Investors have traditionally seen the largest 20 companies in the S&P/ASX 200 Index as the Australian champions that should form the backbone of an investment portfolio.

These names have become a staple for many investors if only because we don’t see a lot of rotation among them, even over relatively long periods of time. These companies have historically been banks, telcos, and even media conglomerates that sat at the centre of Australia’s news and entertainment industry.

In the Australian investing mindset, these companies are associated with industry leadership, proven business models, and high dividends. They are valued for the strength of their market position and the fact that they have been a feature of the corporate landscape for decades. Often, the longer investors hold these shares, the more reluctant they are to sell them.

However, given the market turmoil in the wake of COVID-19, investors are starting to ask themselves if they have become too reliant on these names. With companies forced to cut, delay, and even cancel dividends, the traditional view of blue-chip investing is starting to change.

Today, newcomers like Australian Healthcare giant CSL, major supermarkets in Woolworths and Coles, key Consumer Discretionary player Wesfarmers, and not to mention BHP are playing greater prominence within a balanced portfolio. While the banks still feature heavily, their dominance has dwindled post the GFC as regulation and lower interest rates limit their growth opportunities.

The role of large-cap shares in your portfolio

In Lonsec’s view, there is an important role for large-cap shares within a diversified portfolio. However, focusing too heavily on a handful of large companies and expecting them to do the heavy lifting can result in poor performance and likely will not be serving the investor’s needs and objectives.

The COVID-19 crisis has no doubt exposed a number of investors who believed they could rely on a company’s size and track record without considering their sources of risk or how exposed they were to certain sectors.

Diversification is critical when constructing a portfolio. This means having suitable exposures to different sectors, company sizes, and geographic regions. It also means understanding how your portfolio is positioned to manage various risks and opportunities as they emerge.

Heading into 2020, Lonsec’s portfolios were defensively positioned, with overweight exposures to the Health Care and Consumer Staples sectors. Following changes made in March, we increased our defensive exposure with companies we considered had a higher degree of earnings certainty, strong balance sheets, and a margin of safety that would help withstand the cashflow crunch.

At the other end of spectrum, the outlook for the Financials, Energy, and Consumer Discretionary sectors remains challenging, and Lonsec has remained underweight these sectors. Some companies like JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman reported surprisingly strong sales numbers, likely due to a switching of discretionary spend from food and leisure due to families being in ‘lockdown’, as such this is likely to be a short-term spike.

As short-term stimulus measures come to an end, these sectors may come under increasing pressure, and stock selection within these sectors will become critical.

Banking on the banks is not always wise

In terms of the banks, it’s very difficult to be positive. The Financials sector fell 20% over the first half of 2020, and while the banks are still generating a return on equity, the days of shareholders enjoying ROEs of around 15% are likely a thing of the past. Regulators have been working with the banks to help absorb the shock, but valuations remain low.

The key headwinds are the ultra-low interest rate environment, which has eaten into lending margins, and whilst mortgage deferrals have the potential to increase bank earnings (by inadvertently increasing their mortgage books), although the risk is that these actually turn into impairments. The banks may need monitor dividends or raise capital should this eventuate.

While ANZ and WBC looked to suspend their interim dividends, NAB cut their dividend by more than 50%, but sought to raise $3.5 billion from shareholders, which has been highly dilutive. Given APRA’s written guidance to the banks that they should be limiting discretionary dividend payments, boards are likely to be conservative with payout ratios until there’s further clarity. While the full impact is difficult to gauge at this time, the bottom line is that we should not expect the sort of dividends we have seen in the past, at least for the foreseeable future.

The effects of COVID-19 on the market has prompted investors to reconsider their understanding of blue-chip investing and the strategies that rely heavily on them. For many investors, expanding their horizon has helped put things in perspective. Asian markets are a good example of how dynamic things can be even at the high end of the market cap, which has seen the rise of different blue chips compared to Australia.

