Listed property trusts: primed for a rebound

Listed property trusts: primed for a rebound

Property was possibly the worst affected sector when governments around the world pulled the plug on their economies in 2020. Not only did workers stop going into office buildings and shoppers stopped going to malls, but landlords were forced to shoulder the added burden of rent holidays and eviction moratoriums.

Little wonder real estate indices plunged. Locally the Australian Real Estate Investment Trust (AREIT) index fell 39% between the end of January and March last year, while the global benchmark, the FTSE EPRA Nareit Global index (GREIT), dropped 28% (in USD terms).

However, lingering concerns about both delays in returning to work combined with the effect the new paradigm of working from home will have on valuations for commercial property, as well as the impact of the accelerated migration to online shopping on retail values, have seen real estate indices lagging behind the broader share markets’ recoveries following the COVID crash.

The AREITs index is still 14% below its high of last year, while the ASX200 is only 1% away. Likewise, GREITs have managed to get square with last year’s high, but they’re a long way behind the 19% increase in global shares.

These differences offer smart investors the opportunity to buy what some strategists are describing as the only cheap sector left. Tim Farrelly, a highly regarded asset allocation consultant, recently wrote “Despite pretty severe assumptions on the outlook for rental growth, such as a fall in real office rents of 45% and a fall in real retail rents of 20% over the next decade, the overall impact on 10-year returns is not nearly as catastrophic as might be expected, as markets appear to have priced in these falls and more.”

Indeed, Farrelly’s 10-year return forecast for AREITs is 6.8% per year at current levels, while the forecast for Australian shares is 4.8%. Likewise, Heuristic Investment Systems, another asset allocation consultant, has a 10-year forecast return of 6.25% and an overweight recommendation.

While AREITs do offer compelling long-term value at current levels, our domestic market does suffer some limitations. It is highly concentrated, with the top 10 companies accounting for more than 80% of the ASX 300 AREIT index, and just three sectors, retail, industrial and office, making up more than 60%. The superstar of Australian property trusts, Goodman Group, alone is almost one quarter of the whole index.

By contrast, global REITs not only offer the compelling value, plus, at more than A$2.4 trillion, the total market is more than 19 times bigger than Australia’s. The top 10 companies account for less than 25% of the index and the biggest single company is only 5%.

Most importantly, there is abundant diversification, including to sectors that offer leverage to some of the most important structural themes in global markets. If you want to gain exposure to growing digitisation, 3% of the index is data centres; or e-commerce, 12%  is industrial; for demographics, healthcare is 7%, and for urbanisation, 18% is residential.

According to Vanguard, global property was the best returning asset class in the 20 years to 2020, with an annual return of 8.5%. Resolution Capital, an Australian GREIT manager, also points out the asset class enjoyed lower earnings volatility than global equities.

Despite that history of strong returns, 2020 was its worst year since the GFC at -17%. By contrast, however, this time the fall was not because of excessive debt or weak balance sheets, it was a classic exogenous shock. With the progressive relaxation of government restrictions, conditions are in place for a strong rebound.

An added attraction is that historically REITs have been a terrific hedge against inflation, since both rents and property values are typically tied to it. This may sound counterintuitive if you’ve come across the popular misconception that REIT valuations are inversely affected by bond yields, that is, when yields rise, values fall.

Chris Bedingfield, co-portfolio manager of the Quay Global Real Estate Fund, points out that, “Over the long-term, there is actually no correlation at all between REIT valuations and bond yields. However, over the short-term, it seems there are enough investors who believe it that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Notably, over the March quarter, GREITs returned more than 7% despite bond yields rising sharply.

To gain exposure to GREITs, you can buy an index fund, such as the VanEck Vectors FTSE International Property ETF (REIT.ASX), or, if you’re wary about the potential for COVID risks, you can choose an actively managed fund from the likes of Quay Global Investors or Resolution Capital.

Still time to get on board for value stocks

Still time to get on board for value stocks

September 2020 marked what could be one of the most significant changes in the stock market for the past 12 years: value stocks started to outperform growth stocks. Importantly, this rotation could go on for a long time to come, offering opportunities for substantial gains.

