Africa being placed on the red list of some of our largest travel partners. I’m not sure which country will be eager to raise their hand when they discover the next variant.

Much of November’s market moves were shaped by Omicron. At this stage, not enough is known about its characteristics, but what we do know anecdotally is that it appears much more transmissible. This was enough to upset the collective equity apple cart, with more than a third of October’s stellar gains given back in November as the MSCI All Country World Index drew down around 2,5% in the month. Whether Omicron is equally as deadly as it is clearly contagious remains to be seen. Evidence in our country remains promising so far, with spiking infection rates not nearly matched by proportionate increases in hospitalisations. This is an encouraging first sign.

Regardless of all the unknowns, what is clearly evident is that the emergence of this variant has shaped behaviour, if not sustainably into 2022, certainly for the short term, and this was enough to dent sentiment. Coupled with higher inflation levels being reported in the US and a key Fed meeting taking place in the middle of December, this was enough to sour sentiment.

This month, in our last update for 2021, in addition to our whip around local and global markets in our ‘By the numbers’ sections, we look at a couple of interesting data points from South Africa, touch on weakness in Alibaba, and make a few global comments as we peer into 2022. When we closed off 2020, we commented that if a few shoes were to drop in our favour, SA markets could well be off to the races… and off to the races they have been this year, with stellar capital returns in 2021.

We hope you will enjoy this month’s read.

International section

By the Numbers

The swings and roundabouts continued this month with a very strong October followed by a softer November. This month the All Country World Index dropping around 2.2%. Not much new under the sun from an inflation perspective, with data points continuing to push higher as US inflation surges forward. Mohamed El-Erian, whom you will recall we reference from time to time, has been quoted as saying the Fed’s “transitory” call on inflation may well go down in the history books as one of their biggest blunders ever. Perhaps overly dramatic, but the pressure is certainly mounting. Not enough though to prevent for Mr Powell from taking up a second term at the helm. He’s assisted in getting us into this mess, let’s hope he can smoothly pivot us out. Weaker markets this month principally driven by the new COVID variant, Omicron. Initially dubbed ‘the South African’ variant, as it turns out it’s not actually ours, we’re just pretty good at virology. With parts of the first world grappling with a fresh wave of infections, numerous European countries took to harder lockdown measures to prevent a further outbreak. This spooked market participants to some degree and after a good run year to date, took this as an opportunity to take a bit of risk off the table. Most key global equity indices did not manage to hold their heads this month, barring the Nasdaq which eked out a small positive gain. The downside led by China (still regulatory overhang) and the FTSE 100, with its oil heavy constituents. Oil down 15% in the month as the US led a coordinated effort to release strategic reserves to help soften inflation. Stocks wise, a big move up from Qualcomm (wireless technology company – think 5G), leading both the Nasdaq and S&P500 table this month after big earnings beat in November. The quarter Aug – Oct beat estimates by 13% and YoY were up 75%. We’ve written about Activision Blizzard before, still struggling near the bottom of the table, now down 35% year to date and 45% from its recent peak in February of this year.

First look at 2022

2022 market outlook: rising rates and slowing growth – nothing to be frightened of!

The recovery into a post-Covid world remains uncertain, but one prominent feature of the normalisation of accommodative policy is clear: higher inflation and rising interest rates.

Following a robust macroeconomic recovery in 2021, global growth is anticipated to wane in 2022 as the monetary boost to GDP growth fades. Financial conditions remain easy versus historical levels, but persistent supply constraints, labour shortages, and logistical bottlenecks impede the recovery. Concerns are for higher inflation for longer.

Inflation expectations have certainly risen, but primarily for shorter time horizons at this point. As the support from easy monetary policy ebbs, less money circulating should mean higher interest rates and a possible decline in the relative value of risk assets. Still, the effects depend on the pace and magnitude of the policy shift.

The question remains whether the US Fed can successfully normalise rates and tame inflation without choking off growth. The yield curve – the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and shorter-term 2-year yields – offers us some hints as to what the market expects over the period. We are currently seeing the yield spread narrowing, driven by the shorter end (2-year) pricing in more rate hikes in the near term while the longer end (10-year) remains at 1.50%.

The fact that the 10-year yield remains significantly below the current inflation rate, resulting in negative real yields, suggests that the Fed will not be successful at balancing the economy. This means that the risk of choking off growth is a real possibility, resulting in them having to try stimulate the economy again in the medium term with easier policy.

The Fed has signalled that it will taper its bond purchases, but it’s still unclear when it will pivot to rate hikes. Currently, the market is pricing in four rate hikes over the next year, with the first hike predicted to take place in June 2022.
The S&P 500 index is up more than 24% this year – the third year of consecutive 20%-plus returns. The overall stock market performance has largely been due to earnings growth, as companies recovered after a year of lockdowns in 2020.

