Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Viral Market Meltdown VI: The Price of Risk

It is a sign of how volatile the last few weeks have been,  that a week like the last one, where index levels move only 2-3% a day, high by historic standards, felt stable. As in prior weeks, I will start this one by looking at how the market action last week played out across asset classes, and within equity, across regions and industries first, but the bulk of this post will be an update on the price of risk, and how it has changed in both bond and stock markets over the last six weeks. In the process, I will compare this six-week periods to the 2008 crisis, which was also global, and shook the faith people had in markets, institutions and companies.

The Markets last week
The market action last week was more muted than it had been in prior weeks, but that is a relative statement, as we still saw big swings in almost every asset class. Using the same sequencing that I have used for the last few weeks, I will start with a  review of equity indices globally:
Download raw data
It was a quiet week for most markets, with the Nikkei and the Sensex being the exceptions, dropping 8,09% and 7.46% respectively. Over the last month, every market has seen double digit negative returns, with Shanghai being the only exception. Moving on to US treasuries, we saw more calm than in prior weeks, with rates staying close to where they were in the previous week:
Download raw data
The (relative) calm in equity and treasury markets also played out in the corporate bond market, with spreads decreasing slightly for higher rated bonds and increasing marginally for lower rated bonds.
Download raw data
The commodity markets continued on their wild ride, with oil again diverging significantly from copper:
Download raw data
Oil prices surged dramatically towards the end of the week, mostly on rumors that Saudi Arabia and Russia would come to an agreement on oil production, but copper prices stayed stable. Completing the analysis, I looked at gold and bitcoin last week:
Both gold and bitcoin saw little price action during the week, not a bad development in a crisis market. In summary, looking at returns across asset classes last week, and comparing those returns to prior weeks, it is clear that last week saw a reduction in the volatility that has characterized previous weeks. It is unclear, though, whether the week is just the calm before another storm, or a true break in the crisis. The next few weeks will tell!

Breaking down the weekly movements
As in prior weeks, I start by looking at publicly traded companies around the world, and looking at how they did, in market capitalization terms, last week, and break down the information by region, sector/industry and classes (PE, momentum, debt etc.). I start with the regional breakdowns:
As with the market indices, it was a  week of losses, albeit small ones, in much of the world, with the outliers being Eastern Europe & Russia, which saw a gain of 9.07%, and Japan, which lost 9.38% in market capitalization. Collectively, global stocks lost $1.6 trillion in the week of March 27-April 3, and have lost $22.7 trillion in market capitalization since February 14, 2020, a decline of 25.08%. Moving on to the sector breakdown:

The rise in oil prices pushed up the market capitalization of the energy sector by 6.31%, but most of the other sectors saw losses during the week of 3/27-4/3/20. Incorporating the last week into the data, financial service firms have now taken the dubious lead among sectors, of biggest percentage drop in market capitalization since February 14, 2020, and consumer staples and health care still lead the list of least damaged sectors.  Honing down to the industry level and updating the list of ten most hurt and least hurt industries:
Data on all industries
The loser list has many of the same infrastructure industries that showed up in last week’s list, but the winner list has a healthy sprinkling of energy stocks, pushed up by the rise in oil prices during the week. I also did the breakdown, looking at companies in PE classes, momentum classes (based upon price change over the year leading into 2/14/20, net debt classes and dividend/buyback classes) and found that the only categorization where there is significant differentiation in market damage is net debt, where more highly levered companies continue to be punished more than less levered companies. You can find these categorizations and results by clicking on this link. I did extend the analysis to look at companies that have bond ratings, a subset of 2271 Firms out of the total sample of 36,789 firms, and the results reinforce the finding that leverage has the biggest explanatory power for damage from this crisis:
As bond ratings drop, the decline in market value is more precipitous, with the ratings below investment grade (below BBB, in red) being particularly hit. 

The Price of Risk
In the last few weeks, as markets have tumbled, I have held back on reporting on a measure that I update every month, which is the equity risk premium. That said, the last six weeks reinforces a lesson that I learned the hard way in 2008, which is that dependence on a static, historical estimate makes no sense in a dynamic, shifting market. In this section, I want to focus on how the price of risk has changed over the last six weeks, and what lessons, if any, we can glean from those changes.

Determinants
In a post from earlier this year on the topic, I argued that every risky asset class market has a price of risk, though that price is more observable in some markets than others. The price of risk changes on a day-to-day basis, and is determined by a combination of variables that encompass almost everything going on in the world from uncertainty about future economic growth (more uncertainty -> higher price for risk) to political stability (more instability -> higher price for risk) to worries about catastrophes/disasters (more worries -> higher price for risk) to investor risk aversion (greater risk aversion -> higher price for risk) to information availability/reliability (less reliable and accessible information -> higher risk premiums). I know that I am giving short shrift to weighty topics, and if you are interested in a more in depth assessment of these variables, you can read my 2020 update on equity risk premiums here. (Be warned. It is long and boring, and may put you to sleep, but that may be a good thing..) The more general point though that emerges from identifying the determinants is that changes in these variables will change the prices for risk, and since investing and valuation has to be based upon updated prices for risk, you need measurement approaches that capture these changes.