Asia certainly is showing strong growth in the tech sector, but the market is also benefiting from the rise of the middle class. When you look at the Financials and Consumer Discretionary sectors there, they have a higher EPS growth trajectory compared to Australia, simply because of those demographic factors that are driving earnings.

Looking further afield can also help investors identify a wider set of opportunities, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly we’re working online, and many have been surprised at how seamlessly this happened. This has been facilitated by the rise in a host of digital services, which have allowed consumers and businesses to continue operating even during lockdown.

In Asia, the so-called fourth industrial revolution—new developments in automation, AI, and machine learning—combined with the demographic headwinds, is creating a lot of new growth potential. These could become the new blue-chip shares of the future, if they aren’t already. Alibaba and Baidu are prime examples of this. If Australian investors want to benefit from the growth in these companies, they need to expand their definition of blue-chip.

Including international blue chips in your portfolio is an important way of diversifying your risk and gaining exposure to different sources of growth. There are a range of products that help investors target these sectors, but the key is how these products are used within a broader risk-managed portfolio. Taking an active approach to managing these exposures is also key, especially given market dynamics can change incredibly quickly in the current environment.

Blue-chip shares have served Australians well, but the days of using the likes of BHP or Telstra to form the nucleus of an Australia-centric portfolio are over. If investors want to capture the new growth opportunities in world driven by technological change, while avoiding the potential dividend trap of traditional blue-chip shares, it’s time to start thinking differently.

 

SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell shares the latest performance results for superannuation funds and the future outlook for the industry.

Members should be prepared for more ups and downs. However, a patient approach has paid off for members over the long term with the median balanced style fund returning 7.0% per annum since the introduction of superannuation in 1992.

 

 

 


Any advice that SuperRatings provides is of a general nature and does not take into account an individual’s financial situation, objectives or needs. Because the information that SuperRatings receives about superannuation and pension financial products is from a number of sources, it is not guaranteed to be completely accurate. Because of this, individuals should, before acting on the information, consider its appropriateness having regard to their own financial objectives, situation and needs and if appropriate, obtain personal financial advice on the matter from a financial adviser. Before making a decision regarding any financial product, individuals should obtain and consider a copy of the relevant Product Disclosure Statement from the financial product issue.

The live webinar was held on Wednesday at 10 AM AEST, 1st July, 2020

Overview

We were blown away by the response to the Lonsec Webinar Series, which saw over 3,000 people attend across five webinars. Unfortunately, given the range of topics and limited time available, we weren’t able to get to everyone’s questions. So for this webinar, we opened it up to the floor. Join our portfolio construction experts in an exciting panel discussion.

Moderator: Brook Sweeney, Senior Investment Consultant

Panel:

• Lukasz de Pourbaix – Chief Investment Officer
• Veronica Klaus – Head of Investment Consulting
• Dan Moradi – Portfolio Manager, Listed Products
• Deanne Baker – Portfolio Manager, Multi-Assets

 

If you attended our live webinar, please note that further instruction on how to receive the CPD Points will be delivered to your inbox in the next 5-10 business days. Whilst we aim to ensure every attendee receives CPD Points, it is within the guidelines provided that you are required to attend the full duration of the live webinar to receive your CE accreditation. Our technology platform collects data that reflects the duration and your full engagement during the live session.

 


The content, presentations and discussion topics covered during this event are intended for licensed financial advisers and institutional clients only and are not intended for use by retail clients. No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented.
Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, these presentations or any loss or damage suffered by the attendee or any other person as a consequence of relying upon the information presented.

This information is provided by Lonsec Investment Solutions as a corporate authorised representative of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd who hold an AFSL number 421445. This is general advice, which doesn’t consider your personal circumstances. Consider these and always read the product disclosure statement or seek professional advice prior to making any decision about a financial product. You can access a copy of our financial services guide at lonsec.com.au

This video is provided by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research). LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. This is general advice, which doesn’t consider your personal circumstances. Consider these and always read the product disclosure statement or seek professional advice prior to making any decision about a financial product. While care has been taken to prepare the content of this video, LIS makes no representation or warranty to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this video is current as at the date of publication. Copyright © 2020 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583

There are plenty of fund managers who claim environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials, but how many of them are actually the real deal?

