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real interest rates fueling the M&A boom

27 Apr
With 7,834 mergers and acquisitions totaling $750 billion announced year-to-date, it’s clear deal-making is back in full swing. These numbers clearly show business executives have increased confidence in their businesses, to be sure, and that capital markets are offering abundant capital, greasing the skids. But I think it’s important to consider a higher-level fact to explain why we’re seeing so many deals. Namely, real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates are near 30-year lows. Not such a great proposition for capital providers. With extremely low financing costs, discount rate assumptions fall and so new projects and takeovers have a much lower hurdle to overcome in order to post a positive net present value (NPV). Thus, more projects/deals brought to the C-suite make sense today. The key word is ‘today’ because capital market eagerness and rates can change abruptly. Today’s baseline assumptions could be considered ridiculous tomorrow.

farmland values and the twenty-seven PE

26 Apr

In Iowa, farmland values are up 25% year-over-year, a boon to the financial health of the state and especially farmers’ net worth, of which farmland comprises the majority. I recently came across a very interesting paper that discussed farmland values. (The creative title “Farmland Values: Current and Future Prospects,” pretty much sums up its contents.) For those interested in more information on the asset class that has been speculated to hold the “next bubble”, it is an enlightening read. I wanted to touch on a few things mentioned in the paper and expound on a few points.

As with all assets, farmland value is derived from the income it generates as well as by the discount rate (opportunity cost of capital) and growth rate assumptions. First, and not surprisingly, current farm income is healthy. Commodity prices are high and cash contribution margins (roughly, profit/revenues) are elevated, increasing farm income and boosting current (and potential) cash rents – what an absentee landowner earns by renting the land for productive use. The discount rate is very low, with ten-year Treasury bonds, the ‘risk-free’(?) benchmark rate), at just 3.4%. I discuss the growth rate assumption more below.

I’ve used price-earnings ratios in past posts, mostly for stocks. They are valid, though, for a variety of assets. Today, stocks trade around 18 times trailing twelve-month earnings. Using the inverse of their interest rate, ten-year Treasuries trade at 29 times ‘earnings’ while farmland is 27 times. The latter two are pretty high numbers. Now, which has shown historically higher growth? The growth rate for corporate (stocks’) earnings tend to track nominal GDP, or about 6%. Bonds don’t grow in value, the yield is mostly fixed as is the payoff at maturity. Farmland, which has lower earnings volatility than stocks and, like them, a (theoretically) infinite life, has tended to grow with the general rise in inflation plus another 2% for productivity improvements (same land, more crop). On a price-earnings ratios alone, it looks like stocks are the best relative deal. Still, cash remains attractive given the below-average projected returns on several asset classes. Cash has the advantage of what I call the “opportunity yield” – the ability to take advantage of cheaper prices when investors revise their return requirements higher.

On the most striking revelations in the piece was that farmland turnover – the percentage of land stock that changes hands in a given year – was lower than its historical average of 3-5%. (Currently, turnover is estimated to be about 1.5% annually.) As we know, the more demand there is for an asset, the greater prices tend to rise. Couple this with a constrained supply of land being ‘offered to the market’ and prices can quickly rise. This is because the whole of the land stock is priced off these marginal, infrequent sales, making the whole appear more valuable on paper. Annually, 98.5% of landowners aren’t buying/selling; it’s the 1.5% that make the 98.5% a lot of paper wealth. This ‘low turnover combined with high demand’ phenomenon is also evident in the secondary market trading of several Web 2.0 companies today.

So is the current PE sustainable? As with most investment questions, the answer is nuanced. Farm income can experience sharp corrections when commodity prices sink. This would bring the multiple (land value/farm income) even higher than it is today. In addition, interest rates are very low and have been trending down for most of the last three decades. Should rates rise significantly, investors’ opportunity costs rise and the cash rent ‘yield’ must rise, which means prices must fall. Today, I can’t say we’re in a bubble. What I can say is that the current expectations baked into the price – continuing high cash rents, low interest rates, and/or good growth rates – might prove to have been overly optimistic when viewed in hindsight.

Farmland is an intensely local market so each parcel is different. Further, prevailing prices are based (as mentioned above) on marginal sales which comprise a very small portion of the total land stock. As long as landowners don’t lever up based on current land values to buy still more land, a sharp reduction in land values will not ripple through in the same fashion as the housing ‘collapse’. Current evidence suggests those taking on incremental farm debt are mostly larger operators, with younger farmers and livestock producers in the least-optimum financial condition. But anecdotally, I’ve heard that farmers know two things, ‘dirt’ (land) and (bank) CDs. The rate on the CDs become their comparison and these folks think, let’s buy more land with a 3% cash rent yield if a three-year CD is paying less than 1%. Thinking that way could put more than a few in trouble. So if there are to be detrimental economic impacts in the future should farmland prices come down, the $64B question is how much debt is being underwritten based on current values. Unfortunately, it’s probably more than we think.

stocks and inflation (part 2 of 2)

22 Mar
(This is an update from yesterday’s discussion on inflation’s effect on markets.)
To augment the information presented in yesterday’s post, I wanted to add additional perspective with respect to earnings. Stock prices can be reduced to two components: (1) earnings and (2) a multiple against those earnings. Yesterday’s post dealt with the latter without much discussion of the former. So, I’ve added the chart below to address this oversight.