What is meant by ‘growth’ and ‘value’ stocks?

Growth companies are those whose earnings can grow independently of the broader economy, the classic example being tech companies, or some health care stocks. Value companies are those whose earnings go up and down with the economic cycle, thus they are also called ‘cyclical’ stocks.

Since the GFC ended, value stocks have underperformed growth by the greatest margin ever. Why did that happen?

Cyclical stocks are dependent on what you might call ‘organic’ GDP growth. On one side of the economy, the GFC caused a massive slowdown in private sector growth as companies tried to get their balance sheets back in order by reducing borrowing, and on the other side, governments all over the world tried to reduce their spending to avoid blowing out national debt levels, a policy also known as austerity.

The consequence was the post-GFC economic recovery was the slowest and weakest on record, so it followed that cyclical companies’ earnings growth was also weak. Naturally, investors backed growth companies instead.

Why are value stocks back in favour?

Governments around the world have responded to the COVID crisis with massive amounts of fiscal support, which has ignited organic economic growth. Here in Australia the federal government has injected the equivalent of 13 per cent of GDP in brand new money, plus another 2 per cent came from early superannuation withdrawals. In the US it’s been a mind boggling 25 per cent, and even Europe has joined in.

The upshot is, after most economies reported record falls in GDP in June of last year, we’ve seen a sharp reversal. Australia recorded back to back quarterly GDP growth above 3 per cent for the first time in the 60 year history of the National Accounts. And in the US, Goldman Sachs is forecasting 2021 will see 8 per cent growth for the first time in 70 years.

As usual, the share market has anticipated the reversal of economic fortunes and value stocks have already enjoyed a sizeable rally. From its bottom last year, the Australian bank sector has bounced 39 per cent, energy by 34 per cent (after oil famously traded below zero last year) and materials 17 per cent.

Why value stocks could rally for a while yet

While they are sizeable moves already, it’s possible the rotation toward value stocks will continue for some time yet. The sheer size of the government stimulus packages saw the Australian household savings rate peak at 20 per cent, and it’s still at 12 per cent, which represents a lot of potential spending still to come. In the US, households are estimated to be sitting on more than US$1.6 trillion in savings, or about 9 per cent of GDP.

Another reason is shown in the chart. In the 12 years since the GFC global value stocks gave up almost 30 years of outperformance against growth stocks and appear to have only just started to claw some of that back. There have been other attempts to turn the tide that were short lived, but none have been backed by such a compelling change in macro support. Indeed, Richard Bernstein of Bernstein Advisors, formerly the Chief Investment Strategist at Merrill Lynch and one of only 57 inductees to Institutional Investor magazine’s Hall of Fame, said “the difference in performance (between value and growth stocks) could be startling to investors over the next couple of years”.

Still time to get on board for value stocks graph

How to position your portfolio

There are plenty of value-oriented fund managers you can invest with, like Perpetual and Platinum. I’ve also written previously that I think the resources sector faces a strong outlook. There are unlisted managed funds that specialise in that area, like Ausbil’s Global Resources Fund, or a listed one is the Tribeca Global Natural Resources LIC (TGF.ASX). BetaShares has an Australian resources ETF, but 53 per cent is invested in BHP, RIO and Fortescue, so it’s heavily influenced by the iron ore price.

For global exposure, VanEck’s new VLUE ETF uses a proprietary ‘Value Enhanced’ algorithm to invest in a basket of 250 value stocks from across the developed markets ex-Australia. And finally, Europe, the UK and Japan also offer a value-oriented bias.

Call us today if you’d like to discuss how to gain exposure to value stocks in your portfolio.

Resources stocks will benefit from a commodities supercycle

Resources stocks will benefit from a commodities supercycle

Analysts and fund managers have recently been lining up to explain why commodity markets are on the cusp of a potentially multi-year bull market. Rockstar analysts Jeff Currie, global head of commodities at Goldman Sachs, and Marko Kolanovic, macro strategist at JPMorgan, go so far as to describe it as the beginning of a ‘supercycle’.

In the last two commodities bull markets, which happened either side of the GFC, major global resources companies rose four to five-fold, far outstripping the broader share markets, though it should be remembered the fall in between was precipitous.

