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The valuation warning signs for stock markets

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The writer is co-founder and chief investment strategist at Absolute Strategy Research

The rationale behind the current optimism among many equity investors is shifting as markets emerge from the pandemic shock. In the yield-starved pre-Covid-19 world, a common mantra of the bulls was the acronym TINA — there is no alternative. Now that has mutated to TRINA — there really is no alternative.

Investors remain overweight equities even though US valuations have returned to levels last seen in the January 2000 dotcom boom. Are investors right to be so bullish when share prices are so high relative to earnings and cash flow?

Although every market rally derailment is different, there are common themes that occur on most occasions. The first is the role of implicit assumptions that may appear bullish but can also be seen as an important risk factor. Second, there is never a single cause: it is always the layering of risks and assumptions that leads to the ultimate crisis. The current complacency about global equities has many of these characteristics.

Inherent in the current market optimism are three crucial assumptions. First, valuations do not matter any more. Second, interest rates will stay low for an extended period. And third, loose monetary and fiscal policy combined with the Covid vaccine will return us to the “status quo ante” and the investment regime of the past five years.

Scatter plot of Total return (compound annual growth) over the subsequent ten years (%) against Trailing price/earnings ratio

The reality is that equity valuations always matter. Less so in the short run, but more so in the long run. One benchmark is when the ratio of US share prices to earnings over the previous 12 months rises above 30. Since 1950, whenever that threshold has been brea

ched, the subsequent 10-year annualised returns for US equities have rarely been above 5 per cent and often below minus 5 per cent.

Our own valuation composite, which combines six common valuation metrics such as prices relative to earnings and cash flow, shows valuations more extended than at any time since January 2000. A similar story is shown by the “Tobin’s Q” ratio popularised by American economist James Tobin, which measures the market value of a company relative to the replacement cost of its assets. That ratio is back to levels seen only once since 1950 — in January 2000.

The pushback to concerns raised about such levels is that traditional valuation metrics are less meaningful given that future earnings are discounted by rates now close to zero.

I worry, however, that these bullish investors are looking to “have their cake and eat it”. They expect unemployment to fall and earnings to post a healthy recovery yet expect policymakers to keep interest rates on hold and bond yields to remain low and stable. But at what point will policymakers decide that they have done enough? They will be keen to avoid a repeat of the ‘taper tantrum’ in markets in 2013 when the US Federal Reserve signalled a tightening in policy. However, policymakers may find it hard to control longer-term bond yields if current expectations of the economic and earnings recovery play out.

The danger in relying on overvalued bonds to justify overvalued equity valuations is that any volatility in rates, driven by activity or inflation, could destabilise the equity market complacency. The combination of both bond and equity valuations being this stretched has only been seen twice since 1950 — in 1998-99 and 1986-87. Neither of those periods ended well.

Implicit in the relaxed consensus about equities also appears to be a view that the vaccine will deliver an extension of the previous cycle and a return to the status quo ante. We suspect that a sell-off in early November of some of the more faster rising stocks provided a warning shot that the world has changed.

Investors are now focusing on the scope for cheaper stocks to outperform as earnings become more plentiful and margins recover toward their 2018 peaks. However, a greater focus on value means a greater focus on valuations. Investors looking to buy cheaper ‘value’ stocks will become more wary of buying growth stocks which command a premium because they have higher potential earnings.

The good news in 2021 is the likelihood of a meaningful economic recovery. The bad news, however, is that this very success could usher in a new investment regime that will probably challenge many of the assumptions on which current valuation optimism is based. Sometimes it isn’t what you know is risky that is dangerous, it’s the things that you think are safe but aren’t that are the problem.

Absolute Strategy Research co-founder David Bowers contributed to this article



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Why it might be good for China if foreign investors are wary

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Chinese economy updates

The writer is a finance professor at Peking University and a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The chaos in Chinese stock markets last week was exacerbated by foreign investors selling Chinese shares, leaving Beijing’s regulators scrambling to regain their confidence while they tried to stabilise domestic markets. But if foreign funds become more cautious about investing in Chinese stocks, this may in fact be a good thing for China.

In the past two years, inflows into China have soared by more than $30bn a month. This is partly because of a $10bn-a-month increase in the country’s monthly trade surplus and a $20bn-a-month rise in financial inflows. The trend is expected to continue. Although Beijing has an excess of domestic savings, it has opened up its financial markets in recent years to unfettered foreign inflows. This is mainly to gain international prestige for those markets and to promote global use of the renminbi.

But there is a price for this prestige. As long as it refuses to reimpose capital controls — something that would undermine many years of gradual opening up — Beijing can only adjust to these inflows in three ways. Each brings its own cost that is magnified as foreign inflows increase.

