- We start a new round of roundtables by looking at global markets.
- While the U.S. markets have maintained leadership through the downcycle, authors see a wide spread of opportunities.
- They share what they're looking at both domestically and in other markets, and what safe havens or names they like.
Markets have settled and recovered from the initial shock of the coronavirus spread and the response of governments around the US and the world to lock down the economy. But while the major US indices have approached, if not quite matched, the fabled V-shaped recovery, there are still plenty of questions left for investors.
The disconnect between the markets and the economy has become a cliche, which doesn't change its validity. The size of stimulus in the US has been unprecedented. As governments start to reopen, it's to be seen whether we will see a second wave of cases. And we don't yet know how quickly people will go back to spending, and what the engine of the economy will be in this uncertain period.
To suss out all these uncertainties, we're starting a second round of our coronavirus roundtable series. We'll be looking at some of the major sectors of the market that are in the market, overall market and macro outlooks, and niches that may deserve investors' attention.
We start with a look at non U.S. markets. Whether the strength of the dollar, the Fed, or FAANG, US indices have become accustomed to leadership. We ask a panel of authors focused on other markets whether that is holding up in the current period, and what opportunities they see. Our panel:
- The Value Pendulum, author of Asia Value & Moat Stocks
- Mark Bern, CFA, co-author of Friedrich Global Research
- Kevin George, author of Global Markets Playbook
- Ruerd Heeg, author of Global Deep Value Stocks
- Tariq Dennison, author of Long Run Income
Seeking Alpha questions are in header font. Author disclosures are available at the end of the article. Questions were sent out Tuesday, May 5, with answers being received by Thursday, May 7.
Set the table: which markets/countries do you follow closely, and how have they held up over the last 2 months or so?
The Value Pendulum, author of Asia Value & Moat Stocks: I cover Asian stocks, and there are more than 20,000 companies listed in Asia. I currently find the majority of my investment ideas in Hong Kong, where there are over 2,000 listed stocks. As of May 4, 2020, the MSCI Asia Pacific index (Standard - Large and Mid-Cap) and the MSCI Hong Kong index have fallen by -18.04% and -15.18%, respectively, year to date, compared with the MSCI USA index, which is down by -11.75% over the same period.
Mark Bern, CFA, author of Friedrich Global Research: We provide analysis on exchange-traded stocks in 36 countries, mostly developed economies, but also include China, India, Brazil and a few other emerging markets. Everything is down year to date, but many markets are beginning to rise, albeit more slowly than what we are experiencing in the U.S. But we are still not buyers as we believe the worst is yet to come.
Kevin George, author of Global Markets Playbook: My main focus is the U.S. market, but I am macro-focused and will often cover ADRs, commodities and FX. In the last two months, my interest has been on the actions taken by particular countries and how it will play out in coming months. Asia Pacific has fared better than the west and will likely recover more quickly. Europe is important to watch because of the problems that were already facing countries such as Italy.
Ruerd Heeg, author of Global Deep Value Stocks: Apart from US-traded stocks I follow stocks trading in Canada, Mexico, Europe, UK, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia. I do not track returns over such periods as short as 2 months. But when I look at my "Selected Stocks" list with 155 stocks in it, I can say the following about returns since I added each of these stocks. I have covered 7 cheap pharma stocks during the last 12 months. This class of stocks had a great return. With other stocks, the picture is mixed: some stocks had great returns, other stocks did poorly. In particular, Japanese stocks, Hong Kong stocks and oil stocks did not do well. I do not think the decline in Hong Kong and Japanese stocks is related to the coronavirus. Instead, I think it is the result of a rotation into US-listed stocks, so a momentum effect. And there are exceptions: a Japanese bicycle nanocap stock went completely through the roof compensating many losers. Same story for a Polish stock in personal hygiene products.
Tariq Dennison, author of Long Run Income: I mostly follow markets in Asia. China was where the virus started and has also been one of the earliest markets to recover both in terms of asset prices and main street activity. Of the 9 major markets in Asia, MSCI China is down the least year to date (4-8%, depending which index you look at), while Indonesia is down 38% year to date.
US investors talk a lot about fiscal and monetary stimulus as a major factor in this environment. How does that play out for the markets you follow?