Analysts describe the conditions as being in place on both the demand and supply side across almost the whole commodities complex.

Multiple drivers of demand

In the near term, the almost explosive post-COVID recovery some economies are seeing, fuelled by massive government spending and access to cheap credit, has already seen commodity prices respond. Copper has doubled since its lows of March last year, and now trades at nine-year highs, iron ore has more than doubled and is at 10-year highs and, after falling spectacularly to below zero in 2020, oil is back above US$60 per barrel. The Bloomberg Commodities Index has risen 44% from its lows of 2020.

As well as expectations of an ongoing rise in commodities-intensive infrastructure spending and construction activity, Currie points out the inexorable shift toward green energy underpins huge increases in demand for energy related metals. Already, lithium, a foundation element of most modern batteries, has risen 45% since the start of this year, and cobalt is up 58%.

The European Commission has estimated its Green Deal will require more than €1 trillion (A$1.5 trillion) to be spent over the next decade, and both China and the new US administration have endorsed a move to being carbon neutral by mid-century. With the three largest economic blocs in the world moving in the same direction, the implications for commodities demand are enormous.

Supply will struggle

COVID has also impacted the supply side of the equation, with production out of South America, which accounts for one third of global copper and iron ore production, suffering significant falls. James Stewart, co-lead portfolio manager of the Ausbil Global Resources Fund, argues in addition there has been the typical underinvestment in bringing on new mine production that you see in the aftermath of a commodities boom.

“In 2012 total mining capex was about US$75 billion, and then it fell like a stone to hit US$20 billion in 2016. While it’s picked up since, in many areas the mining industry is nowhere near where it needs to be just to replace annual consumption, let alone expand production,” he said.

For example, copper requires around 300,000 tonnes of new production per year for supply to remain constant, which translates to around $10 billion of capex, and there are no new large mines slated to come into production for at least the next year.

Currie describes most commodities as facing structural deficits, and Stewart agrees, “The process of getting even a small mine up and running, from finding the resource, to defining reserves and then building the infrastructure, can easily take four or five years, and for a big mine it can be 10.”

Stewart’s fund has been investing heavily in mining companies that supply the battery industry, where Bloomberg forecasts demand for nickel and aluminium will rise 13-fold to 2030 and lithium carbonate by nine times.

Longview Economics argues commodities, relative to equities, are as cheap as they have been in more than 50 years, lower than before the start of previous supercycles in 1969, 1987 and 1998.

A hedge against inflation

A further argument in favour of investing in resources stocks is as a hedge against the frequently cited possibility of a rise in inflation, driven again by the sharp rise in post-COVID demand. Commodity prices tend to rise with inflation, driving earnings for mining companies, which could offset concerns about the effects of rising bond yields on a portfolio’s growth stocks.

It’s not often there is such strong consensus among analysts and fund managers. Obviously a smart investor should always consider the counterfactual, but the fundamentals of demand and supply are stacking up to suggest resources stocks could be entering a multi-year uptrend.

Australian residential property is on fire!

Australian residential property is on fire!

The latest statistics coming out of the Australian residential property market indicate we’re seeing a remarkable rebound, with approvals and finance applications soaring and prices likely to follow. For now, the real driver is free standing houses being bought by owner occupiers.

Record construction approvals

Approvals to construct new houses jumped 15.8% in December to a record high, with strength seen right across the country. CBA’s economics unit pointed out that compared to December 2019, housing approvals rose “an incredible 55%” – see chart 1.

Chart 1: Dwelling approvals were strong across the whole of Australia

Blog chart 1

While apartment approvals are nowhere near as impressive, being 19% below a year ago, they are still 44% above the low point reached in June last year when the market had been crushed by national COVID lockdowns and forecasts were for housing markets to collapse.

Residential propery prices expected to follow

While CoreLogic reports that national home prices have risen a relatively modest 1.5% compared to a year ago, with Sydney up 2% and Melbourne down 2.2%, those markets that have enjoyed less COVID disruption were stronger: Perth was up 3.7%, Brisbane 5.3% and Adelaide 6.7%.