Bond Market Price of Risk
In the bond market, the price of risk is observable, since as investors see more default risk in the future, and demand higher prices for risk, bond prices drop and interest rates on bonds increase. That is what I chronicled when I reported on the default spreads on bonds in different ratings classes in the last section, and looked at how these spreads changed over the last few weeks of this crisis. It is true that default spreads, for a given default risk class, don't change much in mature markets during periods of stability, and this can be seen in the graph below, where I look at the default spreads on Moody's Baa rated bonds (translating into an S&P BBB rating)  since 1960:
Download raw data
Even during this period, there have been sub-periods of tumult, as evidenced by the change in default spreads in the 2008 crisis. Looking more closely at the the period between September 12, 2008 to December 31, 2008 at the spreads on bonds, here is what you saw:

In 2008, default spreads doubled between September 12, 2008 and December 31, 2008. In the last six weeks (February 14, 2020- April 3, 2020), the default spreads on bonds in every ratings class have widened, not surprising given both the economic damage done by the crisis and the higher likelihood of default and the fear factor:
It is interesting that the default spreads did not show much effect during the first two weeks of this crisis (February 14- February 28), but woke up to the crisis in the third week. Over the six weeks, spreads have almost doubled for the highest risk classes, and have increased significantly even for higher rated bonds.

Equity Market Price of Risk
Unlike the bond market, it is more difficult to measure a forward-looking and dynamic measure of equity risk, though there are short cuts that people have employed. For instance, there are some investors who use the earnings yield (the inverse of the PE ratio) as a rough proxy, arguing that it should be higher, when equity investors are demanding a higher price for risk. There are others who focus on the VIX, a traded measure of volatility that is observable and is a gauge of fear and worry, rising during crisis and market downturns. In the last six weeks, the VIX has gone on a wild ride, as can be seen in the graph below, peaking at 85.47 on March 18, 2020.

While the VIX is an instrument for measuring market fear, it is not a direct measure of the equity risk premium. My preference is an implied equity risk premium, computed by estimating the internal rate of return investors can expect to earn, given what they pay for stocks and expected cash flows in the future, and netting out the risk free rate:

As some of you who have visited my website know, I update this equity risk premium (ERP) at the start of every year, and the graph below summarizes the implied equity risk premiums on the S&P 500 at the start of every year from 1960 to 2020.
Download historical implied ERP
Note that the equity risk premium stood at 5.20% at the end of 2019, but is has been more volatile since the 2008 crisis, than prior to it. It was during that crisis that I developed the practice of computing the premium on a day-to-day basis to capture the battle between fear and greed that characterize every crisis. In the figure below,I graph the implied ERP from September 12, 2008 (the Friday before Lehman’s collapse) until December 31, 2008:

Note that on September 12, 2008, which was the triggering point for the 2008 crisis, the equity risk premium for the S&P 500 was 4.22% but during the next eight weeks, the ERP rose sharply to reach a high of 7.83% on November 20, 2008, before subsiding somewhat to end the year at 6.43%. One of the limitations that I faced during that period is that while I was able to update the index values and treasury bond rates every day, the earnings and cash flow numbers were being updated with a substantial lag, with the full changes not showing up until several months later.

I decided to do the same day-to-day calculation for the implied equity risk premium, with an augmentation. Rather than allow earnings and cash flows to remain stagnant, in the face of a crisis that will almost certaintly decimate both, I computed a COVID-adjusted ERP as well, with estimated drops in earnings and cash flows. In making these judgments, I did change my estimates across time, starting with a 15% drop in earning in the first two weeks of this crisis, and ending with a 30% drop in earnings for the S&P in the most recent two. Those changes may reflect my slow learning, as the gravity of the crisis magnified each week:
Download raw data
I understand that this crisis is by no means over, and I intend to keep computing the implied equity risk premium daily for as long as I think necessary, but if your estimates are close to mine, the equity risk premium for the S&P 500 was 6.01% (with the adjusted numbers) on April 1, 2020

Country Risk Premiums
At the start of each year, I compute equity risk premiums, by country, with the intent of using these numbers when I value companies, and leave them unchanged for the first half of the year. This year, though, the crisis has caused the numbers to change, and in some cases, dramatically. First, the base premium that I use is the US implied equity risk premium which has jumped from 5.20% to 6.01% (see above). Second, the additional risk premiums for countries are based upon sovereign default spreads, which like corporate bond spreads, have widened significantly. My updated basis for computing the country equity risk premiums is below:

My global picture of equity risk premiums at the start of April 2020 is provided below:
Download spreadsheet
Just to illustrate how much of a difference a few weeks can make to your estimates, I have also included the ERP from January 1, 2020, for comparison. Note that the premiums have not only climbed in every country, but they have increased more in the riskiest countries.

Conclusion
One of the lessons that I learned from the 2008 crisis was to move away from static approaches for computing equity risk premiums, dependent on looking at long periods of history. What I learned during the last three months of 2008 made me switch to using implied equity risk premiums in my valuation and corporate financial analysis, and to compute them on a monthly basis. This crisis has reinforced that practice. I have always found it difficult to grasp how companies can use hurdle rates that are not only set in stone, but set in stone a decade or two ago, even as the market environment shifts and the price of risk changes. The median cost of capital for a global company, which was 7.6% at the start of 2020, is now closer to 8%, with the increase in risk premiums more than compensating for the decline in risk free rates in much of the world and the rise in cost of capital, in US dollar terms, steeper in emerging markets than developed markets.