The Value Pendulum: In late-March 2020, Asian governments announced various stimulus measures, which played a significant role in the sharp recovery of Asian stock markets in April. In China, RRR (reserve requirement ratio) and MLF (medium-term lending facility) rates were cut by 100 bps and 15 bps respectively, while Chinese banks were asked by the authorities to extend the debt maturity for small to medium enterprises. South Korea Bank reduced the 7-day repo rate by 50 bps to a new historical low of 0.75%, and Japan provided liquidity to the market with corporate bond purchases. Hong Kong and Singapore introduced stimulus packages that amounted to over 10% of their respective GDP.
Mark Bern, CFA: Fiscal policy and monetary relief (we hesitate to call it stimulus when unemployment continues to rise dramatically) have helped restore some confidence in the markets. But neither effort can effectively fight a virus. It is a health issue, and the real battle is yet to be won. That said, there is typically a lag time before such efforts, especially monetary policies, have major effects on the economy. So, it will be interesting to see if monetary policy can make people feel safe enough to go back to work or if too many will be afraid to venture out in numbers. We won't know the answer until we see the results of the efforts of states to open their respective economies back up.
Kevin George: The Federal Reserve has just flooded the market with trillions of dollars. This was another coordinated event, with Europe and Japan following suit, and the timing is convenient when strains were being seen in the REPO market from September last year. China's stimulus is around $250 billion, and countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Singapore have been less troubled. In Hong Kong, the problems they were having with protesters have also disappeared. In general, I see more problems in the western economies going forward.
Ruerd Heeg: I think monetary stimulus is relevant for companies that can borrow large sums of money and for large companies whose stocks are going to be bought by the Fed when it starts buying ETFs. But for many deep value stocks, this is not the case. So, for me, it is not a large factor.
Tariq Dennison: US stimulus have an indirect but significant effect on many Asian economies in different ways. Economies like China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, which have huge trade surpluses with the US, will see some of the stimulus in the form of a reduced hit to their export sectors, and lower returns on the treasuries they buy with their trade surpluses. So far, though, more export dependent equity benchmarks, like Korea's, have fallen more than stocks in China, which have been buoyed by tech giants (Alibaba (BABA) and Tencent (OTCPK:TCEHY)) and domestic liquor brands less dependent on exports. Hong Kong has a currency pegged to the US dollar, so monetary policy here is more directly affected by what the Fed does.
Likewise, do you have to factor in specific modeling over a given country's response to COVID-19 and the health/economic impact?
The Value Pendulum: Asian markets are at different stages of the coronavirus pandemic cycle. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are ahead of their other Asian and international peers in containing the coronavirus pandemic, barring a second wave of infections. The Asian stock market indices have recovered substantially from their prior lows in March 2020. But there are many individual Asian stocks where mispricing opportunities exist as their valuations have to reflect their respective markets' positive progress in tackling the virus.
Mark Bern, CFA: Every region is a little different. China seems well ahead of the curve, but we expect its economy will be slow in returning to capacity because the rest of the world has yet to beginning consuming normally. Orders are being cancelled leaving Chinese companies unable to bring back all workers. Likewise, in Europe and the U.S., demand is down considerably with gasoline consumption falling by as much as 35%. Airlines everywhere are operating at very low capacity on the few planes still being used, some with scheduled flights reduced by 90%. Restaurants in Europe and the U.S. are being given the go ahead to open up but ordered to maintain social distancing. This translates to maybe 25% capacity, and many cannot break even at that level. We think it will be a rough recovery that will take much longer than markets, at least in the U.S., seem to be pricing into stocks.
There are now 14 different strains of COVID-19 identified, and the dominant strain now in the U.S. and Europe is very different from the original strain genetically sequenced coming out of China. Medical experts are worried that the many vaccines already in development may not work on the new dominant strain. That could throw the recovery a huge curve. This is breaking news reported this week so it hasn't been incorporated into the news cycle or markets yet.
Kevin George: I took a keen interest in China's response to the virus and their recovery because they saw it first, and I was also following Sweden because they didn't lock down. The western economies are more at risk from supply chain shocks, and they are also more at risk from unemployment and the societal impacts of what is being called the "new normal".