 However, given weekly auction clearance rates and loan applications tending to be a reasonable leading indicator for house prices, the outlook for prices, especially for free standing homes, appears to be very positive. Clearance rates have roared to a four-year high – see the chart 2 below – and the value of new housing loan commitments in December jumped 9% to hit a record high of $26 billion, putting it 31% higher than a year ago.

Chart 2: Auction clearance rates have hit a four year high

Blog chart 2

Chart 3: Owner occupier borrowing has shot up

Blog chart 3

UBS forecasts Australian house prices will rise by 10% in 2021, while CBA is calling for an 8% increase.

Perfect storm

What we’re seeing is the culmination of various factors that, when combined, amount to a huge tailwind for the property market.

Interest rates: the Reserve Bank has cut cash rates to an all-time low of 0.1% and indicated they have no intention of raising them any time soon. Borrowers could have two to three more years of super low interest rates up their sleeve.

In addition, the big banks are benefiting from the Reserve Bank’s Term Funding Facility that enables them to borrow a total of $200 billion for home lending at the same rock bottom rate of 0.1%.

Banks have responded by offering fixed rate loans as low as 1.75%, with no fewer than 25 different loans currently below 2%. Not surprisingly, fixed rate loans now account for 40% of new loans, up from 15%.

Relaxed lending standards: In October last year the government announced the removal of the bank regulator’s responsible lending laws, which required banks to undertake thorough due diligence on a borrower’s capacity to repay a loan. The Treasurer said at the time the move was aimed at providing easier access to credit to help Australia’s recovery from its first recession in more than 30 years.

Stimulus spending: the stimulus packages announced in the wake of the COVID pandemic by the Australian government added up to 13% of GDP – newly created money shoved into the economy. That saw household savings jump to an almost 60-year high in June last year – see chart 4.

Chart 4: Household savings hit an almost 60-year high

Blog chart 4
A huge portion of those savings were bound to find their way into the economy through consumer spending, which we saw in the December quarter last year when the CBA Economics Unit said spending on their bank’s credit cards was 11% higher than the year before.

HomeBuilder Grant: the Federal Government also announced grants of $25,000 to qualifying borrowers who were either buying or renovating a home to live in. By the end of 2020, 75,000 applications had been received, blowing past the government’s forecast of 30,000. The scheme has been extended until March, although it’s been reduced to $15,000.

Stamp duty concessions: New South Wales and Victoria announced stamp duty concessions of between 25-50% on residential property purchases up to $1 million.

Job security: thanks largely to the stimulus juicing the economy, the NAB Business Survey shows business confidence and business conditions have rebounded to be well above their average for the last 30 years. That’s in turn prompted the labour participation rate to jump to a 35-year high and the underemployment rate to drop to its six-year average, while job vacancies are at the highest for at least 12 years.

Not as great for investors

While property prices are tipped to do well over the course of 2021, rental markets are not looking  as promising for property investors.

Nationally, CoreLogic reports rental rates went up by just over 1% for the year to the end of January 2021. That means they failed to keep pace with property prices, meaning the yield on an investment property, already notoriously low in Australia, was even worse.

Rents in apartments were markedly worse, possibly reflecting a sharp fall in international students and immigrants. In Melbourne, unit rents dropped 8% over the past year while in Sydney it was 6%.

Key takeaways

  • For those looking to buy a home, the market looks set to rise over this year.
  • While capital gain for investors is always attractive, there may well be risks in finding a tenant at current market rates.
  • Qualifying borrowers can still benefit from the federal government’s HomeBuilder grant until March.
  • For those looking to borrow to buy a home, rates are at all-time lows.
  • For those already with a mortgage, now is a great time to refinance.

Looking to buy a residential property or refinance your existing home?

Call Steward Wealth today on (03) 9975 7070 to find out how we can help you achieve a highly competitive home loan rate.

Billionaire’s ‘epic bubble’ call may be wrong

Billionaire’s ‘epic bubble’ call may be wrong

Jeremy Grantham is the legendary former Chief Strategist of fund manager GMO. In his 82 years there’s very little he hasn’t seen in financial markets, and he rightly earned his legend status by calling the last three great stock market bubbles: the Japanese equities bubble of the late 1980s,  the US dotcom bubble at the end of the 1990s and the 2008 GFC.