YouTube Video


Paper on Equity Risk Premiums
  1. Equity Risk Premiums: Determinants, Estimation  and Implications- The 2020 Edition
Datasets
  1. Market Changes by Asset Class, 2/14 - 4/03
  2. Equity Market Changes by Industry, 2/14 - 4/03
  3. PE, Momentum & Dividend classes, 2/14-4/03
  4. Equity Risk Premium by day, 2/14 - 4/03
  5. Updated Equity Risk Premiums, by country (April 1, 2020)
Spreadsheets

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Viral Market Meltdown V: Back to Basics!

My first post on this blog was on September 17, 2008, a week into the 2008 crisis, and I honestly did not expect to be posting for long, anticipating that after a few posts, that crisis would be behind us, and that we could go back to our lives. That of course turned out not to be the case, as the crisis not only extended for months, but left its imprint on almost everything market or economy related for the next decade. Almost twelve years later, and six weeks into another market crisis, I have a sense of deja vu, as the days of volatility stretch into weeks, and each week brings new surprises. Unlike my four previous updates, this one will describe a week of market recovery, at least in sum, but like the previous weeks, the increase in market values came with wide swings, and continued uncertainty and volatility. It was also a week that saw governments around the world rush to pass rescue packages designed to get both individuals and businesses through a period where the global economic machine has been shut down. These bailouts, in addition to being many times larger than prior bailouts, have also reignited debates about what governments should be demanding in return. In the United States, a central issue that is being argued is how much stock buybacks done by companies in the last decade are contributing to the pain that companies are facing, and whether there need to be restrictions on them. While I will consider this issue in depth in a post later this week, I will look at the interaction between dividends, buybacks and market damage in this post.

A Macro Review
As in prior weeks, I will start this week's post by updating how the different asset classes performed last week, partly to put the six-week period (from February 14, 2020 - March 27, 2020) in perspective and partly to get a sense of where we are going next. The place to start is with equities, and in the table below, I look at the changes in equity indices across the world, both in the last week (March 20 -  March 27) and the last month.
Download data
Markets around the world had a good week, with the US and Japan delivering the most positive returns. Even those solid weekly returns were insufficient to make up for an otherwise painful month, where most indices lost 20% or more of their value. Moving on to US treasuries, in a week where the Fed continued to aggressively support the market, rates dropped across maturity classes, with treasury bill rates again hovering around zero. The ten-year rate ended the week at 0.72% and the 30-year rate at 1.29%
Download data
As in the previous week, stocks and bonds moved together, albeit with positive, not negative, returns. The  positive mood in the equity and treasury markets spilled over into the corporate bond markets, where default spreads that had spiked in the previous week dropped during the week, as default risk fears subsided strongly for the higher ratings and mildly for the lowest ratings.
Download data
Moving on to oil and copper, the two commodities that I reported on last week, it was a week of divergence, with copper having a flat week but oil continued its fall, as Russia and Saudi Arabia tried, but failed to reach a detente.
Download data
Finally, I look at gold and Bitcoin, my stand-ins for crisis assets and both gained for the week, though Bitcoin had a much larger deficit to make up, from its drop in prior weeks.
Download data
All in all, it is telling that last week, with all its volatility, felt calmer than prior weeks, perhaps because more of it was on the upside and it is all relative. That said, we are still on a roller coaster and there are more thrills to come in the coming weeks.

Equity Market Breakdown
In keeping with my practice in prior weeks, I will break down the equity movement last week by region and sector first, looking to see if there are divergences. I begin by breaking down the change in market value, in both dollar and percentage terms, by region during the 3/20-3/27 week:

In the aggregate, Japanese stocks had the strongest returns this week (3/20-3/27), followed by US and UK stocks. In fact, last week was the strongest week for US equities since the 1930s, with stocks up more than 10% for the week. Globally, stocks added $5.7 trillion in market cap, but remain down $21 trillion since February 14, 2020, even with that revival. Moving on to sectors, and looking at the same metrics, I get the following:

The results here are consistent with the earlier findings that corporate bond default spreads declined last week, after the surge in the prior one, and the most highly levered sectors (real estate and utilities) benefited. Updating the list of the ten industries that have been hurt the most and least during this crisis (dating back to February 14, 2020, I get this list:
Download full list of industries
Some of the worst performing industries over the six-week period had the best weekly performance last week, but remain deeply damaged.

In previous weeks, I have looked at classes of stocks, focusing on a different dimension each week. in the first two weeks, I looked at stocks classified based upon growth/value (with PE standing in as proxy) and momentum (based upon the stock performance in the year leading into February 14, 2020) and found little differentiation in market damage across the classes. Put simply, there is very little evidence, at least during these six weeks, that the market is punishing high growth stocks or high momentum stocks more or less than other stocks. In last week's update, I noted that companies with high financial leverage were more exposed to damage at least during the week than less levered companies. In this week's update, I focus on another variable that people have pointed to, often with nothing more than anecdotal evidence, as a potential culprit  in the crisis, and that is stock buybacks. Their argument is that companies that have bought back stock, often with borrowed money, are the ones that have led us to the precipice, and that the viral shock to the economy is just a tipping point for these companies. To test this hypothesis, I classified global companies into those that bought back stock last year and those that did not, and looked at the market damage across the two classes:

It is true that companies that bought back stock last year were slightly more exposed to market damage than companies that did not, but the differences are small. Globally, buyback-companies have lost about 25% of their market capitalization between February 14, 2020 and March 27, 2020, whereas non-buyback companies have lost 21% of their market capitalization; for US companies, the analogous numbers were 26% for buyback-companies and 23% for non-buyback firms. To see if it was buybacks that were the drivers of this difference, I also classified firms into those that paid dividends in 2019 and those that did not, and got results very similar to the ones with the buyback categorization.
Companies that paid dividends suffered more market damage of almost the same magnitude as the the buyback companies did, suggesting that the old value investing adage of buying companies with big dividends is providing little solace in this crisis. 

Finally, I returned to buybacks and focused just on US companies, where the buyback phenomenon has been most pronounced, but looked at the cross effect of leverage and buybacks, to test the proposition that it is not buybacks per se that are the problem, but buybacks by companies that either already carry high debt loads or borrow money to fund the buybacks:

There are two groups, where buybacks make a discernible difference on returns. The first are companies with negative EBITDA that bought back stock (which strikes me as foolhardy), with market values dropping about 31% from 2/14/20 to 3/20/20, relative to negative EBITDA companies that did not buy stock, where market values dropped only 24%. The second is in the companies with the least debt, where market values for buyback companies declined  26%, as opposed to 16% for non-buyback companies. All in all, while it is true that some of the companies that are the recipients of government bailouts have bought back stock in past years, there is little evidence for the proposition that without the buybacks, they would not need the bailouts. I know that I am giving short shrift to buyback arguments, for and against, but I will return to this question, with a more in-depth breakdown in a post later this week.

Back to Basics
As with all of my viral update posts, I will end with a focus on the future and a return to fundamentals, by looking at how to value companies in the midst of a market and economic crisis unlike any in history. While many investors have put their valuation tools away, using the argument that there is too much uncertainty now to even try, I will argue that this is exactly the time to go back to basics and try valuing companies, uncertainty notwithstanding.

The Dark Side beckons..
If your concept of valuation is downloading last year's financials for a company into a spread sheet and then using historical growth rates, with some mean reversion thrown in, to forecast future numbers, you are probably feeling lost right now, and with good reason. Specifically, the last six weeks have upended almost all of the assumptions, explicit and implicit, that justified this practice.
  1. Historical data may be recent, but it is already dated: For most companies globally, the most recent financial statements are for 2019, and in calendar time, these financials are only a few weeks old. As the global economy shuts down, though, the one thing we know with certainty is that the revenues and earnings numbers reported in those recent financial statements are almost useless, a reflection of a different economic setting. The same can be said about equity risk premiums and default spreads, as I am painfully aware, since the numbers that I updated on January 1, 2020, are so completely out of sync with where the market is today that I plan to do a full update at the end of today. (March 31, 2020).
  2. This year will deliver bad news: There is almost no doubt that 2020 will be a bad year for all companies, with the key questions being how much of a drop in revenues companies will see this year, and how this will translate into earnings shocks. It is true that there are a handful of companies, like Zoom, Slack and Instacart, to name just three, that may actually benefit from the global quarantine, but they are the exceptions. 
  3. Survival has become a central question: The magnitude of the shock to corporate bottom lines and the speed with which it has happened has put companies at risk, leaving debt-burdened and young companies exposed to default and distress. While some of the largest may get help from governments to make it through this crisis, their smaller and lower-profile peers may have to shut down or let themselves be acquired.
  4. The post-virus economy will be different from the pre-crisis version:  Every major crisis creates changes in business environment, regulations and business models that reshapes the economy and resets competitive games, setting the stage for new winners and losers. Thus, for some companies, the bad news on revenues and earnings this year may be a precursor to superior operating performance in the post-virus economy, as their competition fades 
Put simply, this is not the time for purely mechanical number crunching and a blind trust in mean reversion, since the landscape has changed. It is also not a time to wring our hands, complain that there is too much uncertainty and argue that the fundamentals don't matter. If you do so, you will be drawn to the dark side of investing, where fundamentals don't matter (paradigm shifts, anyone?), new pricing metrics get invented and you are at the mercy of mood and momentum. Ironically, it is precisely at times like these that you need to go back to basics.

A Jedi Guide to Valuation
With these lessons in mind, I decided to revisit my basic valuation model, which has always been built around fundamentals:

While the fundamentals remain the same, I considered how best to incorporate the effects of this crisis into the model and arrived at the following:

Note that this post-Corona valuation model stays true to the fundamentals but introduces three crisis-specific inputs into the valuation:
  1. Revenue Change & Operating Margin in 2020: These are the inputs that will reflect the effects of the global economic shut down on your company's revenues and operating margin in the next 12 months. For companies close to the center of the viral storm (travel-related companies, people-intensive businesses and producers of discretionary products), the revenue decline this year will be large and they will almost certainly lose money. (See my third viral market update for a way of visualizing this damage)
  2. Expected Revenue Growth in 2021-2025 and Target Operating Margin: If you feel drained from having to estimate the 2020 number, I don't blame you, but the more forward-looking part of this valuation is estimating how your company will fare in the post-virus economy (assuming it does not fail). For some companies, like cruise liners, the answers will be depressing, because the sights of large cruise ships stranded on the high seas, and acting as Petri dishes for spreading diseases will linger, but other companies will find themselves in a  stronger position in  the post-viral economy, partly because of their product offerings but also because of their financial strengths. In the tales told about Amazon, people often forget how much its current stature and success is due to the dot com bust (not the boom) of 2001, which wiped out their online competitors and handicapped their brick-and-mortar competitors.
  3. Failure probability and consequences: In good times and when valuing mature companies, we become lazy and forget that conventional valuation approaches, where you project cash flows as far as the eye can see and beyond, and discount them back at a risk adjusted discount rate, are designed for going concerns. These are not good times, and even mature companies are facing threats to survival. It is almost impossible to adjust for this concern in discount rates and it is therefore imperative that you make judgments about the likelihood that your company will not make it, and this probability will be higher for smaller companies, young companies and more indebted companies. Even with large companies that may be recipients of bail outs, because they are too big to fail, your equity may go to zero, if that is one of the conditions of the bailout (as was the case in the 2009 GM bailout).
I have updated the equity risk premiums (not only for the US but the rest of the world) to reflect the market convulsions over the last few weeks, as well as default spreads for debt, and suffice to say that there has been a surge in the price of risk.  I know that that you are trying to make a judgment call in a period of incredible volatility, where no one (managers, analysts, governments) know what is coming,  but your reasoned guess is as good as anyone's estimate. So, be bold, make your best estimate and move on! If you get a chance, you may also want to watch this video guide I put together last Friday for using my spreadsheet:
I value Boeing in the webcast but rather than focus on my story and valuation of the company, please focus on the process, so that you make it your own. There is nothing magical in the spreadsheet, and I am sure that there are flaws in it and that you can make it better. Use it as a starting point, adapt it and make it better.  Carpe diem! 


YouTube Video


Data Links

  1. Macro Market data (stocks, bonds, commodities, gold) on March 27, 2020
  2. Industry Breakdown on March 27, 2020

Spreadsheets
  1. A Post-Corona Valuation spreadsheet (with a video guide on how to use it)


Monday, March 23, 2020

A Viral Market Meltdown IV: Investing for a post-virus Economy

At the end of each of the weeks leading into the last one, I have done a market update, reflecting the changes that occurred in the week, not just to market values, but also to investor psyches, and each week, I have hoped that it would be the last one needed for this crisis. That hope was dashed last week, as markets continued on their downward spiral, and here I am again, writing another viral market update. In this week's update, I will begin by again first chronicling the market damage, across asset classes, and within equities, across sectors, industries and company types, but I will follow up by looking at four different investment strategies for those who have the capacity and the willingness to look past the near term, recognizing that many of you might not have that luxury.

Surveying the Market
In what has now become a common component of each of these weekly updates, I will start with a survey of overall market performance in different asset classes, and  and then break down the damage in equity markets across the globe.

The Macro Picture
As was the case in 2008, it was difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a safe place to hold your money last week and no market was spared during the week. It was a week when equities lost trillions in value, across the world, but it was also a week when treasuries that had appreciated in prior weeks due to a flight to quality also saw no gain, oil continued its falls to multi-decade lows, and gold did not play its historic role as a crisis asset. Let's start with equities. The week started badly and did not get much better, as fear ruled across markets:
Download spreadsheet
The European equity markets, at least collectively, did better than the American and Australian markets between March 6 and March 13, with the Asian and African markets falling in the middle. When equities are in free fall, US treasuries are usually the beneficiary, but last week proved to be an exception, as treasury rates at the long end stabilized, perhaps spooked by the prospect of inflation from the trillions of dollars in rescue packages being proposed:
Download spreadsheet
The fears that this crisis will create an extended and deep recession, which, in turn, will cause corporate defaults to rise, especially in natural resource and travel-related companies, caused corporate bonds to have their worst week of this five-week crisis period:
Download spreadsheet
The damage in the corporate bond market, not surprisingly, was worse for lower-rating bonds, but the even highest rated bonds were not spared. Speaking of natural resource companies, oil continued on its downward trend, falling well below what many analysts had pronounced as its floor:
Download spreadsheet
The fact that copper, another commodity sensitive to global growth, has not dropped as much shows how much of an effect the Russia-Saudi tussle is having on oil prices.  Closing off, gold had a better week than stocks, but it too was down, but bitcoin ended the week on a little bit of an upswing.
Download spreadsheet
All in all, no asset class was safe and creative asset allocation would have best reduced the pain, not eliminated it.

The Breakdown
As in the weeks before, I will take apart the drop in equities around the world and look at the differences meted out, both in the last week and cumulatively over the five weeks since February 14.


Sector and Industry
I start by looking at the loss in value, broken down by sector, with the percentage changes in value computed over a week and over five weeks:
Energy remains the most damaged sector, with financial services and real estate close behind., and  consumer staples and health care have held up the best. Breaking the sectors down to industries, and looking at the ten best and worst performers last week:
Download spreadsheet
The industries that were worst hit were infrastructure companies (with the exception of healthcare support services and automotive retail) that tend to have debt. Read in conjunction with the earlier table on the widening of default spreads for corporate bonds, last week's market collapse seems to have been driven more by default risk concerns than the prior weeks. The least affected businesses tend to be those that cater to non-discretionary demand.