One way is to allow rising foreign demand for the renminbi to push up its value. The problem, of course, is that this would undermine China’s export sector and would encourage further inflows, which would in turn push China’s huge trade surplus into deficit. If this happened, China would have to reduce the total amount of stuff it produces (and so reduce gross domestic product growth).

The second way is for China to intervene to stabilise the renminbi’s value. During the past four years China’s currency intervention has occurred not directly through the People’s Bank of China but indirectly through the state banks. They have accumulated more than $1tn of net foreign assets, mostly in the past two years.

Huge currency intervention, however, is incompatible with domestic monetary control because China must create the renminbi with which it purchases foreign currency. The consequence, as the PBoC has already warned several times this year, would be a too-rapid expansion of domestic credit and the worsening of domestic asset bubbles. 

Many readers will recognise that these are simply versions of the central bank trilemma: if China wants open capital markets, it must give up control either of the currency or of the domestic money supply. There is, however, a third way Beijing can react to these inflows, and that is by encouraging Chinese to invest more abroad, so that net inflows are reduced by higher outflows.

And this is exactly what the regulators have been trying to do. Since October of last year they have implemented a series of policies to encourage Chinese to invest more abroad, not just institutional investors and businesses but also households.

But even if these policies were successful (and so far they haven’t been), this would bring its own set of risks. In this case, foreign institutional investors bringing hot money into liquid Chinese securities are balanced by various Chinese entities investing abroad in a variety of assets for a range of purposes.

This would leave China with a classic developing-country problem: a mismatched international balance sheet. This raises the risk that foreign investors in China could suddenly exit at a time when Chinese investors are unwilling — or unable — to repatriate their foreign investments quickly enough. We’ve seen this many times before: a rickety financial system held together by the moral hazard of state support is forced to adjust to a surge in hot-money inflows, but cannot adjust quickly enough when these turn into outflows.

As long as Beijing wants to maintain open capital markets, it can only respond to inflows with some combination of the three: a disruptive appreciation in the currency, a too-rapid rise in domestic money and credit, or a risky international balance sheet. There are no other options.

That is why the current stock market turmoil may be a blessing in disguise. To the extent that it makes foreign investors more cautious about rushing into Chinese securities, it will reduce foreign hot-money inflows and so relieve pressure on the financial authorities to choose among these three bad options.

Until it substantially cleans up and transforms its financial system, in other words, China’s regulators should be more worried by too much foreign buying of its stocks and bonds than by too little.



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Square to acquire Afterpay for $29bn as ‘buy now, pay later’ booms

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Square Inc updates

Payments company Square has reached a deal to acquire Australian “buy now, pay later” provider Afterpay in a $29bn all-stock transaction that would be the largest takeover in Australian history.

Square, whose chief executive Jack Dorsey is also Twitter’s CEO, is offering Afterpay shareholders 0.375 shares of Square stock for every share they own — a 30 per cent premium based on the most recent closing prices for both companies.

Melbourne-based Afterpay allows retailers to offer customers the option of paying for products in four instalments without interest if the payments are made on time.

The deal’s size would exceed the record set by Unibail-Rodamco’s takeover of shopping centre group Westfield at an enterprise value of $24.7bn in 2017.

The transaction, which was announced in a joint statement from the companies on Monday, is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.

Afterpay said its 16m users regard the service as a more responsible way to borrow than using a credit card. Merchants pay Afterpay a fixed fee, plus a percentage of each order.

The deal underscored the huge appetite for buy now, pay later providers, which have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Square and Afterpay have a shared purpose,” said Dorsey. “We built our business to make the financial system more fair, accessible, and inclusive, and Afterpay has built a trusted brand aligned with those principles.”

Adoption of buy now, pay later services had tripled by early this year compared with pre-pandemic volumes, according to data from Adobe Analytics, and were particularly popular with younger consumers.

Rivalling Afterpay is Sweden’s Klarna, which doubled its valuation in three months to $45.6bn, after receiving investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 in June. PayPal offers its own service, Pay in 4, while it was reported last month that Apple was looking to partner with Goldman Sachs to offer buy now, pay later facilities to Apple Pay users.

Steven Ng, a portfolio manager at Afterpay investor Ophir Asset Management, said the deal validated the buy, now pay later business model and could be the catalyst for mergers activity in the sector. “Given the tie-up with Square, it could kick off a round of consolidation with other payment providers where buy now, pay later becomes another payment method offered to their customers,” he said.

Over the past two years Afterpay has expanded rapidly in the US and Europe, which now account for more than three-quarters of its 16.3m active customers and a third of merchants on its platform. Afterpay said its services are used by more than 100,000 merchants across the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as in the UK, France, Italy and Spain, where it is known as Clearpay.

Square intends to offer the facility to its merchants and users of its Cash App, a fast money transfer service popular with small businesses and a competitor to PayPal’s Venmo.