When clients approach advisers looking to specifically invest in ESG, the problem has been distilling the true-to-label ESG players from those which only tick some of the boxes. Unfortunately, the objectives of investors are not necessarily identical to those of the fund managers.

There have always been ‘pretenders’ in the mix when it comes to ESG managers, but part of the issue is that mum and dad investors view ESG very differently to professional fund managers.

Confusion partly arises due to the different approaches to ESG, and this is where a gap in understanding arises. Often, when institutional fund managers discuss ESG, they are talking about a different thing to what regular investors might have in mind they think about how environmental, social and governance factors are incorporated into a portfolio.

Generally, when funds talk about ESG, they are looking at it through an investment prism – i.e. what will the ESG risk do to the value of a particular company?

However, when the mum and dads are looking at this, they are concerned about the ESG risks as they pertain to them, and what these mean for their community, planet and grandchildren. The bottom line is that the perspective the institutional fund managers and the mum and dad investors have may be quite different, and part of the adviser’s job is to work through this discrepancy and ensure their clients are investing in products that meet their expectations.

In order to do this, advisers and their clients need to understand the underlying investments of individual products and be able to make assessments and comparisons based on objective criteria. This is why Lonsec has been working with advisers to develop a new suite of research that is designed to give advisers and end investors the ability to identify investments that align with an investor’s values.

Under the new regime, all funds covered by Lonsec are issued with a sustainability score, which reflects the underlying investments of individual products and their compatibility with the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The research is provided in partnership with Sustainable Platform, a leading provider of sustainability data for investment managers and institutions.

There is growing awareness among investors of the importance of considering sustainability issues when constructing a portfolio. Advisers are now typically confronted with the question: ‘What am I really invested in?’ It’s essential that advisers are in a position to not only answer this question, but to create a portfolio that is truly aligned to their client’s preferences.

Under Lonsec’s new approach, a Sustainability Report is issued for each fund that undergoes assessment – a two-page document detailing the relative success of the fund in supporting the SDGs, together with any exposure to the 10 controversial industries. The Lonsec Sustainability Score reflects the net impact of these measures, which is peer ranked and results in a score of between one and five bees.

There are certainly a lot of traditional fund managers who have very good ESG processes, and they do understand the risks. However, if they feel the market is compensating investors sufficiently for these risks, they’ll take them. This is because they’re thinking about it in terms of the future value of a firm, but they’re not necessarily thinking about the risk to the future of the planet.

So there are certainly companies and funds that will be assessed very strongly by Lonsec as ESG managers because they do the work, understand the risks, and engage with companies, but that doesn’t mean that their portfolios will align with what investors are looking for.

Hence the need for a new way of assessing sustainability. This new approach is crucial in order to determine what is really going on behind the ‘sustainable’ and ‘ESG’ labels. That is what Lonsec has tried to do – we’ve tried to separate the way ESG is implemented and how fund managers think about it in terms of the investing process from what clients expect and care about.

This means looking beyond the marketing stories that managers are trying to tell. Instead, we need to assess portfolios based not only on what a particular company is, but what it makes (i.e. its products and services) and how are they used.

By mapping these activities to the SDGs and controversial industries, and distilling this into a single score, we hope to give advisers the tools and information they need to make investment decisions that genuinely align with their clients’ values. We also wanted to present this information in a way that allows advisers to clearly demonstrate how their investment selection is helping them contribute to a better world.

ESG is not a redundant process – far from it. If investors understand what ESG products are trying to achieve and how they work, then they may find these products valuable. However, we need to enable advisers to have these conversations with clients and fund managers so that investors can make informed decisions. That’s a goal we hope everyone can support.

