Australia | Apr 07 2021
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During March the ASX200 rose 1.8%, underperforming a 4.2% rise for the S&P500
-Strong EPS uplift forecast
-Value slipped after five consecutive months of outperformance
-Iron ore forecast to drop -5-10%
-Gold forecast to drop to US$1550/oz
By Mark Story
The outperformance of Australian growth stocks in March ended value’s winning streak, with technology and precious metals outperforming energy and communication services, while stocks with retail exposure were particularly strong.
It was large caps that led the market higher, with the ASX50 up 1.8%, compared with a 0.2% increase in the Small Ordinaries, and a 4.2% rise in the S&P500. However, ASX-listed small and emerging stocks slightly outperformed the ASX100.
A steady increase in equity indices (Small Ordinaries, MidCap 50, and ASX100) witnessed in March was supported by an increase in earnings per share (EPS) forecasts for the current financial year.
During the four weeks of March, market trends generally paused with a plateau in Australian inflation expectations and bond yields, while the downward trend in gold halted, and this helped to support returns for stocks in the utilities, discretionary and communications sectors.
The tail end of March saw greater Brisbane go into a three-day snap lockdown, (global cases of covid surpassing 128m during the month), while the ship blocking the Suez Canal was also set free on the last day of the month. The end of March also marked the government’s ability to vaccinate 600,000 Australians, well down on the projected target of four million.
While major flooding witnessed across NSW and Queensland during March bodes well for listed Agri-sector stocks, it’s yet another hit to reinsurers following other recent one-off events. For example, Suncorp ((SUN)) expects the cost of this event to be -$230mn to -$250m, above the -$200mn (gross) estimate that Insurance Group Australia ((IAG)) expects the event to cost it.
Other notable developments in March included a -US0.7c fall in Aussie dollar as the spread between Australian and US bond yields narrowed. Commodities also pulled back, with iron ore prices down to US$174/t, and oil prices declined to US$63.54/bbl (-US$2.59/bbl).
During March, developed equities outperformed emerging markets, while global growth and value were both up.
While the ASX200 rose 2.4% in March, the index underperformed against the Developed Market World's return of 4.4% in local currency terms. In USD terms, the ASX200 dropped -0.8%, but outperformed against the DM World return of -3.3%. The Small Ords was up 1.6% over March, driven by consumer discretionary and A-REITs.
Looking across global markets, MSCI World Developed markets index dropped -3.3%, underperforming against the Emerging Markets World return which rose 1.5% in USD terms. The DJ Euro Stoxx (down -4.3%) and the FTSE100 (down -2.7%) both dropped, while the Nikkei 225 rose 2.3%.
Australian Stock market by Sector
On a sector-by-sector basis, the consumer discretionary, utilities, and REITs sectors outperformed during the month of March with increases of 7.0%, 6.8%, and 6.6% respectively. By comparison, the sectors that underperformed the most were the materials (-3.0%) and technology (-2.9%) sectors.
Positive EPS revisions underpin index performance, with the latter part of the month witnessing small gains in the Small Ordinaries, MidCap50 and ASX100 – hence extending gains in recent weeks.
This was supported by upward revisions to EPS forecasts (of 4%) for the current financial year, resulting in little change to index PE ratios.
While iron ore and gold stocks dominated the leader-board for positive and negative EPS revisions respectively, there was little price reaction.
At the individual stock level, Hansen Technologies ((HSN)) and Clinuvel Pharmaceuticals ((CUV)) saw large positive EPS revisions and share price movements, while GrainCorp ((GNC)) is also enjoying upward FY21 EPS revisions. On the flipside, Spark New Zealand ((SPK)), NRW Holdings ((NWH)), and particularly Resolute Mining ((RSG)) each saw their share price fall on downward EPS revisions.
Overall, energy, industrials and miners underpinned the March uplift, with energy comfortably topping the table, with year-ahead expectations lifting by over 15% and every stock in the sector in upgrade mode. The stand-outs for the month were Oil Search ((OSH)) up 20%, Woodside petroleum ((WPL)) up 17% and Origin Energy ((ORG)) up 12%.
Best and worst Australian Stocks within Indices
The dragging sectors on the Small Ords were diversified metals and mining, driven by Western Areas ((WSA)) and Ioneer ((INR)); and financials, mainly Zip Co ((Z1P)). However, gold equities were also a driver of the gains in the Small Ords, with the yellow metal appearing to stabilise over the last four weeks.
Among the Small Ordinaries, the best performers were Ardent Leisure ((ALG)) rising 45.7%, Hansen Technologies up 34.0% and Mayne Pharma Group ((MXY)) up 27.3%. Worst performers included Freedom Foods ((FNP)) down -84.4%, Resolute Mining, down -31.8%, and Zip Co, down -29.0%.