Region
Earlier in this post, I looked at market indices around the world to conclude that stocks listed on the American and Australian continents were more affected than European stocks. Expanding on that proposition, I look at the market value lost, both in dollar and percentage terms, across regions:
Globally, companies have lost $26.1 trillion in market capitalization over the last five weeks, and US stocks alone have lost $11.8 trillion in market cap. Canadian, Australian and Latin American stocks have been worst hit, in percentage terms, and China and the Middle East have taken the smallest hits, in percentage terms.

Net Debt and Profitability
It looks like debt concerns rose to the top of the worry heap last week, and to see how this shows up at the company level, I broke companies down into five quintiles, in terms of net debt ratios, and five quintiles in terms of operating profit margins. Specifically, I want to see how much having a profit buffer and low debt has protected companies during this meltdown. 

I apologize if this table is a little overwhelming, but the way to read it to look at the combinations of net debt and profitability. For instance, companies with the least debt are in the bottom quintile of the net debt column and companies with the highest profitability are the top quintile of the profitability column. I don't want to read too much into this table, but if you look at last week's action, stocks with lower net debt ratios (in the bottom two quintiles) did much better than stocks in the top debt quintile.  At least for the moment, the profitability effect is being drowned out by the debt effect, since there is little discernible relationship between operating profit margins and market markdown. If you squint hard enough, you may be able to find something, especially in the middle quintile, but I will leave that up to you.

Looking Past the Crisis
In one on my first posts on this viral market crisis, I mentioned that the first casualty in a crisis is perspective. As you get deeper and deeper into the specifics of the crisis, you will find yourself not only getting bogged down in numbers, and in despair. I have had moments in the last few weeks, when I have had to force myself to step back from the abyss, think about a post-virus world and to reclaim the initiative as an investor. If you are a pessimist, you may view this as being in denial about what you see as an economic catastrophe that is about to unfold, but I am a natural optimist, and I believe that this too shall pass!

The Economy
There is no disagreement that the virus will cause the economy to go into a deep recession, since commerce is effectively shut down for at least a few weeks. During that period, economic indicators such as unemployment claims and measures of economic activity will hit levels not seen before, bur that should come as no surprise, given how large and broadly based the shock thas been. There are two questions, though, where there can be disagreement.
  • How quickly will the global economy come back from the shut down, and when it does how completely will it recover?
  • How much permanent change will be created by this crisis in terms of both consumer (and investor) behavior and economic structure?
There are some who are more optimistic than others, arguing that once the viral fears disappear, there will be a return to business as usual for most parts of the global economy, stretched out over months rather than years, and that the changes to consumer behavior and economic structure will be small. At the other end, there are many more who feel that economies take time, measured in many years,to recover from shocks of this magnitude and also that there will be significant changes in consumer behavior and economic structure in the making.

Investment Strategies
Your views on the economy, both in terms of how quickly it will come back from this shock and how much change you see in economic structure, will determine your next steps in investing. If you believe that recovery will be quicker and with less structural change, there are two strategies you can adopt. 
  • Bargain Basement: In this strategy, you focus on stocks that have been pounded in the last few weeks, losing 50% or more of market value, but which have the ingredients that you believe will allow them to survive, perhaps stronger, in the post-virus economy. Key among these ingredients will be low net debt ratios (Net Debt to EBITDA less than one) and pre-virus  operating margins that were solid enough to take the hit from the crisis. To the extent that survival until the turnaround occurs is key, you may also keep your search restricted to larger market cap companies.
  • Distressed Equity: There is a more risky strategy you can adopt, where you also look for stocks that have seen a significant loss in value over the last five weeks, but focus on the most endangered of these, with high net debt and fixed costs. You are effectively buying options, with some already out-of-the-money, and as with any strategy built around doing that, you will see a significant number of your investments go to zero. The payoff from this strategy comes the companies that make it back to life, with equity values increasing by enough to cover your losses. At first sight, the airlines and Boeing meet these criteria, but there is a catch, insofar as they are large enough to be targeted for government bailouts, which are a mixed blessing, since they allow companies to survive, while wiping out or severely constraining equity claims. Thus, smaller companies that have to make it through on their own may be better candidates  for this strategy than companies that are too big to fail, that attract large bailouts. 
If you are more pessimistic about economic recovery, both in terms of its length and strength, and believe that the recovery will restructure the economy and how companies operate in many businesses, there are two strategies that you may find work for you:
  • Safety at a Reasonable Price (SARP): Here, you focus on companies that are best positioned to not just survive a long downturn, but have the ammunition to make it work to their advantage. Large market cap firms with low debt ratios and high cash balances, that had high growth and profit margins in the pre-virus economy, would be good candidates. Facebook, Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft, for instance, clearly fit these criteria, but  since these companies are already sought after in a market where safety is rare and highly valued, you should add pricing screens that allow you to get them at reasonable prices. 
  • Change Agents: This is as much a bet on changes in consumer behavior and economic structure as it is on individual companies. Thus, if you believe that this crisis will make people more comfortable with delivery services for a wider range of goods and online interaction (in business and education), you could seek out companies that are innovators in these spaces. Again, the highest profile players, like Zoom, may be priced out of your reach, but there are others like Chegg that may meet your criteria.
The picture below summarizes the four strategies:

My views on the economy are mixed. I do think that the global economy will come back, but it will take more than a few months, and there will be structural changes in some sectors. I ran screens for all of the strategies, other than the Change Agents strategy (which is less about screening, and more about detecting macro trends), across all publicly traded stocks (about 40,000+) on March 20, 2020. As I look at the companies that go through the screens, I realize that there is more work to be done and better screens that can be devised, but think of it as work in progress, and if you have access to a large database, try your own.