Markets didn’t blink in May continuing their upward trajectory buoyed by accommodative policy settings for risk assets. Many investors have been left scratching their heads given the poor economic outlook and increased geopolitical tensions, coupled with civil unrest in the US. However, what it does tell us is that markets like liquidity. This is not a new play book, as markets have been supported by accommodative central bank policy since the global financial crisis in 2008 – we are simply seeing it applied much faster and on a more unprecedented scale than before. Looking at fundamentals remains important in analysing markets, however understanding money supply is also essential.

In our most recent asset allocation committee meeting we did not make any changes to the existing asset allocation settings. The previous move to neutralise our slightly underweight exposure to equities has benefited the portfolios as equity markets have continued to rise on the view that COVID-19 cases have peaked across many key economic regions, and that economies will begin reopening for business. At the same, time further fiscal stimulus packages have been announced within Europe as well as China, which the market has reacted to favourably.

In March and April, we saw our valuation signals go ‘green’ for most risk assets as asset prices fell. Since then we have seen valuation opportunities within equities as share markets reduce, most notably in the US, where shares have recovered since their trough in March. Our valuation model indicates that most asset classes are trading at fair value, with the exception of government bonds, which continue to look expensive, and A-REITs, which look attractive on a relative basis.

Liquidity and policy remain favourable as central banks and governments continue to prop up economies via monetary and fiscal policy measures. Cyclical indicators remain weak, with most economic indicators such as unemployment figures and PMIs continuing to show weakness. Finally, risk indicators such as the VIX and MOVE indices continue to trend down. Indeed the MOVE index, which measures implied volatility within bond markets, is back at pre COVID-19 levels.

While markets have shown strength, risks remain. The impact of COVID-19 on company earnings remains unclear at this stage. The market has been pricing in negative news, meaning any news regarding company earnings that is worse than expected will likely adversely impact markets. Geopolitical risks, while ever present, are in the spotlight again. Tensions between the US and China are elevated, and the path forward is unclear. This is against the backdrop of the upcoming US election in November and recent civil unrest within the US.

Despite the rebound in markets we believe portfolio diversification remains important. Having some defensive assets in portfolios remains warranted as we get a better picture of the impact of COVID-19 on company earnings. While we have neutralised our exposure to risk assets from a slightly underweight exposure, we have been further diversifying our portfolios from a bottom-up perspective both from a source of return and risk perspective.

In this episode of Market Narratives, Lonsec’s Chief Investment Officer, Lukasz de Pourbaix, tackles a range of controversial topics and their implications for portfolio construction.

Is this the new normal or merely the continuation of what have now become conventional policy responses? Is there wisdom in crowds, or is there persistent overvaluation in popular stocks like the FAANGs? Which parts of the market are beginning to appear attractive and how can you position your portfolio to take advantage of them? Tune in to find out.

Market Narratives is a podcast series produced by Investment Magazine that features unorthodox conversations with thought leaders influencing the world of fiduciary investors.

During our previous Asset Allocation Committee meeting we expressed a desire to further diversify our exposure to credit securities within our portfolios. This view was driven by the significant pull back in credit markets in March, which Lonsec believes provided an opportunity to enter certain parts of the credit market, such as syndicated loans, which were previously considered fully valued.

This view has since been implemented within Lonsec’s Multi-Asset and Retirement Managed Portfolios. The allocation further diversifies the portfolios away from duration risk (interest rate risk associated with government bonds), and diversifies the sources of income, most notably within the Retirement Managed Portfolios, which have been impacted by the deferral and reduction in company dividends within the equities component of the portfolios.

In our most recent Asset Allocation Committee we have not made any changes to the existing asset allocation settings. The previous move to neutralize our slightly underweight exposure to equities has benefited the portfolios as equity markets have continued to rise on the view that COVID-19 cases have peaked across many key economic regions, and that economies will begin reopening for business. At the same time, the market has reacted favourably to further fiscal stimulus packages announced in Europe and China.

