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Stocks Better than Bonds When Inflation is a Big Threat

Another week, another $1.2 billion in debt taken on board by the Australian Office of Financial Management. Just a reminder that borrowed prosperity has to be repaid, and it usually drives interest rates up. Of course, if the RBA raises the cash rate again next month, the Aussie dollar won’t be far from parity from the U.S. dollar. And no one will be talking about the debt. It will still be there, though.

Which shares win and which shares lose the stronger the Aussie dollar gets? Slipstream Trader Murray Dawes has been on the case over the last week, looking for other tradeable trends in the ASX 200. The stronger Aussie affects the costs and export earnings of big domestic companies. That makes it a catalyst for trading ideas. And the size of the moves in these larger capitalisation stocks is kind of surprising. But for it to be profitable, you have to first sort out who wins and who loses.

GoldmanSachs had a crack at it last week. According to today’s Australian, “The biggest winners include Qantas and Virgin Blue (lower fuel costs and strengthening outbound travel), Boral (lower offshore debt costs), condom and glove maker Ansell, apparel importer Pacific Brands, diversified industrial Alesco and waste manager and car importer Transpacific.”

And the possible losers? The report says they will be, “Defensive stocks with an offshore earnings skew and which also are not exposed to this global growth. These include CSL, Cochlear, Resmed, Ramsay Healthcare and QBE Insurances. GSJBW cites BlueScope, Paperlinx, Caltex, Incitec Pivot and Aristocrat Leisure as other losers, but notes currency is only one of many variables affecting earnings.”

We reckon it’s all a bit of tempest in a tea cup. Corporate earnings have been inflated by the credit bubble and funny accounting for the last 50 years. A quarter or two of noise about earnings is not the big story, even if the currency move is substantial. There are really only two questions that matter.

The first is whether or not shares as an asset class are a good idea right now. That’s a huge debate. But part of the answer lies in your views on inflation. As we argued here in July, stocks are definitely better than bonds when inflation is the big threat. The Reserve Bank seems to think that is the case. So make of it what you will.

What we make of it is that dividends used to account for a much larger percentage of your total return in stocks than they have in the last twenty years. Times change. There’s no rule that says the future has to be just like the past. But if stocks beat inflation, should you invest in stocks for income or capital appreciation? That’s the second question.

Aussie investors haven’t usually had to make that choice. Bank stocks, for example, provide dividends and capital growth. But today, we reckon that cash flows are reverting back to the mean growth rate, which is obviously lower in a world that’s deleveraging and relying less on credit to fuel business and consumer spending. Rather than being inflated by consumer demand (supported by credit) we predict slower rates of organic growth, across the board. This rewards investors who pay attention to how a company generates its earnings.

Kris Sayce in his work at the Australian Wealth Gameplan, reckons that now is a good time to add dividends to the mix to beat both inflation and the trend toward smaller growth in corporate cash flows. Practically, this means investing in businesses than can increase earnings in good times and bad and can do so without high capital costs which force them to borrow money. They return the excess cash to shareholders.

In cash flow growth is constrained by less credit in the system, you also want to own businesses with leverage to a rising commodity or an emerging market. This works out pretty well for a lot of Aussie firms.

Take energy. Chevron announced another major gas find off the coast of Western Australia this weekend. Chevron’s $21 billion investment in the Gorgon project in WA is already the company’s single-largest investment anywhere in the world, according to the Australian Financial Review.

And why? Chevron reckons LNG from WA is going to be the carbon dioxide friendly fuel for Asia’s future. True, the fixed capital costs for producing off-shore LNG are high. But the whole industry is certainly leveraged to higher energy prices, which ought to translate into higher earnings for Chevron. Your risk is that oil prices crash and take LNG prices with them, upsetting the whole applecart.

So how does this all fit into an investment strategy for a world where there is no clear winner between inflation and deflation, where there is still massive leverage in the financial system, and where public finance is creating huge long-term deficits to replace (mistakenly) the missing demand from households that are beginning to live beneath their means? Good question!

