By Joseph Hogue, CFA
Barron's released a very interesting interview with GMO Chief Investment Strategist Jeremy Grantham last week. The financial maven has a very slow-growth perspective for the economy in the years to come and offered his advice for the best sectors. While Mr. Grantham did not mention any particular stocks, this article attempts to highlight attractive plays within the strongest sectors.
Grantham's overall outlook on the market, both bonds and equities, was extremely bleak and called for slow growth through 2014.
We began a period of seven lean years at the top of '07. The number one factor is the global-debt overhang. So consumption will be a bit weaker, and developed-world GDP will grow a bit more slowly. We're in no danger of growing faster than 2%.
At two percent growth in the developed world, investors may question the past two months of rising asset prices. The U.S. markets shrugged off continuing weakness in the eurozone on Monday to end the day with gains. With no 'danger' of growth faster than 2%, investors may want to reassess their inflation protection plays like gold and TIPS.
With growth in the developed world below the historic long-term average, many investors have been looking to emerging markets but Grantham has a warning for those as well.
Emerging markets and developed markets outside the U.S. are within nickels and dimes of fair value. About a quarter of the U.S. equity market is about fair price too. The other three quarters are overpriced, and based on our numbers have a slight negative imputed return.
While Grantham believes most stocks are around fair value or slightly overpriced, he does not believe we are in a bubble instead calling it a, "business-as-usual overpriced market." Overall, the company has a neutral weight in stocks. Though bonds are, "terrible," the negatives in the equity market balance out fixed-income risks.
With virtually no returns to treasuries and other markets at fair value, Grantham says the only real return is available for those that can think long-term, ten years or longer. He likes hard assets like timber and land.
Although prices for farmland have had a strong run, global population dynamics should support growth in the future. Grantham would not comment too much on this because the company is currently building out its resources for its own investment. He did say that over the next 20 years, global trade could revolve around food, fertilizer and water-related issues.
Unless you are playing the futures market, taking advantage of strong agricultural prices means looking at the companies that sell to the sector.
Deere & Company (DE) is a strong name in the farm & construction machinery space. Deere makes 75% of its revenues from the agricultural & turf segment while approximately 17% comes from construction & forestry. Almost half (41%) of its equipment sales come from outside North America, making it a strong play on international and emerging markets. The company posted earnings for the first quarter earnings that were 8.3% above the same period a year ago.
Chemicals producer Agrium (AGU) should continue to benefit from agricultures strong prices and the increasing need for higher crop yield. The company is a global producer of crop nutrients like nitrogen, potash and phosphate as well as a seed producer to the retail segment. Fourth quarter earnings beat expectations by 17.7% and more than doubled earnings for the same period last year. Historically warmer weather through much of the U.S. this winter and the lack of a winter kill may drive higher pesticide sales over the rest of the year.
Metals, hydrocarbons and natural gas were also singled out as strong long-term investments. Natural gas was pointed out as a, "dazzling opportunity," as prices trade at the lowest ratio of heat equivalent to oil in 50 years.
Caterpillar (CAT) blew past estimates when it released fourth quarter earnings in late January. The heavy equipment maker reported earnings per share that were 57.8% higher than the same period a year ago on strong growth in emerging markets. Sixty-five percent of sales are derived from outside of North America with 59% of revenues coming from construction and resource industries. Growth in the mining sector will continue to support the company's revenues while governments, eager to drive growth, should help support the stock through funding of infrastructure projects.
Chesapeake Energy (CHK) is an oil & gas explorer operating in the United States. The company has positioned itself recently within the onshore shale gas and liquids space. Though weak natural gas prices have capped earnings recently, the company should do well in the future as it develops these assets. In the near-term, gas prices may be supported as companies idle some fields.
Teck Resources (TCK) is a mining company focused on copper, coal and zinc. Fourth quarter earnings came in 11.8% over the same quarter a year prior though weak copper and coal prices drove a quarter-on-quarter decline in sales and profits. Still, the company has been able to perform well with an operating margin of 38.7%, well above the industry average.
While Grantham calls the market, "boring," because of the valuations, I would call it scary. Over the long-term, these sectors should certainly offer good returns. The short-term holds considerable risks through eurozone default and contagion. Make sure you are in it for the long haul and consider buying into your positions throughout this year to mitigate short-term risks. As always, equities should never be 100% of your portfolio but need to be balanced against fixed-income and some exposure to alternative assets.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.