The output from our asset allocation model has not changed materially since our previous meeting. Some notable changes, however, include the reduction in valuation opportunities within equities, given that share markets, most notably in the US, have recovered since their trough in March. Our valuation model indicates that most asset classes are trading at fair value, with the exception of government bonds, which continue to look expensive, and A-REITs, which look attractive on a relative basis.

Liquidity and policy remain favourable as central banks and governments continue to prop up economies via monetary and fiscal easing measures. Cyclical indicators reman weak, with most economic indicators such as unemployment figures and PMIs continuing to show weakness. Finally, risk indicators such as the VIX and MOVE indices continue to trend down. Indeed, the MOVE index, which measures implied volatility within bond markets, has returned to pre COVID-19 levels.

While markets have shown strength, risks remain. The impact of COVID-19 on company earnings remains unclear at this stage, while the market has been pricing in negative news, meaning any news regarding company earnings that is worse than expected will likely adversely impact markets. Geopolitical risks, while ever present, are in the spotlight again. Tensions between the US and China are elevated, and the path forward is unclear. This is against the backdrop of the upcoming US election in November and recent civil unrest within the US following the death of George Floyd at the hands of US police.

Finally, if we try to look ahead, one of the risks the market is not factoring in is inflation. While our view is that inflation is not a risk in the near term, possible structural shifts to the make up of economies on the back of COVID -19, specifically the potential decline in globalization, changes in supply chains, and the re-emergence of manufacturing industries in service-based dominated economies, may see prices of goods and service increase in the future.

In the shorter term, should we see the ‘V’-shaped economic recovery, the risk of inflation is a plausible scenario given the magnitude of stimulus we have seen in recent months. Within our portfolios, we do have exposure to assets that can offer some inflation protection, notably via infrastructure and gold exposures.

Whether in business, investing or life generally, when circumstances change, we need to be able to adapt quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to transform our family, social and professional lives in a matter of weeks while contending with the uncertainty of lockdown and social distancing measures. For trust-based businesses that rely on face-to-face interactions with clients, the transition to online meetings and remote work has been disruptive but manageable.

While COVID-19 is not the teacher we were looking for, we’ve learnt to adapt in the face of a global challenge that affects everyone, albeit in different ways. It’s not the strongest that survive, but those best able to adapt to environmental shifts and identify opportunities, even in a world of chaos. When markets enter a period of extreme volatility, investment managers need both discipline and the flexibility to respond quickly. Likewise, when a client’s wealth is on the line, advisers need to be there to provide reassurance, and be in a position to implement changes to the portfolio as soon as the need arises.

Many advisers Lonsec has spoken to have been surprised by their ability to transform their business practices seemingly overnight. Being able to adapt and pivot as a business is essential, and it’s no different in the investment world. For many advisers, however, making timely changes to their clients’ portfolios remains a challenge. This is where managed accounts can play a critical role in responding to market dynamics while giving clients confidence that their portfolio can actively manage risks and won’t be left behind when the market comes back.

Over the past two months, Lonsec has made a number of changes to its suite of managed portfolios and SMAs, ranging from asset allocation adjustments through to individual fund manager and stock changes. These changes have been made to further diversify the portfolios, manage risk, and take advantage of investment opportunities where there has been significant dislocation in markets and value has been identified. In such an environment, the ability to implement in a timely manner has been important as market dynamics have shifted quickly.

The managed account structure has facilitated the efficient implementation of these changes. In practice, the process of making an investment decision – from the time the investment committee meets, to the implementation of the changes, through to the communication of these changes to advisers – takes around two days. Compare this to the conventional process of making an investment decision, sending a Record of Advice (ROA) to clients, awaiting a response, and then implementing the proposed changes across your client base.

All this can take up valuable time. While managing these changes, advisers also need to focus on running their business and helping clients through a period where many may be feeling distressed as their finances come under pressure, their job security is at risk, or their retirement savings have taken a hit.