Readers will note that earnings (dark blue) more than kept pace with inflation over the twenty-five year period from 1964 through 1988. Certainly, if it were possible to invest in corporate earnings alone during this period, an investor would have fared quite well. This is the crux of the argument made by those who believe stocks will keep pace with inflation — that corporations will raise prices and earnings will largely keep pace. Unfortunately, it’s the ‘multiple’ component that hurts investors during inflation – if ending valuations are meaningfully lower than beginning, an investor may not fare well even if earnings grow nicely. And over this period, they certainly did — real earnings were 50% higher in 1988 than in 1964.

stocks: inflation hedge or vedge?

21 Mar

I want to spend a little time thinking about what markets do when inflation hits. Common knowledge seems to believe that when inflation rears its ugly head stocks will rise in line with inflation. I think we have seen the monetary stimulus from the Fed show up in financial asset prices lately and I want to dispel this fundamental misconception of stocks as a hedge for high inflation with some market history. Note that my comments are not valid for hyperinflation. Almost anything is better than paper money during such time periods. During Brazil’s high inflation of the late 1980s and early 1990s the stock market roughly held its own with domestic paper money (but looked flat to a foreign investor). If you’re like me and believe we’ll see elevated, but not catastrophic inflation in the near future it makes good sense to look at what periods of elevated (again, not hyper-) inflation have done to the stock market.

I looked back at a period of time where inflation was low, rose to quite elevated levels, and fell back again to low average levels. In other words, a period containing three “regimes”: before inflation reared its ugly head, during high inflation, and back again to more stable, predictable levels. I chose the twenty-five year period from 1964 through year-end 1988 because it nicely exhibits these characteristics.

The chart to the left shows inflation (consumer price index) in red, the S&P 500 total return in green and the real return (total return minus inflation) in purple. Each is indexed to 100 at 1/1/1964. Clearly, stocks (green) did not keep up with inflation over this time period while the real return on the market over was negative. That’s a pretty poor showing over a period when inflation boosted the consumer price level to almost 4 times its starting point. If stocks were a good inflation hedge we’d expect the green line to be persistently higher than the red, and meaningfully higher at 12/31/1988 if real returns were positive. However, this does not seem to have been the case.

Why were stocks such a poor inflation hedge over this period? The answer lies in valuation. Using Shiller’s cyclically-adjusted PE ratio, which I’ve cited often, the S&P 500 traded at 21.6 times earnings in 1964. By year-end 1988, they were just 14.7, a P/E decline of 32%. The chart below shows the inverse relationship between inflation (red) and stock valuations (cyclically-adjusted PE, green). Over this time period, the correlation between the two was negative 0.956, representing an almost perfect inverse correlation. High inflation proved to be an enemy when stock valuations started high.

Why is inflation so hostile for stock valuations? It comes down to interest rates; nominal interest rates must include compensation for inflation plus a real return component. Investors ultimately compare this rate against the “coupon” available on stocks – that is, corporate returns on equity (ROE). Since ROE does not tend to fluctuate much over long periods and is more likely to fall than rise during high inflation, the yield available on stocks can only change if their prices move lower (coupon “yield” relative to book value moves higher). Maturities are also compared – bonds have a definite maturity while a stock’s maturity is infinite. I’ll defer to Warren Buffett for further clarification: “Because of the additional risk, the natural reaction of investors is to expect an equity return that is comfortably above the bond return – and 12 percent return on equity versus, say, 10 percent return on bonds issued by the same corporate universe does not seem to qualify as comfortable. As the spread narrows, equity investors start looking for the exits.”

Historical stock returns are likely to have looked much different if starting valuations were much lower than the 22 PE we see in the above illustrations. Because of these elevated levels, inflation had a demonstrably large impact on longer-term returns. While starting valuations always matter for subsequent returns, they seem to matter even more during high inflation.

Could this happen again? Well, today the cyclically-adjusted PE ratio is 23.7, so valuations are even higher than where these charts begin (1964). Even if you believe the Fed has everything under control and we won’t see high inflation anytime soon, it’s worthwhile to consider the aforementioned data when allocating your portfolio. The importance of stable prices is most noticeable when they go missing.

a couple quotes

22 Feb

A couple recent quotes that speak volumes.

Michael Pettis, in this week’s research note, on the economics of China’s growth :

Not only do I believe that the combination of very low cost of capital, socialized credit risks, and strong short-term political incentives to fund massive projects always leads to capital misallocation, but I also believe that the explosion in [Non-Performing Loans] a decade ago, and the fact that total [State Owned Enterprise] profits are just a fraction of the interest rate subsidy they receive, is strong evidence that misallocated capital has long been a serious problem in China.”

Jeffrey Gundlach, on high-yield bonds (Barron’s):

The current 300 basis-point, or three percentage-point, spread between yields in the high-yield market and on 20-year (Treasury) bonds is as narrow as it has been at any time in the latest credit cycle.

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