You can trade the blue-chips in their ranges based on currency exposure or leverage to commodity prices. This is what Murray is up to at Slipstream. Or you can just chuck a few market-tracking ETFs in your portfolio and forget about it, in which case you can read the DR for fun and laughs rather than investment ideas. But you can also afford to be a bit more selective, and should probably consider doing just that. Why?

If the Credit Depression is going to take a bite out of corporate cash flows for years to come, focus on that risk and avoid the stocks most vulnerable to it (leveraged players in property, mortgage lenders, and banks.) But also build yourself, as Nassim Taleb says, a portfolio of risk’s that’s built for a world of extremes (Extremistan!).

Taleb says you want a maximum amount of zero-risk securities. Whether that is cash, bonds, dividend-paying stocks, property, or gold bullion (not really a security) is where the debate lies. He also recommends, though, that you have a small amount of risk capital in maximum risk securities. Which ones?

You want securities where you’ll find low-probability but high-value events that can move the share price. This is not banking. In banking, all the low-probability (or frequency) events tend to have catastrophic consequences when they do occur. Russia defaults. The subprime market blows up. You have maximum risk. The probability is remote, but the magnitude of an occurrence is a portfolio destroyer.

But in other areas – small cap stocks, oil and precious metals exploration and production companies, for example – the low probability events are almost always high magnitude events in a positive way. You cure baldness or impotence. You find gold or oil. You invent the iPod or Google.

In these businesses, cash flows and earnings are above trend for a three to four year period in which the share price trades at a steep premium, factoring in future growth. This is the sweetest of sweet spots for growth investors. But to taste it, you have to also have a taste for risk.

That’s why it’s worth being in the market in a small amount of low-probability but high-magnitude type companies. You want a portfolio of risks like that. And it doesn’t have to be a big one to be worth it, or jeopardise an otherwise risk-averse strategy. In fact, we reckon that this strategy is going to generate far better returns over the next ten years that the conventional buy-and-hold blue chips through your super strategy.

Dan Denning
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

Dan Denning
Dan Denning is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Reckoning Australia and the author of 2005’s best-selling The Bull Hunter (John Wiley & Sons). He began his financial publishing career in 1997 as a small-cap analyst. From 2000 to 2005 he was the managing editor of Strategic Investment, where he recommended gold and warned of the US housing bubble. Dan has covered financial markets from Baltimore, Paris, London and, beginning in 2005, Melbourne Australia, where he is the Publisher of Port Phillip Publishing. To follow Dan's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails.
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4 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    I am interested in thoughts relating to the intertwined effect of cross border carry trades driven by domestic savings in one corner and USD merchant banking and hedge fund leverage ex US and UK in the other. I am interested in exploring the leading and following events and looking at the cycle on the AUD. The similar shape of the 10 year charts of the AUD-YEN and AUD-USD and AUD-EUR (forex.com.au etc) juxtaposed against the flatter shape of the AUD-GBP of the same period. Leverage institutions front running savings to accentuate the hot money bubbles. Is there channeling toward the AUD when significant countries impose capital controls? Brazil will apparently re-impose tax on import capital again this week. Now that the hits are being taken on many of BBI and MAQ’s listed infrastructure offshore investments and the ownership of foreign assets is transfering is our capital account more exposed to the hot money on the one way (import capital) flows? Obviously I smell an answer of yes but charting the liklihood of these things against a possible US led deleveraging event that would go hard in the opposite direction is problematic. What has it got to do with today’s article? Well I am chewing on that when exploring where to position long higher risk investments and how do you choose your timing when your currency and equities are being determined by the hot money and commodity prices and volumes? Until I work this out I will limit my speculative corner.

  2. Don says:

    For all those interested you can check out the AOFM bond debt levels at this link:

    http://www.aofm.gov.au/content/borrowing/commonwealth.asp

    Enjoy!

  3. Joe says:

    The last time inflation was a concern in the UK (circa 1998/9) the Boots Company pension fund trustees decided to move from Stocks and Shares into bonds.

    It maintained an above average performance over that time, especially into 2000/1 when the dot com bubble burst.

    To describe it more accurately, it was a leading performance not above average.

    I suppose much of this was misguided fortune, namely that their move coincided with a crash further down the road, but, is definately an exception to your rule.

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