An example of the value of being able to implement in a timely manner can be demonstrated by a change to asset allocation Lonsec made on 14 April 2020. Lonsec increased the portfolio allocation to equities within our multi-asset and listed portfolios from a slightly underweight exposure to a neutral exposure, thus increasing the weight to risk assets. The allocation was funded from our alternative and cash exposures, depending on the portfolio. The investment thesis was driven by an improvement in asset price valuation metrics, improved liquidity in markets, and a reduction in some of the risk indicators Lonsec monitors. At the same time, we recognized that economic data is likely to be poor and there is still significant uncertainty around how company earnings will be affected by the pandemic.

However, looking forward over a three-year period, we believed a neutral exposure was warranted. Since the change was implemented, both domestic and global equities have risen, recouping some of the losses experienced in March. While we believe it’s almost impossible to time markets – and Lonsec doesn’t make short-term tactical moves – being able to implement investment views at the time a decision is made can be beneficial to clients, particularly in periods where market dynamics are changing quickly.

Like many things, we often recognize the value of something once things take a turn for the worse. When markets are going up and volatility is low, as was the case leading up to pandemic, portfolio implementation doesn’t rank highly in terms of importance. However, when markets begin shifting rapidly, the value of efficient implementation becomes all too clear, especially for advisers looking to maintain contact with their clients and communicate the benefits of their advice in a highly challenging market.

April saw a rebound in risk assets as markets were buoyed by the prospect of economies slowly reopening for business as the number of new COVID-19 cases appear to have passed their peak in many key economies around the world. Markets were also supported by ongoing policy actions from central banks and governments, which has seen liquidity in markets significantly shift from being problematic a couple of months ago to being flush with liquidity as central banks ramped up their asset purchasing programs.

Economic news however continues to be poor. The Australian unemployment rate rose from 5.2% to 6.2% in April. What this figure does not factor in is the number of people who have effectively exited the labour force as well as people who are underemployed as a result of their work hours being reduced. In the US, unsurprisingly retail sales took a significant hit dropping 16.4% in April, with clothing sales down by about 80% since the end of February. Only food consumption was up by 10%, which was no doubt fuelled by ‘panic buying’. Amidst the negative news, Chinese industrial production continued to show signs of rebounding.

A key question we are asking ourselves is to what degree the negative economic news has been priced into the market and to what extent will markets continue buying into the central bank liquidity story. We believe that markets have factored in some of the bad economic news however much will depend on how quickly economies can reopen and that the rate of COVID-19 cases remains stable. Central banks have responded rapidly, and the scale of response has been unprecedented. However, a spike in cases and economies re-entering a ‘lockdown’ scenario would be negative for markets.

Our most recent asset allocation change was to move towards our neutral weight to equities reducing our alternatives and cash allocation. Our asset allocation views take a 18 month to 3 year view and while we see risks ahead and economic news is expected to be poor, we are also seeing valuation opportunities in some asset classes. Policy and liquidity are conducive to risk assets and risk indicators such as the VIX Index have been moderating.

However, we remain cautious and from a bottom-up investment perspective we have been focused on further diversifying our portfolios. Within equities we are seeking to increase our exposure to managers, sectors and stocks which have a bias towards companies with more sustainable earnings and sound balance sheets. In terms of income, we are factoring in a 30% reduction in income from dividends and we are seeking to diversifying our sources of yield to certain segments of the credit market particularly within our retirement focused portfolios. Finally, we have been adding a small exposure to gold within our multi-asset and listed portfolios. Gold provides defensive characteristics during deflationary periods and times of economic uncertainly. Additionally, it can act as a good hedge against inflation, which while not a concern today, may be an issue in the future given the scale of monetary and fiscal stimulus supporting economies currently.

Stay safe and healthy.

A period of rapid change, coupled with the recent bout of heightened volatility, hasn’t aided the growing list of challenges facing the funds management industry.

