As we approach the middle of the year, with sluggish stockmarket returns so far in 2018, Investec believes that it makes sense to assess where we are with regard to the investment case for European equities. In their opinion, a volatile year so far for European equities hasn’t put a stop to the region’s fundamental equity drivers and each of the 4Factors on which they analyze stocks are showing encouraging signs for the region: earnings growth, fundamentally sound profitability, attractive valuation and technical momentum.
"Despite this recent moderation, we believe the current environment still offers plenty of scope to continue the strategy that has served our investors so well in recent years: finding areas of the market where earnings recovery is evidenced but not yet priced in." Says Ken Hsia, Portfolio Manager, Investec European Equity Fund.
Looking at their 4Factors, Investec continues to see plenty of attractive opportunities in Europe. “Our experience on the ground shows that Europe’s earnings recovery is still very much under way. Analyst consensus still expects 8% EPS growth for 2018 and 2019 in Europe. Return on equity continues to improve with several drivers playing their part –revenue growth, margin expansion, financial deleveraging/share buybacks and some tax cuts. As some parts of the world are already seeing margins peak, this would indicate that Europe’s current business cycle still has room to run."
Besides, they believe that Europe’s monetary policy will deliver a similar situation to the US, where the pace of recovery has been more gradual over a longer period of time than previous cycles. "As we are less than two years into the most recent uptrend– compared with over four years for the US – we believe there is room for European corporate revenues to recover further."
In their opinion, the key risks are around global geopolitics. The Brexit negotiations continue to drive uncertainty for UK businesses and individuals – but that hasn’t stopped UK companies from investing for growth.
The ongoing talk of a global trade war also loomed large over the market, especially in the commodities sector. "However, as bottom-up stock-pickers, we will approach this on a company-by-company basis. This holds true for both the direct impact of the trade tensions, as well as indirect effects, such as decreases in commodity or metal prices if tariffs tilt supplies towards Europe".
Their process is also showing positive improvements on the strategy front, where they focus in on companies that can generate shareholder wealth above and beyond the cost of invested capital. "As it currently stands, European companies have been delivering improving returns on equity, due in part to the improving revenue trends and the resulting operational leverage. All the while, improved capital discipline and cost cutting exercises undertaken during the previous earnings downturn are also starting to bear fruit."
Looking at sectors, they believe the materials one is benefiting from higher commodities prices, as well as a newfound capital discipline. Meanwhile in financials – more specifically banks – they currently see good opportunities to invest "in a sector that is starting to recover from a decade of structural regulatory and economic headwinds. With the uncertainty around Basel IV regulation now resolved, banks have the possibility to use the excess capital sitting on their balance sheets to lend, creating additional revenues that can further fuel returns." They also like the recent Strategy improvement in the UK food retail and are currently seeing some weakness in telecoms,healthcare and retail, which Investec believes are all at the low end of their historical profitability ranges.
As ever with equities, positive earnings momentum and solid profitability don’t necessarily guarantee returns as this often increases the risk of overpaying. However, Investec believes that although we have seen European equities trade more richly over the last 18 months, European equities do not look overvalued and technicals are showing no cause for concern.
"In summary, we continue to be constructive on European equities due to our investment thesis: that earnings and returns are benefiting from the economic recovery and the recent round of self-help measures undertaken by companies. Meanwhile, valuations do not reflect the full extent of the earnings recovery. Downside risks are common to equities, but we remain focused on the upside potential, especially if European banks are able to show lending growth." Hsia concludes.