“It’s an expensive purchase, but the buy now, pay later market is growing very rapidly and it makes a lot of sense for Square to have a solid stake in it,” said retail analyst Neil Saunders.

“For some, especially younger generations, buy now, pay later is a favoured form of credit. Afterpay has already had some success with its US expansion, but Square will be able to accelerate that by integrating it into its platforms and payment infrastructure — that’s probably one of the justifications for the relatively toppy price tag of the deal.”

Square handled $42.8bn in payments in the second quarter, with Cash App transactions making up about 10 per cent, according to figures released on Sunday. The company posted a $204m profit on revenues of $4.7bn.

Once the acquisition is completed, Afterpay shareholders will own about 18.5 per cent of Square, the companies said. The deal has been approved by both companies’ boards of directors but will also need to be backed by Afterpay shareholders.

As part of the deal, Square will establish a secondary listing on the Australian Securities Exchange to provide Afterpay shareholders with an option to receive Square shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange or the ASX. Square may elect to pay 1 per cent of the purchase price in cash.

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Biden puts workers ahead of consumers

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US economy updates

For the past 40 years in America, competition policy has revolved around the consumer. This is in part the legacy of legal scholar Robert Bork, whose 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox held that the major goal of antitrust policy should be to promote “business efficiency”, which from the 1980s onwards came to be measured in consumer prices. These were considered the fundamental measure of consumer wellbeing, which was in turn the centre of economic wellbeing.

But things are changing. A White House executive order on competition policy, signed last month, contains some 72 discreet measures designed to stamp out anti-competitive practices across nearly every part of the US economy. But it isn’t about low prices as much as it is about higher wages.

Like the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, which took power from unions and unleashed markets and corporations, Biden’s executive order may well be remembered as a major economic turning point — this time, away from neoliberalism with its focus on consumers, and towards workers as the primary interest group in the US economy.

In some ways, this matters more than the details of particular parts of the order. Many commentators have suggested that these measures, on their own, won’t achieve much. But executive orders aren’t necessarily about the details — they are about the direction of a government. And this one takes us completely away from the Bork era by focusing on the connection between market power and wages, which no president over the past century has acknowledged so explicitly.

“When there are only a few employers in town, workers have less opportunity to bargain for a higher wage,” Biden said in his announcement of the order. It noted that, in more than 75 per cent of US industries, a smaller number of large companies now control more business than they did 20 years ago.

His solutions include everything from cutting burdensome licensing requirements across half the private sector to banning and/or limiting non-compete agreements. Firms in many industries have used such agreements to hinder top employees from working for competitors, as well as to make it tougher for employees to share wage and benefit information with each other — something that Silicon Valley has done in nefarious ways.  

This gets to the heart of the American myth that employees and employers stand on an equal footing, a falsehood that is reflected in such Orwellian labour market terms as the “right to work”. In the US this refers not to any sort of workplace equality, but rather to the ability of certain states to prevent unions from representing all workers in a given company.

But beyond the explicitly labour-related measures, the president’s order also gets to the bigger connection between not just monopoly power and prices, but corporate concentration and the labour share.

As economist Jan Eeckhout lays out in his new book The Profit Paradox, rapid technological change since the 1980s has improved business efficiency and dramatically increased corporate profitability. But it has also led to an increase in market power that is detrimental for people in work.

As his research shows, firms in the 1980s made average profits that were a tenth of payroll costs. By the mid 2000s that ratio had jumped to 30 per cent and it went as high as 43 per cent in 2012. Meanwhile, “mark-ups” in profit margins due to market power have also risen dramatically (though it can be difficult to see this in parts of the digital economy that run not on dollars but on barter transactions of personal data).

While technology can ultimately lower prices and thus benefit everyone, this “only works well if markets are competitive. That is the profit paradox,” says Eeckhout. He argues that when firms have market power, they can keep out competitors that might offer better products and services. They can also pay workers less than they can afford to, since there are fewer and fewer employers doing the hiring.

The latter issue is called monopsony power, and it is something that the White House is paying particularly close attention to.

“What’s happening to workers with the rise in [corporate] concentration, and what that means in an era without as much union power, is something that I think we need to hear more about,” says Heather Boushey, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, who spoke to the Financial Times recently about how the White House sees the country’s economic challenges. 

The key challenge, according to the Biden administration, is that of shifting the balance of power between capital and labour. This accounts for the emerging ideas on how to tackle competition policy. There are many who regard the move away from consumer interests as the focus of antitrust policy as dangerously socialist — a reflection of the Marxian contention that demand shortages are inevitable when the power of labour falls.

But one might equally look at the approach as a return to the origins of modern capitalism. As Adam Smith observed two centuries ago, “Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.” Reprioritising it is a good thing.

rana.foroohar@ft.com



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