The biggest challenge currently confronting fund managers within the Australian Equities sector (and potentially across most sectors) is one of survival. Fund management businesses that were already under pressure from insourcing investment management activities by super funds and low-cost index investing have now been hit with a significant loss of funds under management given downward market movements.

Lonsec Australian Equities sub-sector performance

Sub-Sector Average 1 mth Average 3 mth Average 1 yr
Absolute Return -12.70% -14.79% -7.93%
Core / Style Neutral -21.49% -24.52% -15.28%
Geared -44.06% -48.70% -37.06%
Growth -18.70% -21.05% -11.16%
Income Dividend Focused -21.13% -25.12% -18.27%
Income Specialised -18.80% -22.16% -16.17%
LIC -18.44% -24.62% -12.01%
Responsible Investment -21.31% -24.12% -14.51%
Value -22.62% -27.19% -20.57%
Active Extension -23.60% -26.10% -16.90%
Variable Beta -17.25% -19.89% -13.30%
Microcap -26.05% -31.95% -16.79%
Mid Cap -21.16% -25.41% -18.19%
Small Cap -23.72% -27.96% -18.43%


Source: Lonsec. As at 31 March 2020

Boutique outfits without sustainable business models are increasingly susceptible to significant operational shocks in the current environment of uncertainty. Fund managers with lower funds under management are under increasing pressure to shore up their balance sheets and capital base via cost cutting or by entering into strategic partnerships. This is one key area of focus for Lonsec analysts currently reviewing the Australian Equities sector. That said, the underlying value proposition of boutiques remains compelling, with strong track records, high alignment with investors and autonomy to make decisions and set their own destiny.

The next challenge is the sheer uncertainty of what will happen next. The bottom up consensus earnings forecasts for flat growth in FY20 are not reflective of the current environment. The magnitude and duration of the virus induced disruption remains uncertain, attributing to market participants heavily discounting near term expectations. Over half of ASX 200 companies have downgraded or withdrawn earnings guidance due to the lack of visibility in assessing the extent and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. Investors are now ready to disregard earnings this year and possibly well into 2021.

In an environment where ‘kicking the tyres’ is difficult, fund managers within the Lonsec universe are maintaining close contact with company management, looking at alternative sources of insights and closely monitoring news flow. While staying true to their traditional bottom-up approach, fund managers are also increasingly taking into consideration ‘top down’ risks, given the prevailing macroeconomic environment.

Importantly, fund managers within the Lonsec universe have stress tested their portfolios and conducted a review of their holdings, focusing on balance sheet resilience to help get through the current downturn. Any question marks around the strength of company balance sheets (i.e. high debt levels and low interest coverage ratios) has, in many instances, resulted in exiting its position.

The most recent drawdown has two stark contrasts compared to previous sizable downturns; the speed of the fall and the concentrated number of outperforming stocks. The dispersion of stock returns has spiked despite elevated sector correlations.

The consensus within the fund management community is that of cautious optimism, given Australia is already seeing the green shoots of a slowing of the spread and flattening the curve. This suggests that stocks exposed to the domestic economy will be direct beneficiaries.

A number of fund managers are taking advantage of opportunities in companies that benefit from the COVID-19 outbreak and stocks with leverage to a recovery. In particular, the surge in data usage emanating from government-imposed restrictions are positively impacting the likes of NextDC and Megaport. Supermarket operators Coles, Woolworths and Metcash are seeing a sharp bounce in their top-line sales as households hoarded a range of grocery staples including toilet paper and pasta.

As part of the ongoing review, Lonsec is monitoring for any ‘style drift’ in strategies chasing ‘high quality’ stocks.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes

If the GFC was any guide, one of the most profitable ways to generate short term gains was via capital raisings. This time is no different. A recent report by analysts at Macquarie who looked at the performance of 35 deals that had raised a combined $15.4 billion since 18 March 2020, found 74% of the deals were trading above their offer price, while raisings had on average returned 17% to date.