So it’s understandable people took notice when he greeted the new year with a frightening declaration:

The long, long bull market since 2009 has finally matured into a fully-fledged epic bubble. Featuring extreme overvaluation, explosive price increases, frenzied issuance, and hysterically speculative investor behaviour, I believe this event will be recorded as one of the great bubbles of financial history, right along with the South Sea bubble, 1929, and 2000.

Consider the counter factual

It sounds absurdly presumptuous to take the other side against such a storied investor, but I believe Grantham’s arguments warrant some context, and smart investors should always consider the counter factual.

First, Grantham has warned of an imminent US stock market collapse literally every year since the GFC and always for the same reasons: over extended valuations and the market’s reliance on central bank support. Grantham made a career out of identifying stock market bubbles, but even he conceded in an interview with Barron’s in 2015 that “for bubble historians…it is tempting to see them too often.”

Second, Grantham points to the S&P 500’s PE being in the top few per cent of its historical range while the economy is in the worst few.

With respect to the PE ratio, there have been spectacular changes in the macro, or big picture, settings for stock markets that have dramatically affected valuations. For example, inflation and interest rates have undergone the greatest ever reversal over the past 40 years. After interest rates peaked at close to 20 per cent under Fed President Volcker in the early 1980s, they have drifted lower and lower ever since, to the point where now we are becoming accustomed to negative government bond yields. Likewise, inflation is persistently below central bank targets.

I’ve argued before that it makes perfect sense those low yields have a profound influence on how shares are valued, especially for companies that offer higher levels of growth than the broader market. Whether it be through basing a discounted cash flow valuation on lower risk-free rates (bond yields) or the return premium offered by stocks over bonds, lower yields drive higher share prices.

Inflation’s effect on valuation

Given we’ve never seen a mix of yields and inflation like we’re seeing now, using historical references as your only valuation anchor makes no sense. A more convincing concern is the potential return of inflation because that will fundamentally change the valuation landscape, but there is no one who can give you a definitive answer as to what drives inflation. You need only look at the Fed’s ‘dot plot’, which started back in 2012 and records where each of its 12 board members and seven presidents think inflation and interest rates are headed. Despite having the best information available, and apparently being the best qualified in the US, they’ve never been close to right.

Another thing that has driven valuations on the US market up is that so-called ‘growth’ stocks, which are those companies whose earnings are growing faster than the index and therefore usually trade on higher PE ratios, have increased from 15 per cent of the overall index in the 1970s to now 77 per cent. By contrast, ‘value’ stocks, which rely more on general levels of economic growth and trade on lower PEs, account for commensurately less of the index.

In terms of the economy being terrible, recent economic data suggests otherwise. Like Australia, the US government injected about 13 per cent of GDP in brand new money in the form of COVID support, money that has to go somewhere. Sure, GDP fell 31 per cent in the March quarter of 2020, but it rocketed up 33 per cent in the June quarter. Business confidence is close to its equal highest in the last 25 years, unemployment is not far off its average for the post GFC/pre-COVID period, house prices are at an all-time high and there has been a record number of US companies upgrading earnings guidance in the first quarter. And the new Biden administration is preparing to spend another $1.9 trillion.

Lessons to be learned

By his own admission, Grantham’s past calls have typically been early. Getting out of Japanese and US stocks two years before the market peak cost his firm’s investors about 60 per cent each time. That offers a couple of salutary lessons. First, timing market tops is really challenging, especially if you rely on valuations to do it. And second, even if you’re worried about a market looking toppy, you don’t have to sell out of it entirely. You can simply reduce your holding gradually as it rises and switch your money into an asset class or market that doesn’t look as stretched, such as Australian, European or emerging markets shares.

There are undoubtedly pockets of the US market that look extreme right now, especially the speculative end of retail investors, but even that doesn’t apply to the whole market. When billionaires make bearish calls it’s hard to overcome our innate human bias that prioritises self-preservation and sees pessimists as smarter, but for your portfolio’s sake, it can pay to look for context.