With supply shortages likely to stick around until next year, and service-sector prices trending higher, high inflation will likely linger into next year. Goods inflation, which has been the primary contributor to this year’s hot inflationary environment, shows little signs of easing too. The question facing investors for 2022, is whether companies can maintain margins in the face of supernormal inflation and whether the US consumer will be able to stomach price increases without adjusting behaviour.

The most recent data updates confirm that global growth is past the peak and is set to decelerate. The easy wins may be over, and low discount rates will no longer support nosebleed valuations. The key to investment success in 2022 will be to focus on companies that are winning in particular markets with enough brand power to pass on rising prices. Although global growth is expected to slow, it is by no means stalling – it is just returning to pre-pandemic levels. We remain cautiously optimistic about the year ahead.

Alibaba – regulatory headwinds creating volatility, but underlying operations remain solid

US-listed Chinese companies have been in the spotlight for the best part of 2021. It started to heat up in December 2020, when the US signed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (HFCAA) into law. The HFCAA requires foreign companies trading in the US to be subjected to the same audit requirements that apply to US companies. Firms have been given two years to comply or face being delisted. Additionally, in July of this year, the chairman of the SEC, Gary Gensler, asked his staff to ensure that the structures and financial relationships of China-based VIE (Variable Interest Entity) structures be clearly disclosed.

In a counter move, Chinese policymakers began to pressure Chinese companies they deemed to hold “sensitive information of national security”. The authorities are insisting that firms deemed to hold “sensitive data” must supply it to the relevant national regulatory bodies, allowing them to determine whether it is in China’s national interest to share that data with the US, thus impacting Chinese companies and the ability to list in the US.
The simultaneous regulatory crackdown in China on an array of public and private companies this year has complicated the investment case further, ushering in a new, uncertain environment for international investors. With the market keeping a close eye on China, any slight news break drives prices lower.

The situation reached a crescendo with the recent US listing of the Chinese ride-hailing company, Didi. What started with the Chinese government requesting information on stored customer data ended with them pressuring Didi to delist from the Nasdaq. While the Chinese regulatory framework has stressed that these new requirements pertain mainly to new listings, it has nevertheless put pressure on the existing US-listed Chinese tech giants.
Given the US’ call for more transparency and China’s reticence to share any potentially sensitive information with the US government, a problematic situation is arising for existing US-listed Chinese companies. Rather than face the risk of being forcefully removed from the US market or meeting the ire of Chinese regulators, many may feel the best alternative will be to move their primary listing to the Hong Kong stock exchange.

With this in mind, one of our holdings, Alibaba, has been caught in the crosshairs. The potential risk of a delisting has caused significant weakness in the share price as US investors, who are prevented from owning Hong Kong-listed entities, chose to sell down their positions rather than being forcefully liquidated on a US delisting.

We believe that the sell-off in Alibaba stock is presently divorced from its current operating fundamentals, driven chiefly by technical factors and delisting concerns. NVest Securities has no such restriction from owning stocks listed in Hong Kong.

We remain confident in the growth potential of Alibaba with its entrenched position in the Chinese way of life. While there are current headwinds, these do not detract from the evident scale, dominance and cash-generative nature of the business. The current regulatory environment has created a share price that has completely dislocated from operating fundamentals, creating an opportunity for long-term shareholders to benefit as the environment normalises.

Grabbing the opportunity

Regulatory headwinds and US-delisting concerns have driven Alibaba’s valuation down to an adjusted forward P/E ratio of 9x, when taking into account its investment holdings – this is less than half of its normal range.

Alibaba is by far the largest eCommerce company in Asia, while also providing electronic payment services, shopping search engines, and cloud-computing services. The company has a market value of $333 billion and expects to generate $136 billion in revenue this fiscal year.

Assuming modest 15-18% revenue growth for the next four years and constant free cash flow margins, we value Alibaba’s eCommerce business at $210/share.

Alibaba’s cloud computing business also offers tremendous upside, which in our opinion, is currently not reflected in the valuation. The cloud market in China is growing at between 30-50%, with Alibaba being the dominant player with a 40% market share. In the last quarter, Alibaba’s cloud business generated $3bln in revenue and recently started generating profits. Using Amazon’s cloud business, AWS, as a template, and making some conservative assumptions, we believe Alibaba’s cloud business could be worth between $90-$123/share as a stand-alone business.
On top of Alibaba’s operating businesses is an investment portfolio of listed and unlisted holdings worth $45/share.

Adding all these parts together, we calculate a sum of the parts valuation above $350/share.