Ruerd Heeg: I suppose this virus is already everywhere. So, I do not factor in much country specific response. But I do look at sectors. For example, I think it is good to stay away from banks and much leveraged car dealers. Also tourism stocks such as airlines and airports should be avoided. But if such stocks are cheap enough, I am still willing to consider them.
Tariq Dennison: I model this more at the consumer level, and try and estimate a path for how long it will take for revenues of different types of businesses to return to pre-COVID levels. So far, it seems all too obvious to those of us living in Asian cities that Asian cities have so far seemed to handle the health and economic impacts better than most American or European cities. When possible, it can be easier to try and model things at a city level than at a country level, though that can be easier to do with some types of businesses (restaurants or hotels, for example, we can count the properties and seats/beds in each city) than others (e.g. banks).
How much are you watching currency markets? In other words, does the risk of currency dislocation either counteract or amplify market and individual stock dislocations?
The Value Pendulum: The Hong Kong dollar is relatively resilient, because it is pegged to the US dollar, while most other Asian currencies have depreciated against the US dollar. Investors are exposed to foreign exchange risks, even if they solely invest in companies listed on the stock exchange in their home market. Most companies are also likely to have either foreign customers or foreign suppliers in today's connected world. In the long run, foreign exchange gains on stocks denominated in certain currencies will be offset by losses on others. More importantly, one can choose to avoid crystallizing such losses in the near term, by reinvesting capital gains and dividends from existing stocks (in X market) into new investment candidates that are denominated in the same currency.
Mark Bern, CFA: We think that an opportunity will present itself at some point for selective stocks outside the U.S. to outperform if the US$ becomes too strong relative to other major currencies. But to what degree really depends on what happens to U.S. stocks in the end. Were there to be new lows in the U.S., then the benefit may not be as great. We think emerging markets could have difficult times ahead if the US$ continues to strengthen making servicing dollar denominated debts more difficult. It is too early to predict winners or losers, but we continue to assess what is happening and will evaluate the best investment opportunities when we believe the worst is behind us. Winter is just beginning in the southern hemisphere and so is the cold/flu season, so we expect COVID-19 infections to begin growing faster with the change in season for those below the equator. If we are right, we also would expect those economies to experience very difficult times ahead and with that the respective currencies of those nations could fall more.
We estimate that, unless a vaccine is found within the next 9 months, we are only in the third inning of this pandemic with the worst yet to come, especially for those areas that open up too soon. The new dominant strain spreads faster than the original strain and a 2nd wave is predicted by WHO and the CDC. That wave could be stronger than what we have already experienced, so hold on tight.
Kevin George: I watch currencies more closely during events like these. The old models of growth and interest rate differentials have changed and the coming months will have some surprises in store from economic numbers. The investment world has become global. When currencies dislocate, opportunities arise and wealthy investors globally can take advantage. With multinational companies, there is also the issue of foreign earnings.
Ruerd Heeg: I do not watch the currency markets much. Currently it looks like a race to the bottom. All these central bankers are watching each other. If a large central bank starts printing the others will follow. What I recommend is holding a geographically diversified portfolio of value stocks. So, you won't feel it if a particular currency suddenly falls much.
Tariq Dennison: I watch Asian currencies, and as expected, we see significant divergences between the Japanese Yen (which tends to strengthen on crisis, as Japanese sell some of their massive holdings of overseas assets and repatriate) versus "risk-off" devaluations in currencies like the Indian Rupee. Longer term, the much bigger question we are all asking is whether all those new dollars being printed by the Fed will eventually drive down the dollar on the other side of those pairs.
What are you focusing on as you research these companies?
The Value Pendulum: I divide my portfolio between two categories of potential investment candidates now, which is the key focus of my research. Tactical plays are cyclicals and laggards that could capitalize on the eventual stock market/economic recovery. Secular plays include consistent dividend payers and steady ROE companies which should thrive in the low interest rate, low growth/inflation environment.
