On the back of higher benchmark interest rates and, consequently, rising cost of capital, the recent reporting period in the financial markets has brought about an attitudinal shift away from speculation towards valuation. Seemingly outdated concepts such as normalization and reversion-to-the-mean have at last reappeared after being ignored during the many years of easy monetary policies pursued by the leading central banks.
Asset prices in the financial markets are driven by expectations about the future. When prospects look bright, they rise and when they darken, they fall. Every trading day anew, commentators try to rationalize the incremental changes in expectations. Much less contemplated in fundamental terms—though ultimately more consequential for earnest savers—is the level of expectations. The latter is precisely what we care about in our daily work. The central topic of interest to us revolves around the question whether expectations about a potential investment at any given point in time are (too) high, about right or (too) low. In simple terms, we buy when expectations are depressed and sell when they look good.
This stance bears its fruits over time and becomes especially visible in the current market environment. The fundholders know that for many years now our basic premise has been that implied discount rates tend to be (too) low and profit margins (too) high for index-heavy and otherwise broadly owned or trendy companies. There now seems to occur an adjustment in market behavior towards our thinking. Applying a crude measure of expectations such as the price-to-sales ratio, we have witnessed a disproportionate decline in the companies sporting the loftiest multiples, whereas low price-to-sales portfolios such as ours have shown to be rather stable.
As a reminder, the fair value of equity equals all future net cash flow streams accruing to the shareholders of a corporation discounted to the present. As deep value investors we seek out bargain prices in out-of-favor companies. Usually, such opportunities arise due to a poor growth and/or cash generation profile as well as a relatively high implied cost of capital.
First, as far as revenue projections are concerned, our firms are regularly neglected or avoided by the market due to their unexciting cyclical, diversified or “old-economy” characteristics. Second, in terms of cash generation and profit margins, many of our companies can be bought at a steep discount due to strategy, structure or operational challenges (for example: unrelated business divisions/lack of interdivisional synergies; small or family-owned businesses lacking economies of scale or geographic spread; complex construction work causing lumpy and often mismatched revenue and expense recognition; inefficient capital allocation; cost-mismanagement; etc.). And third, the fixed-asset heavy nature of most of our holdings causes the market to demand relatively high hurdles with respect to the required return on capital. Hence, in our valuation work we conservatively assume much higher real discount rates in comparison to the ones the market has used to justify the prices of those highly sought-after, so-called “capital-light” assets during the post-Lehman low-rate environment.
For these reasons, the positioning of the Fund portfolio has essentially been “ahead of the curve” all along: subdued growth and high discount rates are constant realities confronting deep value investors, whereas the market has only now come to grapple with the idea that the global economy may be faced with headwinds such as lower growth, higher expenses and pricier money. In short, we are already constructively positioned to be able to take advantage of the normalization process that currently plays out in global stock markets.
Whether the recent downward move in the popular equity indices is enough to reflect a more realistic level of expectations lies beyond our circle of competence and we will gladly leave that judgment call up to the market seers out there. What we are convinced about, however, is that the implied level of expectations afforded to the Fund’s aggregate portfolio is decidedly modest. The economic pressure to gradually push those low expectations up to a fairer level promises good things to come over time with respect to the achievable future compound rate of return.
Chief Investment Officer SG Value Partners AG