Daniel Lacalle

Tough times for equities

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After years of solid performance, equities are a risk, more than an opportunity. A friend of mine said something very pertinent about the underperformance of equities versus corporate bonds: “If you can earn a 3% risk premium on the bonds why bother with equities”.
The market is on 10.4x 2009 P/E…  So stocks have fallen 45-50% and they are only marginally cheaper (in some cases more expensive!) than in 2007. The market 2009 EPS growth shows expectations of -13.3% , and dividend yield at 4.8% (6.7% for Telecoms, 6% for Oils, 4.6% for Industrials, Basic Materials Consumer Services, 3.8% for Technology, 3.4% for Healthcare and Consumer Goods).
See the picture? yields are at risk as well!. Does one really expect the yield of a 13% falling EPS market to stay sustainable at 5% in the current economic and credit environment? … Cash flows remain under pressure and so will dividend policies.
The new defensives are megacap oils (strong balance sheet, high yield and flexibility on capex) while telecoms and healthcare continue to perform well. However, it is only in telecoms and oils where I see “cycle management” of the balance sheet, true capex management and true focus on ROIC.
I believe this trend will continue. So far long Oils short the market has worked. The steep contango curve has helped, but it’s all about balance sheet today. I believe we will continue to enjoy performance versus the market while we see eranings downgrades everywhere, capital increases and dividend cuts.
But isn’t a 30% outperformance overdone? After all, it’s the biggest continued period of outperformance against the market and the underlying commodity since 1991.
Well, the good news is that the market will continue to find it difficult to “buy something else” but the bad news is that, like in 1991, if oil prices stay low we will see dividend cuts and drastic capex cuts.
In this environment, I cannot agree more with the messages of Morgan Stanley on the “new defensives” in the oil and gas sector: BG (hedged 80% of LNG output to 2010) and Tullow (no refinancing needs after the highly succesful capital increase) versus the highest geared stocks (and I disagree again with consensus) with dividend risk, BP or Statoil.  Stick with Exxon (ongoing buyback, $89bn in cash) and short Conoco.  Buffett was right when he bought into megacap oils in October 2008, but I believe he chose the wrong (relative to peers) stock, Conoco, with the most challenging production, earnings breakdown and growth profile of the US majors.
What? Stick with the expensive outperformers versus the cheap underperformers? Beware of this argument, because the cheap are getting more expensive as downgrades, and cuts in capex and dividend, feed through estimates. Remember that Total traded at 4xEV/DACF and after a 25% fall still trades at those estimated multiples… and the risk of going “nuclear” and putting billions in questionnable EPRs and nuclear plants is not to be overlooked.

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