Mark Bern, CFA: We are focusing mostly on the macro level to determine when it will be safe to invest for the long term. We are not traders, but recent market volatility had been great for those folks. We want long-term growth and income and will allocate more to stocks when the time is right. We have been through market crashes and recession before and have watched strong counter rallies fail time and again. There were 11 rallies of 9% or more during the Great Recession before we finally found a bottom.
The unemployment numbers coming out on Friday should be far worse than we have every experienced in our nation's history outside of the 1930s. Many of those on unemployment are furloughed, meaning they expect to return to work once the economy opens back up. But our experience has taught us that companies will only bring back employees as demand for product and services require. We think that demand will be heavily constrained for many months as demand lags due to a number of factors. Fear is hard to measure other than by observation so we can't be certain how many will stay home for that reason. Many businesses have decided to remain closed beyond the initial reopening dates, keeping employees on unemployment rolls longer than the market expects. Many low-wage employees don't want to go back to work because the additional $600 per week being paid for unemployment by the federal government gives them more income to stay home than when they work. Reports of many small businesses not getting the loans they seek could lead to more bankruptcies. Large companies are re-thinking the need to house thousands of employees in big buildings since the work-from-home experience has enjoyed success for many. April saw about one-third of renters not able to pay rent. Now, we are in May, and a similar situation has arisen. How will landlords make mortgage payments? Enclosed malls are going to have even lower foot traffic upon re-opening and more stores and restaurants will be forced to close. We believe commercial real estate is going to become littered with occupancy problems.
Demand will be stagnant through year-end with the economy operating at less than 90% of its pre-pandemic rate and then the 2nd wave will hit. In short, we believe that the worst is yet to come and that the rally off the March bottom will be retested and possibly taken out. Reality has yet to sink in for the U.S. markets.
Kevin George: I am looking to avoid property and commercial real estate because of mortgage delinquencies and future shopping behaviours. For the same reasons, I would avoid franchise diners, multinational beverage companies and luxury goods companies. The growth rates of these stocks are too small to sit and wait through the crisis. The impact of bankruptcies is still not known and will only become more apparent as the year progresses. Likewise, we do not know how consumer behaviour will change.
Ruerd Heeg: With deep value stocks, I think it is important to avoid stocks of financially distressed companies. Especially in this time, I think it is important to do that. Normally, a company has a good chance to grow or earn itself out of its debt problems. With a deep recession coming, chances for financially distressed companies to do that are much smaller.
Tariq Dennison: I still mostly focus on updating cash flow projections versus calendars of debt payments. I've seen little return on effort in trying to go into too much more detail other than having a good probabilistic idea of what would happen in a rising vs falling cash flow scenario.
Through this period, have you been increasing your non-US exposure or decreasing, and why?
The Value Pendulum: I only invest in the Asian markets. At Daily Journal's annual meeting this year, Charlie Munger emphasized that "the strongest companies in the world are not in America" and "I think Chinese companies are stronger than ours and growing faster." My experience investing in Asian stocks has led me to conclude that one can find companies of similar business quality to their US counterparts but offering twice the growth prospects (and comparable profitability) at only half the price and valuation multiples.
Mark Bern, CFA: Going into the pandemic, on February 24th, we decided to close our portfolio of foreign stocks and move more to cash in our U.S.-based portfolios. We saw a pandemic coming before it was announced as a pandemic almost a month before any U.S. governors announced stay-at-home orders. I did a comprehensive study on pandemics going back to 1835 a few years ago and concluded early on that this was not going to be contained like SARS. We felt it was better to get out of the path of a monster like this than to play chicken. There will be time to selectively invest in those great companies of foreign domiciles when an effective vaccine is available.
Kevin George: I have been increasing my non-US exposure by around 10-20%. The overall US market still looks expensive, but there are good opportunities in the right ideas.
Ruerd Heeg: I have not increased my non-US exposure. Because of the coronavirus, there are now more US-listed deep value stocks. So, it is a good time to increase the number of US-listed deep value stocks in your portfolio. It is best to do that gradually because it is still very well possible deep value stocks will get much cheaper.
Tariq Dennison: Our non-US exposure has remained about the same as before, at least 75% in most accounts we manage.
What is your main case for investing in non US stocks, given the continued investing focus on US markets (think FAAMNG writ large)?