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Data

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Data Update 7 for 2020: Debt Delusions and Reality

In the midst of a crisis, it is very difficult to think about life in its aftermath, but there will come a time, when investors and companies will shift their focus. To be able to do so, they have to survive the crisis, and for many companies, that has become the immediate challenge. In the last post, I looked at one factor that will determine survival risk, and that is the buffer than companies have on growth, profitability and reinvestment, with companies in higher margin businesses being more protected than companies in businesses with slim or negative margins. In this one, I look at the other factor that will determine survival and that is the debt burden on firms, since companies with higher debt burdens, other things remaining equal, will be more exposed to failure and distress than companies without those burdens.  I will look at the degree of indebtedness of companies around the world, broken out by industry and region, partly with an eye on assessing how much danger they are exposed to right now, as their near term business prospects collapse, and partly to see which firms, industries and regions are best positioned to make it through this crisis.

The Debt Trade Off
The question of how much a firm should borrow is one of the three questions that comprise corporate finance, but there are a number of delusions about debt that need to be dispelled first. The picture below, that I also used in last year's debt update captures what I term the "illusory benefits" of debt:

Thus, the argument that borrowing money lowers your cost of capital, just because it costs less to borrow than to raise equity, does not hold up, since the risk from the investments taken with the capital raised remain unchanged, no matter what the debt mix. The counter argument that you should never borrow money, since borrowing money will lower your net income, misses the fact that borrowing money to fund a company leads to fewer shares outstanding.

The real trade off on debt is determined by the tax benefits that are endowed on debt by tax law in much of the world, with interest expenses being tax deductible and cash flows to equity not, and the offsetting effects of expected distress costs, low for firms with stable, predictable earnings and in good economic times, and high for firms with more unstable earnings and more unstable economic settings. There are a couple of secondary factors, with debt acting as a mechanism to keep managers from taking investments that are bad enough to put the company's survival (and management jobs) at risk and the costs associated with managing the conflict of interests between stockholders and bondholders.
This trade off, intuitive and simple, can be a powerful device for making predictions about what should happen to the use of debt over time. In the United States, for instance, the corporate tax reform act of 2017, in addition to lowering the federal corporate tax to 21% from 35, also put limits on interest deductions, thus making debt significantly less beneficial to companies. Even before this crisis hit, there were questions about whether a long stretch of good times for companies had made them too complacent about distress risks and expected bankruptcy costs, and now after the crisis, there is no debating that many companies have too much debt, given near term earnings and perhaps even long term earnings.

The Debt Burden
As companies scramble to get out from under their debt burdens, they will face challenges, and to see the magnitude of the tasks they face, I will chronicle how much debt was held across the world at the start of 2020. I will also break the debt down by region, and by industry, to see how steep the climb will be for companies, and to assess which sectors have the largest capacity to withstand the earnings shocks that are sure to come.

Defining Debt
As a prelude to assessing the debt burden at companies, I want to start by deciding what to include in debt. For those who trust accountants, this may seem redundant, given that there is a debt number listed on balance sheets, reflecting what companies owe at least on the date of the statement. As someone who does not share that trust, I use a two-part test to determine whether to include a claim in debt or not:
  1. Does the claim give rise to a contractual commitment that you have to meet in good times and in bad? 
  2. If you fail to meet that commitment, are there consequences that result in the business shutting down or assets being controlled by lenders?
To start, a bank loan or corporate bond clearly meets both requirements, with interest expenses and principal payments being contractual commitments, and failure to meet those can result in either default or loss of control over the business.
  • All interest bearing debt, short term as well as long term, floating or fixed, meets the requirements for debt. 
  • Accounts payable and supplier credit don't meet that test, because they do not have explicit interest expenses; to the extent that you get less favorable terms or lose a discount by using supplier credit, there are implicit interest expenses, and if you are willing to make those explicit, they can be treated as debt. 
  • All lease commitments are debt, though we can debate the maturity of the commitment (based upon escape clauses and renewal terms in the leases) and whether it is secured or unsecured debt. In fact, converting lease commitments to debt is a simple present value exercise, where the contractual commitments for future years are discounted back to today using the pre-tax cost of debt as the discount rate, a practice that I have followed all through my valuation years. Until 2019, accountants followed a misguided practice, allowing companies to categorize leases, based upon whether they had ownership of the asset, into operating and capital leases, with only the latter being treated as debt. In the process, operating leases became the biggest source of off-balance sheet debt for retailers, restaurants and other big lessees. In 2019, both GAAP (FASB 842) and IFRS (IAS 16) came to their senses and required companies to treat all leases as debt, creating a significant change in balance sheet debt at many companies. Later in this post, I will compare my calculations of lease debt to the accounting lease debt, to probe differences.
Debt Measures
There are different measures of the debt burden, with each measure serving a different purpose. Broadly speaking, these measures can either look at debt as a percent of the total capital invested in business or look at debt payments due, relative to earnings and cash flows of the company. The first becomes an input into hurdle rates and the latter becomes a measure of the buffer against downturns and crisis:

To the extent that having cash on your balance sheet offsets some of the debt burden, you can compute all of these measures, using net debt ratio (where cash is netted out against total debt) and net interest expenses (where interest income from cash is netted out from interest expenses). Note that the two approaches measuring debt can give different signals. Thus, a company can have a low debt ratio (as a percent of capital, in either book value or market value terms), an indicator of a low debt burden, while having dangerously low interest coverage ratios and high debt as a multiple of EBITDA. The table below captures the possible combinations:


Note that the predictably of revenues and earnings brings an additional dimension brought into the comparison. To the extent that some companies have more predictable earnings than others, because they sell more non-discretionary products and services, they are less exposed to risk than other companies, with similar debt burdens; a discount retailer with a debt to EBITDA multiple of four is safer than a luxury retailer with a debt to EBITDA multiple of four.

Interest Bearing Debt & Lease Commitments in 2020
I begin by looking at debt burdens, relative to both book and market capital, across the world. In making this assessment, note that I have done the following:
  • I have counted all interest bearing debt, as reported by the company, on its most recent financial statements. I use this book value of debt as roughly equivalent to the market value of debt, because much of the debt taken by companies taken by companies is in the form of bank loans, and there is no observable market value. While there are ways of converting book value of debt to market value of debt, they require inputs on debt maturity that are not available for many companies.
  • I have computed the lease debt, using lease commitments and an estimated cost of debt for each company, rather than trust the accounting estimates of this debt, at least for 2019. That is partly because the rule change applies only to those sections of the world that are covered by IFRS and GAAP and partly because I don't trust accountants yet, on this measure.
  • To compute the net debt, I subtract out the cash and marketable securities that the company reports on its latest financial statements.
  • Since debt to a financial service firm is more raw material than capital, and determining what comprises debt is almost an unsolvable puzzle, I have excluded banks, insurance companies and brokerage firms/investment banks from my sample.
Recognizing that the most recent financial statements for most companies in my January 2020 update are from September 2019 and with the even more important caveat that the market capitalization, while updated through March 16, 2020, is a moving target in a market like this one.
 Download spreadsheet
On a book capital basis, US companies have the highest proportion of debt, but relative to market value, Canadian companies have the most debt. Across global non-financial service companies, total debt is about 34% of market capital and 49% about book capital. Doing the same analysis across industries, again excluding financial service firms, the ten industries with the highest debt to market cap ratios and the ten with the lowest are listed below:
Download spreadsheet
Notice the preponderance of technology firms on the least levered list and the bunching up of infrastructure and manufacturing companies on the most levered list.  All of the numbers reported above for debt include my estimate of the lease debt, and since the accounting rule changes this year have brought lease debt on to balance sheets, I can compare my estimates to the accounting numbers. For non-financial firms collectively, my estimate of lease debt is about 60% higher in the aggregate that the accounting estimates, reflecting partly the additional information that accountants have on lease specifics that I do not, partly the fact that there are segments of the world where leases are still not treated as debt and partly the complexity of accounting rules on lease debt.

Earnings and Cashflow Coverage
As we noted earlier, companies that look lightly levered, when debt is measured against capital, can still face a significant burden if their earnings and cash flows are insufficient to meet debt payments. In the table below, I look at the regional differences on debt as a multiple of EBITDA and interest coverage ratios:

Download spreadsheet
With the caveat that the EBITDA and operating income numbers are from 2019 and do not reflect the damage that is going to be caused by the Virus, companies in Africa/Middle East and Eastern Europe have the least debt, relative to EBITDA, but Japanese companies have the most buffer, based upon interest coverage ratio. Canadian and Indian companies have the least buffer, on an interest coverage ratio basis. Extending this analysis to industries and looking at the ten industries with the most buffer and the ten with the least:
Download spreadsheet
While most of the firms in the most buffered list mirror the earlier ranking based upon low debt levels, the presence of integrated oil and oil production companies indicates how transient these buffers may be, since the dramatic drop in oil prices in the last few weeks will ravage the EBITDA and operating income numbers at these companies. Among the least buffered list are utilities, which may be able to weather the storm with stable revenues, and a number of real estate related industries, which will be exposed if real estate values drop. At the top of the list of the most exposed industries are investment and asset management companies, reflecting both their access to and use of debt to accentuate returns to equity investors.

Lessons from a Crisis
Every crisis teaches investors and companies lessons that are temporarily learned, but quickly forgotten. This one is a reminder to firms that debt, while making good times better for equity investors, makes bad times worse. For some of these firms, that debt will threaten their continued existence and result in liquidations, fire sales and distress. For others, it will create constraints for the near future on growth and investment, and change business plans. For firms that are lightly burdened, it may create opportunities, as they use their liquidity as a strategic weapon to fund acquisitions and to increase market share. If you were worried about winner take all markets before this crisis, you should be doubly worried now!

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Datasets
  1. Debt measures, by region
  2. Debt measures, by industry
  3. Lease effects on profitability and debt measures, by industry