The Days Ahead: More corporate earnings. Initial estimate of Q2 GDP.
One-Minute Summary: There should have been plenty to upset markets this week. The President questioned the level of the dollar and Fed policy, trade tariffs rose again, the EU made a strong trade deal with Japan, housing starts were down, retail sales weak and one of the regional Fed surveys showed that companies are seeing higher prices which they do not expect to be able to pass on (which means a margin squeeze). The yield curve continued to flatten. Netflix had a bad quarter. Yet things kept moving along well enough. Why?
Let’s deal with the first one. The President can criticize the Fed for raising rates but we think Chairman Powell will disregard any and all such comments. He’s going nowhere and the Administration can do nothing about Fed policy. They're stuck with him.
On the others, the market is growing sanguine. The trade pressures are built into the market’s wall of worry for now. Sure, things could get worse but the underlying economy is moving slowly forward and, as we've said before, companies are reporting great earnings. Thank the tax cuts. The path of rate increases is steady and Chairman Powell reassured markets and politicians not to expect policy surprises.
We did see some increase in short-term rates with 3-month Treasury Bills trading above 2% for the first time since September 2009. This was expected. So far this year, the Treasury market has had to absorb $720bn of net new public debt. That’s what happens if you cut taxes in a late-cycle economy. In the same period last year it was -$74bn. Last week, there was $22bn of T-Bill (i.e. 3 month bills) net new issuance and there’s $130bn coming in the next two months. So why aren't rates higher? Because the economy is expected to slow, real wages are flat and because the Fed has clearly signaled where it expects equilibrium rates to settle: not much above where we are.
One item that got our attention was this:
This shows the yield on the S&P 500 (blue) inching below the rate now available on 3-month bills. That hasn’t happened for a decade. You would think equities should yield more. They're more risky. But dividends grow and bond yields do not and for much of the previous 50 years, from 1959 to 2009, equities consistently yielded more than bonds. Equity investors did a lot better, in real terms, than bond investors. It’s too early to say if this is a major signal but at its simplest, it shows that cash is now a viable asset.
1. How’s Berkshire Hathaway doing? Quite well. Berkshire has never been a modish company. They only authorized share buybacks in 2011. Dividend? No. If investors want cash, they should sell the shares on the basis that dividends are i) taxed at higher rates than capital gains and ii) taxed twice, first by the corporation and again by the shareholder. They did pay a dividend once, in 1967, and Mr. Buffett said he must have been in the bathroom when it was authorized.
As for share buybacks, the Buffett philosophy was i) why would the company buy shares that are overvalued because it’s a waste of shareholder money and ii) even if they're undervalued, shareholders would be selling at a discount and why make shareholders mad at you by making them sell at a bad price? (This is horribly simplified and you can read his original thoughts here and here) So, you make money with Berkshire if the underlying investments and operating companies do well. And they've succeeded.
If only more companies followed those rules things would be simpler and executives would not waste shareholder money on over-priced buybacks.
But Berkshire also has a secret weapon. Its book value is one thing (the cost of assets less depreciation and liabilities) but its intrinsic value is much higher. It’s a subjective number but is basically the value of i) its stock portfolio ii) the cash generated by its operating companies and iii) the discounted cash flows of retained future earnings. The good thing about Berkshire is that for much of its life it has traded well above book value and well below intrinsic value.
It slipped to around 88% of book value (so a discount) in 2009 and in 2011 to 109%. Mr. Buffett then said, fine, we’ll make sure that doesn't happen again and in 2010, approved the buying back of shares if the stock traded at less that 110% of book value. He then bumped that to 120% in 2013. The black line in the middle chart above shows the threshold and you can see that the stock has consistently traded above 120%. Since 2011, the company has bought back less than $1.8bn in shares. Compared to its market cap of $490bn and the average buyback in the S&P 500 of 2% a year, that’s next to nothing. What Mr. Buffet was saying was he didn't need to use money buying back shares when he can earn a much higher return for shareholders. Shareholders were happy. The top chart shows Berkshire (blue bar) handily beating the S&P 500 (green) over most rolling 5 and 10-year periods.
Last week, the company announced it could repurchase shares at “any time”. That’s great news. The company has $100bn of cash so could use some to close any valuation gap. Berkshire is no high flyer. It’s a slow growing but predicable company with great franchises. It’s also “cheap” compared to the value of its business. We like it.
And if you're keeping score, you would have made more money in Berkshire than Apple since Apple went public. One -hundred dollars invested back in 1981 in Apple is worth $50,000 today. For Berkshire, it's $61,700.
2. Are those Fangs big? Well, yes, they are thank you for noticing. The story of the FAANGS dominance (so that’s Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) has been around a while now. The race is on for the first company to break $1 trillion in market cap (which was actually done a few years ago by PetroChina back in 2007 but it fell 80%.) While fun, the landmark is irrelevant.
Performance of those six has been up between 25% and 90% in the last year. They're now giants and worth more than the bottom 300 companies of the S&P 500. They don't make nearly as much money. The sum of their earnings is around $184bn compared to $461bn for the bottom 300 (h/t John Authers via Michael Batnick).
Should we care? Well, they’re growing, of course, and are near monopolists in their respective businesses. They generate huge cash flows and are generally asset light. So that's all nice. But their dominance is high, they're expensive and the top 5 or 10 companies in the S&P 500 tend to change quite a bit over time. So, you know, probably won't stay that way.
Bottom Line: Stocks continue to move higher and become cheaper. It's all because earnings are coming through. Watch the dollar, if that begins to correct as the Administration wants, overseas markets will recover quickly.
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--Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC
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