Last updated: 16:20 / Wednesday, 10 December 2014
Outlook by Threadneedle

Have Equities Become Too Expensive?

Have Equities Become Too Expensive?

Global equities continue to offer good value, though Threadneedle beleives the case for active management has seldom been stronger given the diverging performance of regional markets and the emergence of powerful trends that are driving individual stocks.

The price to earnings ratio of global markets is currently below the average seen since 1997, which would certainly seem to suggest that equities are not overvalued.

However, there are marked variations in terms of regions (as measured by trailing PE ratios). Surprisingly, Europe is among the more expensive markets despite its well-known problems, but if one looks at PEs on a forward basis, Europe is more attractively valued. This reflects a belief that European companies will grow earnings at a faster pace than those in other parts of the world. While the weaker euro may support earnings growth, we are concerned that expectations may not be met given the economic difficulties facing the region.

Dividend yields also provide an interesting measure of the relative attractiveness of equities around the world. Globally, sovereign bonds yields are low (below 1% in Germany and Japan, for instance), whereas dividend yields on world equity markets average around 2.5%. Not only is this yield attractive at face value, it will grow over time – making equities an attractive option for investors in a low-growth environment.

The case for US equities

Although dividend yields are relatively low in America, the picture changes markedly once you add in the impact of share buybacks. Including these, US companies are actually returning more capital to shareholders than their counterparts around the world. There are other good reasons for investing in US equities. The domestic economic recovery is continuing and the shale energy revolution is providing the US with a competitive edge in a wide range of sectors, and is boosting the country’s external finances. Meanwhile, corporate earnings growth is solid, helped by good cost management and the effective use of capital. Low interest rates will support equity valuations and we believe the main risk facing the US economy is how it reacts when interest rates start to increase.

Profit margins are at historically high levels. Threadneedle believes that they are likely to moderate in the long term, but remain high over the next few years at least given that:

  • Wage inflation is controlled and the participation rate can rise as economy improves.
  • Capital expenditure plans are conservative, with companies favouring capital returns or M&A.
  • Energy costs are particularly low in the US, reflecting the development of shale resources.

Thus, the asset management firm believes that US companies deserve their premium ratings.

Opportunities in Japan

Threadneedle is also overweight in Japan, where the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be succeeding in transforming the deflationary landscape of the past 20 years or so via its “three arrows” policy programme into one of inflation. Thus, we now have underlying inflation of around 1.5% in Japan, a development that is encouraging people to go out and spend rather than waiting for the price of goods to fall even further. The first two arrows – monetary stimulus via a massive programme of quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus via increased spending are already in place. Investors are now concerned that the delivery of the third arrow of structural reforms to the economy, including labour reforms, deregulation and trade agreements is making disappointing progress.

However, Threadneedle believes that investors would do better to regard the third arrow as a form of acupuncture with lots of little needle pricks taking place across the economy. Thus, Threadneedle points out that we have seen progress in a number of areas, including the ability of companies to make redundancies, and the encouragement of more women and migrants into the labour force.

There has also been significant progress in terms of corporate governance. Thus in 2013, the authorities launched a new stock index. The JPX-Nikkei 400 aims to showcase the country’s most profitable and shareholder-friendly companies and it is having a major impact. On learning that it was not in the index, the toolmaker Amada, for example, promptly announced that it would pay out half of its net profits in dividends, and use the other half to buy back stock, and improve corporate governance by appointing two independent directors. Thus, the new index is changing corporate behaviour and the third arrow is bringing about a major improvement in returns. Indeed, Threadneedle believes returns on equity can almost double over a period of three to four years as companies are increasingly run for the benefit of shareholders rather than employees.

Our overall strategy in global equities

Given the low growth environment that we envisage over the next few years, Threadneedle is focusing upon businesses which are not dependent upon a growing economy to expand their earnings. They favour companies that are fuelled by secular growth trends. These include:

  • Disney: benefitting from the rising value of differentiated media content.
  • Facebook and Google – beneficiaries of increasing advertising on the internet.
  • TE Connectivity (electronic engineering) – benefiting from the rapid growth of electronic components within cars in areas such as safety, infotainment, emission control, and fuel economy.

Overall, a positive outlook for active managers

In conclusion, there a number of reasons to be optimistic about the outlook for equities including the fact that although valuations have risen they are not high in historical terms, while cash returns to shareholders provide support. However, Threadneedle is also seeing a growing divergence in the performance of individual economies around the world and the rise of nationalism and geopolitical instability. The asset management firm believes this underscores the need for an active approach to stock picking, while the prospect of low economic growth over the next few years supports our focus on companies that are well positioned to exploit secular growth trends.