We continue to see significant opportunity in Alibaba despite the short-term regulatory headwinds and will look to shift our holding from its New York listing to Hong Kong.

Local section

By the Numbers

Much like in our international commentary, market direction this month driven by the emergence of Omicron, the weight of which steam rolled over a number of events in the local market. Our inflation numbers, unlike the US, came through in an orderly fashion, with our SARB governor politely lifting rates by 25 basis points (0,25%), for the first time in three years actually. November also saw the release of the mini-budget where we were able to show a much higher level of receipts than would have been imagined a year ago. Nothing major really came through, it seems our normal challenge in SA remains, actions will speak louder than words. Yes, we do have numerous policy challenges, but these pale into insignificance compared to our lack of delivery. You don’t build a house with drawings on a chalkboard or having meetings about what it must be like to own a house, you build it by laying bricks one on top of another. Big moves this month from Investec (excellent pre-provision profit growth), Royal Bafokeng (stuck in the bidding war between Impala Platinum and Northam Platinum – nice problem to have as a shareholder), Richemont, again very good results and finally MTN. The once ugly duckling showing a good turn of fortune, finally managing to clear the regulatory overhang that has impaired the business case for some time. A few challenges in the SA Inc trade as prices continued to come off in the month after a very strong YTD performance. The Rand also struggling in November, largely due to factors beyond its control. Talk of US inflation and moves in the yield curve the principal driver of the weakness in the month.

SA recovery underway

November was a busy month in SA from an economic point of view: general municipal elections were held, the new Minister of Finance delivered his inaugural MTBPS, the MPC increased rates by 25bps for the first time in three years, and 3Q21 unemployment reached a record high of 34.9%. The news of the Omicron variant broke, with SA being added back onto the UK’s red travel list shortly after that. The result saw a sell-off in the cyclical sectors of the JSE, with the banks and discretionary retailers dropping by mid-single digits.

Despite macro-economic conditions presenting a rather sombre view, recent management updates across most sectors suggest a recovering operating environment that belies current valuations seen in the market.

Banking – improving profitability as default rates remain within normal levels

Despite management teams remaining cautious due to the uncertainties of the impact of the fourth Covid wave, they all noted the operating environment has improved:

  • Increasing loans and advances, driven by strong retail banking. Corporate loans and advances remained subdued at 2-3% as originations are offset mainly by repayments, and utilisation of current facilities remains muted.
  • Credit impairments are trending lower, with credit loss ratios settling within the through-the-cycle ranges. Within most banks, these ranges are at about 75 to 100bps.
  • ECL (Expected Credit Loss) provisions remain elevated. Management remains reluctant to normalise them in line with the lower level of impairments given the uncertainties from the lingering impacts of the civil unrest and a potential fourth Covid wave. We still view the banks as being over-provisioned, with the potential for provision releases to boost earnings.
  • Improving net interest margins due to an improved loan mix and a general rising interest rate environment.
  • Non-interest revenue growth remained in the mid-single digits driven by transaction revenue (commission
    and fees) which has recovered on the back of increased banking activities, while trading income is normalising from 2020 highs. On the negative side, life claims are rising due to the impacts from the fourth Covid wave.
  • Cost-management continues to be a key focus, with management teams doing a great job at keeping costs at or below revenue growth, providing a positive impact on margins.
  • ROE levels have recovered and, for the most part, are approaching pre-Covid levels, with management teams in line to achieve their medium-term targets. Most banks are currently delivering ROEs above their cost of capital.
  • Dividend payments have also resumed, and we expect dividend growth to improve in line with earnings.

We remain very positive on SA banks as we see a divergence between what the market is currently pricing into valuations and the current operating fundamentals within the banks. In our opinion, the market is not appreciating the banks’ current profitability.

Property sector – management doing a great job despite tough operating conditions

The property sector has outperformed YTD, returning ~ 26% compared to the ALSI at ~23%. This sector has recovered well, with the following key themes noted:

  • The biggest recovery was seen in the retail sector, driven by lower vacancies, increased trading densities, increased footfall, increased leasing activities, and improved rental collections. In most cases, footfall and trading densities have recovered to 2019 levels. As per the chart below, taken from the Vukile interim results presentation, footfall and sales are now above pre-Covid levels.
  • Balance sheets are stronger as property companies have done a commendable job reducing debt. This has resulted in more sustainable capital structures, with loan-to-value ratios trending down.
  • The property sector remained successful in disposing of non-core assets. Contrary to the significant discount to net asset value the property shares are trading at, on average, disposal of assets is occurring at, or close to, book value versus a discount to NAV of between 30-50%. For example, Vukile disposed of R798m worth of property in 1H22 at book value, while Growthpoint sold property worth R440.6m at a profit of R118.4m to book, with all sold above book value. Management teams across the sector have successfully driven disposals in a tough environment.
  • As per sector requirements, all companies have now reinstated distributions.
  • Weakness in the office sector persists, with vacancies remaining high, driven by excess supply and negative rental renewal growth. Leasing activity is subdued, while tenant downsizing and consolidations, coupled with shorter-term leases, continue to pressure the office sector.