Within the small cap sector since late March to 22 April 2020, 29 companies raised capital totalling $5.4bn at an average discount of 22.2%. Only 6 of the 29 companies were trading below their placement price.

Many of these companies have benefitted from steps announced by regulators to facilitate capital raisings. In late March, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ASX temporarily increased the threshold to 25% (from 15%) for placements without needing to obtain shareholder approval. Last week, the waiver was amended to require additional disclosure by companies taking advantage of new share placements rules. Companies need to explain in detail how the shares are allocated, and which investors received stock, amid concerns existing investors are being diluted. For example, NextDC handed 20% of the stock issued in the placement ($672 million) to new investors at the expense of existing shareholders.

A large number of fund managers currently reviewed by Lonsec are taking advantage of this phenomenon, but the approach varies from taking  their pro-rata allocation, investing in a stock with the intention of topping up at the capital raising stage, or using their networks to get an allocation despite not having previously held a position in the company.

Fund managers are finding new sources of dividend income

Fund managers across the board are expecting company dividends to come under pressure due to liquidity concerns and balance sheet stress. The ability to cancel or delay dividends may prove an important source of funding to preserve balance sheets and may also help avoid dilutive equity raisings. Fund managers expect any unpaid dividends to be kept on balance sheets as retained earnings for future dividends.

% of dividends exposed to COVID-19 disruption


Source: AMP Capital

As at 30 March 2020, ASX 300 dividends announced but not paid totalled around $14 billion. Of these around $450 million have been cancelled and $540 million deferred.

Lonsec expects all Income strategies to be impacted as dividends for banks, property and infrastructure companies are expected to decline as companies try to counter demand shocks through rapid cash conservation measures. For example, National Australia Bank recently cut its dividend by 64% to protect their capital positions in anticipation of rising bad debts. Historically (over the last five years), the Financial Services sector and Materials sector have paid 33% and 27% (respectively) of total dividends (net) paid by companies.

The market expectation is for average DPS to fall in the region of 25–30%, but fund managers expect this to recover by 2022. Prior to the current crisis, yield (cash dividend plus franking) was near 7% (add a further 2% for option-based strategies). These numbers will obviously fall, but the belief is they are unlikely to approach the level of bond yields.

Importantly, fund managers have found new homes in their quest for yield. Resources stocks are the new ‘kids on the block’ when it comes to dividend payers. Resources companies are benefiting from strength in commodity prices, weakness in Australian dollar and strong balance sheets. Stocks such as Rio, BHP and Fortescue now within the ‘low probability of dividend cuts’, whereas the previous ‘annuities’ being the bank dividends are under continued pressure. Lonsec notes that given resource companies are generally capital intensive, cyclical (commodity cycle), and have higher operational risks, they are not the best ‘through the cycle’ dividend plays. For example, BHP had to cut its dividend following the Samarco dam disaster.

Dividends will be cut, making the avoidance of dividend traps more important than ever. It is important for fund managers to be cognisant of the potential for stocks to cut their dividends and adjust their portfolios accordingly, rather than just remaining systematically overweight those stocks with the highest historical yields.

Managers are getting ahead of the regulatory curve

The ban on short selling during the GFC opened up a lively debate on how markets should function. While the merits of a short selling ban may be dubious, fund managers are nonetheless prepared for this. While this would not be a big deal in isolation, fund managers need to make sure they are not exposed to many illiquid or highly shorted names. In the event of a short selling ban, history suggests that many would more actively use shorting of the index for hedging purposes.

Similar to past crises, the COVID-19 outbreak will mark a key point in history. Key structural trends are likely to emerge, and fund managers have begun pondering the implications for their strategies. Themes include the transition to a more digital world and focus on automation, having been further highlighted by the enforced digitisation of workplaces. Changing consumer behaviour such as an increase take up of e-commerce and the fragility of global supply chains have also been brought into stark attention. How these broader trends will impact the economy is a different question, but they will undoubtedly work to reshape the future investment landscape.

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