At this point in the economic cycle and the market cycle, in the opinion of Robert M. Almeida, global investment strategist at MFS Investment Management, it is necessary to shift from an emphasis on performance to an emphasis on risk. According to the manager, in his presentation during the 2019 MFS Americas Advisor Investment Forum in Miami, the economic cycle of the last ten years has been characterized by being longer in length, but lower than the average growth magnitude. While the market cycle has been markedly higher than the average in magnitude of growth and certainly, it has also been longer in duration. These two premises are the starting point for understanding market expectations and valuations, as well as where to find alpha opportunities today.
Universally, in all market sectors, a massive transition is being seen as technology is weakening the value proposition of companies at a hitherto unknown pace. This, Almeida said, is important because when a company stops producing or providing services in a competitive way, margins erode and stock prices tend to follow.
"From my point of view, there is only one important issue when valuing the price of an asset in the long term: free cash flows. And what do these cash flows depend on? It depends on the number of items and the price at which they are sold minus the cost of production. If a company cannot sell more items or the price of these items is decreasing because a competitor is doing something similar or cheaper, then current margin and free cash flow levels will erode. We try to avoid those companies that we think are overvalued, but not simply from the standpoint that market prices have risen by 300% in the last 10 years but because they have ceased to be useful to society and investor expectations of cash flows are too high. These companies have become dinosaurs, melting icebergs or cubes," explained Almeida.
"By avoiding companies that suffer from the innovator's dilemma, that close their eyes to the potential of technology and disruption, we create performance in the portfolio. In our industry we tend to think about creating alpha, but over the years, I believe that success in active management, like most aspects of life, comes not because of what you've done, but because of the mistakes you've been able to avoid," he adds.
The manager then explained that we are facing a regime change, from a period with above-average returns driven by above-average margins, to a period with below-average returns, driven in turn by below-average margins. This translates into lower returns vs recent years or long-term averages.
In order to assess performance expectations over the next 10 years, MFS Investment Management uses an average reversal model with variables such as sales, pricing power, margins and valuations. In this model, the balanced global portfolio, with 60% equity and 40% fixed income allocation, yields an unsatisfactory return of 4%. This figure is difficult to explain for the pension plan community, advisors and trustees that make up the asset management industry.
The Level of Valuations
When examining the Shiller P/E ratio based on the average inflation-adjusted profits of the last 10 years, Almeida acknowledged that valuations do not usually predict returns, especially if the previous 12 months or 12 months ahead are taken into account, their level of prediction is almost nil.
However, an examination of the US Shiller P/E ratio shows that, at levels close to 30 times, this is the third highest Shiller ratio in US history. According to Almeida, this is due to the fact that, during this cycle, yields have exceeded the average, because margins have been above the average, but profit growth has remained below.
"To get out of the global financial crisis, companies laid off workers and refinanced their debt at lower interest rates, then saw the rehabilitation of the market structure. Then investment in fixed assets, consumer spending and the GDP of the economy should have improved, but they did not. I could talk about macroeconomic and political motives, but in my opinion, there is a simpler explanation, dematerialization," Almeida explained.
The Effects of Dematerialization
As Almeida argued, advances in technology have allowed the world the opportunity to rent rather than own. "Companies that needed to increase their technological infrastructure to expand their business have rented it from Amazon, Google, Microsoft or Alibaba, instead of buying it. Instead of buying music, consumers have rented it from Spotify. Faced with the need to buy a car, consumers have used Uber's services. And the same when buying a film, that consumers have chosen to rent it on Netflix. The shift from a property economy to a rental economy has had two fundamental consequences. The first is deflation of pricing power and the second has made the price of goods less expensive. From an accounting point of view it has been a shift from capital expenditures to operating expenses," he added.