Overall, the more retail-focused property companies recorded the most robust recoveries. Property shares continue to trade at significant discounts to net asset values, and while operating conditions remain challenging, management teams are doing an exceptional job. We believe the property sector is mispriced and offers outsized returns.

Retail sector – expectations are low, and downside remains limited

The retail sector has faced many challenges, reflected byslightly weaker sales and earnings numbers being expected by the market. These include supply disruptions, fuel prices increases, and the impacts of the civil unrest.

Despite these challenges, the retail sector remained resilient and remains attractive from a valuation perspective. The key highlights from recent updates:

  • Pricing remains a key focus as companies try manage price inflation pressures while simultaneously driving volumes. In the face of general market inflation, retail management teams must walk a tight line between passing inflation through to consumers and maintaining sales volumes. Shoprite’s price inflation remains relatively low and targets the 3-4% range next year. Shoprite management has noted they are focused on maintaining current gross margins at existing levels (24-25%) and will reinvest any incremental margin rands into promotions. Truworths, on the other hand, is having to price more attractively to maintain volumes, experiencing 2.2% price deflation in the first quarter. However, Truworths management is forecasting limited promotional activities as they have aligned inventory correctly going into the festive season.
  • On the operating cost side, the retailers are well placed as they benefit from a lower interest expense, having paid down debt and enjoy declining rental expenses as they continue to negotiate a reduction in leases.
  • For credit retailers, we continue to see improvement in the quality of their credit books. In Truworths’ case, there has been a decrease in overdue accounts and an improvement in bad debts. The percentage of active accounts able to purchase are at very high levels. Therefore, when sentiment improves, there is potential for credit sales growth to accelerate. Similar to the banks, Truworths’ bad debt provisions are currently disproportionately high compared to the current bad debt expense. Failing a deterioration in the current operating environment, we expect these to be released back into the income statement with the potential to drive significant earnings growth in the future.
  • Supply disruptions have been a concern amongst SA retailers. Those that source their products locally saw limited supply disruptions compared to those sourcing globally. All retailers reported supply chain disruptions to varying degrees. Truworths noted that supply chain disruptions were limited as they source ~70% of their products locally. Shoprite also stated that the impacts of the supply disruptions were minimal. Woolworths reported varying degrees of impact across their businesses, with their SA businesses seeing a limited impact, while the Australian businesses were hit hard by disruptions. On the other hand, Pepkor, which sources more products offshore, noted they had experienced supply chain disruptions which impacted the group through increased costs and delays in product inflows.
  • Retailers continued to generate a substantial amount of free cash flow, which has been returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks. Companies are taking advantage of low share prices to buy back shares, with Truworths reported to have bought back 19.3m shares (4.3% of issued shares) at an average price of R39.87 per share, and Shoprite reported to have bought back R500m worth of shares. Both companies continue to make purchases. Given the current health of free cash flow generation, with most retailers in net cash positions, we expect to see this trend continue.

Feedback from the retailers in their most recent updates indicate that they have navigated the challenges seen over the past few months (which are not anticipated to cause further harm into year-end), while inventories are well placed and ready for the peak season. We continue to believe that the SA consumer is financially better positioned than what is currently reflected in the valuations of SA retailers. We expect stocks to react positively to better than expected numbers with limited downside in current share prices. We remain optimistic about the retail sector.

Closing Comments

As we call time on 2021, we want to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support of our business this year. 2020 was a challenging year for all market participants, but you stayed the course and held onto your portfolios when others panicked in March last year. Not only that, but you chose to allow cheap valuations and some positive conviction to remain long your portfolios as the JSE jumped more than 20% this year. The result has been nothing short of a spectacular capital repair from the March 2020 lows. To the end of November, the bounce has been in the order of 90%, with solid earnings coming through from South African stocks in 2021 to support these higher prices.

We hope you have enjoyed this month’s read, and we want to take this final opportunity to wish you a safe and peaceful break with family and friends as we draw the curtain on 2021. A year with so many unexpected twists and turns, but one in which equity returns, both locally and globally, proved far more resilient than many would have thought possible.

We’ll be in touch in early February as we take a more detailed aim at 2022.

All the very best,