Value versus Growth
Following five consecutive months of outperformance, value slipped in Australia during March – underperforming growth by -3.51 percentage points. Performance however across the value complex was not uniform, with the banks (up 5.1%) delivering another strong showing, while mining was down -7.1%. The other key component of value, energy, also slid in March, albeit a modest decline of just -0.5%.
Macquarie notes the outperformance of growth is consistent with the fall in domestic bond yields in March. With price to earnings dispersion still higher than at any time before the pandemic, vaccines driving the normalisation of the economy, and an expectation that bond yields will rise further, the broker continues to favour value.
While low funding costs and improving confidence supports M&A activity, Macquarie believes covid winners in particular could take advantage of current high profitability and share-price strength to acquire assets that can help achieve their longer-term corporate objectives.
Computershare ((CPU)) up 14.5%, was the best performer in the ASX50, supported by higher US bond yields and the accretive acquisition of Wells Fargo’s Corporate Trust business. REA Group ((REA)) also announced a bolt-on acquisition in March (Mortgage Choice), while Blackstone made an offer for Crown Resorts ((CWN)), pushing the stock up 18.2% in March.
Given the vaccine rollout progresses across Australia with minimal outbreaks, further driving consumer confidence, outperformance experienced by the consumer sector (ASX200 +1.8%) during March came as no surprise.
The retail sector was the best performing sector within consumer, returning 8.2% and outperforming the market by 6.40 percentage points. Discretionary was not far behind 6.9%, followed by Staples 2.3%.
Within retail, Premier Investments ((PMV)) up 23%, JB Hi-Fi ((JBH)) up 19% and Harvey Norman ((HV)) up 13% led the rally, offsetting declines in Kogan.com ((KGN)) down -13% – which was the only stock in retail experiencing negative returns.
Macquarie notes Premier Investments' positive share price performance was spurred by a strong first half 2021 result, whereas strong home & furniture spend, as a result of a robust housing market, appears to be driving momentum in Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi.
On an earnings per share basis, Macquarie notes year-on-year retail saw the highest upgrade in over 10 years of 20.5% in the month. By comparison, staples saw downgrades of -8.2% on a year-on-year basis, albeit an improvement from prior month and December’s year-on-year downgrades of -11.9%.
Macquarie notes this compares to the broader market (ASX200) which was upgraded 0.8% year-on-year in March 2021, and up 2.9% on a month-on-month basis.
Within supermarkets, Macquarie continues to believe Woolworths ((WOW)) is the best-in-class, demanding a premium and the retention of the broker’s Outperform rating. Within consumer discretionary, the broker prefers previously mentioned Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi and expects strong housing turnover to support top-line sales for high-margin categories such as furniture.
Lastly, Macquarie remains positive on Flight Centre ((FLT)), and has an Outperform rating on the stock given optimism around travel recovery, increasing cost-out and government’s new $1.2bn travel & tourism stimulus.
In the month of March, despite growth outperforming value, technology stocks underperformed the broader market, with the ASX technology index down -2% versus the ASX100 up 1.8%. Within the technology index, Hansen Technologies rose 32%, RPMGlobal ((RUL)) up 22% and Alcidion Group ((ALC)), up 22% were the best performers.
According to Credit Suisse, the median revenue multiple in the tech index at 31 March was 5.3x, compared to 6.2x at 28 February 2021. The mean revenue multiple for the WAAX stocks – Wisetech Global ((WTC)), Afterpay, Altium ((ALU)), and Xero Ltd ((XRO)) at 31 March was 17.2x, versus 17.7x at 31 January 2021.
While Credit Suisse's sector update mentions WAAAX regularly, the above four constituents plus Appen ((APX)), when it comes to comparing valuations, the broker has for unqualified reasons decided to exclude Appen; hence WAAAX becomes WAAX for valuation comparative purposes. Following a series of disappointing market updates, Appen's share price has more than halved since August last year (-63% from the peak).
Credit Suisse does regard the sector rotation away from tech as a risk due to rising rates. The broker sees multiple companies (within coverage) with strong, multi-year compounding growth outlooks.
For example, as the market increasingly looks for re-opening trades, Credit Suisse remains upbeat on travel stocks Corporate Travel ((CTD)) and Webjet ((WEB)). Given they will be key beneficiaries of the northern hemisphere re-opening and resuming travel, the broker has an outperform rating on both stocks.
Real Estate Investment Trusts
The end of March marked the close of the Commercial Code, with the government mandated rental support for small to medium enterprises finally over.
It’s likely to take several periods before the market fully understands the post-covid “new normal” market for A-REITs, analysts suggest. Nevertheless, with a total return of 6.56% A-REITs outperformed the broader ASX by 4.12% in March 2021 – with a basket, office-exposed names experiencing a relatively strong month.
While industrial-exposed names also had a strong month, pure-play regional-mall-exposed stocks were laggards.
Outperformers for the month included: Home Consortium ((HMC)) up 14.9%, Centuria Industrial REIT ((CIP)) up 12.5%, Mirvac Group ((MGR)) up 8.2%, Dexus ((DXS)) up 7.0%, and Growthpoint Properties ((GOZ)) up 6.8%.