The Value Pendulum: Between 2000 and 2009, Asian markets outperformed US stocks significantly by more than 10 percentage points on an annualized basis. After the Global Financial Crisis, things have turned the other way, with US indices clearly ahead of their Asian counterparts. One key factor has been the digital revolution in the past decade which favored FAAMNG and US indices. Looking ahead, there is no guarantee that the out-performance of US relative to Asia will be sustained for another decade. More importantly, we are investing in individual stocks, not indices. There are specific Asian multi-baggers which have outperformed the FAAMNG stocks, if one is willing to spend the time and effort to simply turn over more rocks.
Mark Bern, CFA: First, we believe that the companies with the strongest balance sheets and free cash flow generation capabilities, regardless of where they operate, will be best positioned to grow both organically and through acquisitions. Second, we think that some stocks (those that fall into the category above) that get beaten down during the pandemic will have further upside potential once the worst of the pandemic is over, at least for the next 2-3 years. Third, as mentioned earlier, we believe that the US$ may become overvalued and present an opportunity for FX gains on the currency side of stock investing as those valuations revert to the mean. But, again, it depends on what happens between now and the end of the pandemic that will tell us what is out of balance and what is severely undervalued. We will go to where the value propositions are best.
We also don't know yet the final tallies of central bank interventions yet. Will the Fed do even more? Will the ECB outdo the Fed? Nor do we know which governments will spend the most and take on the most debt until it is fully over. Another wave could change the balance in currencies, debt levels, employment and economic growth. The apple cart only appears to be standing in balance now; it is about to get upset badly. In short, it is too early to determine where the best investments will be when we reach the eventual bottom which may not occur until 2021. Even that date is hard to predict as some believe it is already behind us.
Kevin George: The BRICS theme used to be a buzzword for investors and that thesis got torn apart because of the oil crash and the global financial crisis. I believe the FAAMNG thesis will also fail. Whenever we get herd-like behaviour, it raises the risk of a stampede to the exits. Currency outlooks will play a factor in non US investments, and I would also look for countries that are seeing political stability and less virus impact.
Ruerd Heeg: The main case is diversification. In addition, outside the US, you will find cheaper stocks, so with, on average, better returns. I think in the long run it pays to be different: I do not recommend any of these FAAMNG stocks or other momentum plays. I think this crisis will change the dominant investor fashion from momentum to value. So, stay away from momentum.
Tariq Dennison: I have long focused on non-US markets (arguably a few years too early this cycle) for some of the following reasons:
- Most foreign markets have more attractive yields and valuation multiples than US companies
- Many emerging markets have far more room for organic revenue growth than the US
- There is too much focus on US large cap growth, and I tend to avoid places where there is too much focus, and try and find gems where few others are looking
- Some of the foreign small caps I find have little if anything written about them at all, and with a little work, I can get far more confidence in a good return there than on the next few points' move in a FAAMNG stock
Are there any safe haven markets that stand out especially to you at this point?
The Value Pendulum: Seeking shelter in safe haven markets/industries/stocks is equivalent to adopting a defensive stance, when one should be on the offensive looking for once-in-a-lifetime buying opportunities. More importantly, most safe haven markets/industries/stocks would have priced in lofty expectations, and they are likely to be the first group of stocks to be sold down, when the tide eventually turns.
Mark Bern, CFA: Not yet. Even China could experience another wave of infections, especially if they open up enough and remove more travel restrictions. Until the pandemic is truly under control, we don't believe there really is a safe have in stocks. I still hold some U.S. treasury bonds but, unless we experience a second wave of infections the prices may have peaked. I do hold a significant amount of Vanguard GNMA (VFIIX) fund for safe keeping and a little yield. That has my go to place to put cash that I do not plan to put to use any time soon. During 2008, SPY was down about 38%, while VFIIX provided a total return of +7-8%. It doesn't move much in either direction, but the yield isn't great at 2.07%. Total return since the beginning of the year is just over 3%, while SPY is down about 10%, so I'll take it.
Kevin George: I like China. The consumer base will be less challenged than the western countries, and the U.S. listings allow easy access. The country's GDP was slowing, but so was the rest of the world and 6% was far better than the 1% in Europe. The western economies have now added more debt and put millions out of work.
Ruerd Heeg: I think it will take quite a while before restaurants will be as busy as before the lock downs. Even when restaurants open, frequent visitors of restaurants are more vulnerable from a bad outcome of a corona infection than others. So, where do people buy their food: in supermarkets. Last month, I put a Russian supermarket chain on my "Selected Stocks" list despite a leveraged balance sheet. That stock went up about 20%.
Tariq Dennison: That depends on what you consider a "safe haven", but my first pick (almost by definition) would be staple businesses with little or no leverage, of which there are several in Asia. Geographically, I consider Japan one relative safe haven because of the currency (which tends to strengthen when others stress), the abundance of cash, and how rarely companies are truly allowed to go bankrupt there.
Any individual names that you like right now? What's their story?
The Value Pendulum: With regards to cyclicals/laggards, I like Pico Far East Holdings (OTC:PCOFF) [752:HK], Asia's largest exhibition services provider which supplies stands and offers design services for trade shows. The cancellation or deferral of trade shows as a result of the virus is hurting the company. But net cash accounts for close to half of Pico's market capitalization, and roughly 40% of Pico’s production costs are variable in nature partly due to outsourcing. Also, many of Pico’s competitors with weaker balance sheets and higher fixed costs will likely go out of business, leading to market share gains for Pico on the medium-to-long term. When it comes to consistent dividend payers, certain interest-rate sensitive, high-yield Asia-listed REITs, infrastructure companies and utilities are trading at much cheaper prices/valuations compared with a few months ago, despite the fact that interest rates are considerably lower now. With respect to steady ROE companies, I did a stock screen recently and found more than 500 companies which have achieved an ROE of at least 15% in each of the past five years. While past results are not indicative of future performance, it is not impossible to find more than a handful of high-quality companies from the 500-strong list.
Mark Bern, CFA: Not really. We have held Netflix (NFLX) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) throughout and will continue to do so as we think they will continue to do well regardless of the pandemic outcome. But, after the strong rally, we don't think either represents a good entry point right now.
Kevin George: I like healthcare and pharma companies just now. They are not reliant on lifestyle consumers. Companies I have written about recently were Gilead (GILD) and Abbott (ABT). I also like companies that have low consumer price points and a strong brand. Netflix is an example, but I feel it's overvalued right now. I am well diversified from the virus impact with interests in commodity companies, China, pharma and energy. I also have a mix of income and growth ideas.
Ruerd Heeg: I like oil stocks because I think oil is cheap near a 20-year low. A good stock is Lukoil (OTC:LUKOY). Other good stocks are net-nets with strong balance sheets, for example Emerson Radio Corp. (MSN). A sector that might not be much affected by the coronavirus is Food Technology. Paul Mueller (OTCPK:MUEL) manufactures food processing equipment, mainly in The Netherlands. To me, this is a good long term buy-and-hold stock.
Tariq Dennison: Hang Lung Group (OTCPK:HNLGY) has been one of my favorite Hong Kong listed names for a while now, and is one of the names I have covered in more depth on Long Run Income. Listed in 1972, Hang Lung owns prime properties in Hong Kong and several mainland Chinese cities, including the Peak Galleria on Hong Kong's iconic Victoria peak. It has relatively low debt relative to its assets and cash flows, and trades a only 25% of book value, in part due to a complex group structure where it owns a majority stake in the larger but separately listed Hang Lung Properties (OTCPK:HLPPY) which trades at over 50% of book value, because HLPPY is in the Hang Seng Index and HNLGY is not. I'm happy accumulating and holding HNLGY for its 6.5% yield for the next few years, but expect it may eventually get expensive again when tenants come back and they are able to start raising rents again.
Thanks to our panel for sharing their insight on the broader world of investment opportunities. Check out their work at the links at the beginning of the article.
We continue this round Sunday with a look at the energy sector, so watch out for that.
This article was written by
Analyst’s Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
The Value Pendulum is long Pico Far East Holdings [752:HK] (PCOFF). Mark Bern, CFA is long NFLX,LMT and VFIIX. Kevin George is long GILD. Tariq Dennison is long HNLGY and EWY
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