Underperformers for the month were: Lendlease Group ((LLC)) down -4.6%, Scentre Group ((SCG)) down -4.1%, Vicinity Centres ((VCX)) down -2.4%, Rural Funds Group ((RFF)) down -1.7% and Arena REIT ((ARF)) down -0.4%.
During the month, office restrictions were eased in the state of Victoria, and there should be a follow-on benefit for Melbourne CBD retail. While growth in online sales remain generally stable, store counts, plus reported relatively high reported occupancy levels, bode well for all ASX-listed retail groups. Credit Suisse thinks the re-setting of rents will also be an ongoing process over several periods.
Across the A-REIT sector, there was over $70b of available debt lines, of which $51.7b was drawn as at 31 December 2020. While unsecured bank debt represents around 41% of available debt, it represents only 22% of drawn debt, which Credit Suisse notes provides many A-REITs with flexibility including repaying any shorter term debt expiries.
On aggregate, only 3% of debt is due to expire over second half 2021, and 8% in FY22. On balance, Credit Suisse believes the refinance risk across the sector is low.
Based on Key sector metrics (weighted average), Credit Suisse notes that A-REITs offer a forecast total shareholder return (TSR) of 9.4% including a forecast dividend per share (DPS) yield of 4.3% – being a 2.5% spread over the ten-year bond.
Overall, the sector is trading on a 19.1x FY21 funds from operations (FFO) multiple and at a 56.4% premium to net tangible assets (NTA), while gearing across the sector is 19.0%.
Credit Suisse’s preferred exposures include office Dexus and fund manager/industrial REIT Goodman Group ((GMG)), in the retail space, Charter Hall Retail ((CQR)), and in the small-to mid-caps, Centuria Office ((COF)) and Abacus Property Group ((ABP)).
The Equity Outlook
Given that the first quarter of 2021 was replete with all the hallmarks of a reflationary upcycle, JPMorgan expects more of the same, albeit with diminished velocity. As a result, the broker’s global asset allocation remains skewed to equites and commodities.
JPMorgan’s positioning in Australia remains tilted to value (energy, financials and materials) and underweight growth (IT, Healthcare). The broker has however, undertaken something of a ‘rebalancing act’ to account for the strong outperformance of value, and has scaled back Its Overweight rating on materials and financials, while narrowing its healthcare Underweight rating.
With the mining sector having stumbled in March, dropping around -10% on the back of declining copper and iron prices, the market remains uncertain as to whether the sector can outperform should commodities slip further.
However, JPMorgan believes that steady-to-higher EPS, near-record high free cash flows, pristine balance sheets, and a low likelihood of large-scale M&A and burgeoning dividends should more than offset the -5-10% price decline the broker foresees into year-end for iron ore.
The broker still sees ample support for outperformance to continue across both materials and financials sectors, and sees grounds for an element of profit-taking and has thus lowered weightings to both. As a result, energy is now the broker’s largest overweight at +2.30 percentage points.
The broker’s global view remains strongly behind higher oil prices, which supports the considerable bottom-up potential upside that the JPMorgan team sees in the likes of Beach Petroleum ((BPT)) up 29% and Santos ((STO)) up 12%.
At the other end of the spectrum, the broker has narrowed Healthcare's Underweight up to -2.00 percentage points following the sector's deep underperformance in the year-to-date (-7.6% versus ASX 200 4.2%)
During March, the RBA was a net buyer of Australian Commonwealth Government Bonds (ACGB), having bought around $18.5b of ACGBs, and now holds circa 13% of the outstanding market (up from 11% previously). The RBA was also a key buyer of semi-government bonds, having net bought around $6bn during the fourth quarter of 2020.
These flows are on track to continue in 2021, as the RBA still has $86b of ACGBs and $22b of semis left to buy under its announced QE program.
Continuing to rise on higher inflation expectations, global bond yields rose with the US ten-year government bond yield rising from 1.46% to 1.74%. Australian bonds however saw a slight decline, as ten-year yields dropped from 1.88% to 1.79%. This decreases the spread between AU and US bond yields by -0.42% to 0.05%.
Brent Oil prices fell -US$2.59/bbl to US$63.54/bbl as the market awaited news about possible production cuts from OPEC. Iron ore prices pulled back to US$165.0/Mt falling by -US$9.0/Mt.
Meantime, gold prices fell again by -US$51.80/oz to $1,691.05/oz, and JP Morgan’s global commodities team recently downgraded their year-end gold price forecast from US$1,650/oz to US$1,550/oz.
The USD index (DXY) rose by 2.58% in February. Against the USD, the Norwegian Krone up 0.63 and the Canadian Dollar up 0.37% were the best performing currencies.
By comparison, the Swedish Krona (down -4.07%), the New Zealand Dollar (down -3.99%) and the Swiss Franc (down -3.97%) were relative underperformers.
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