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AUSSIE equities have proven remarkably defensive over the past 12 months compared to global shares and other asset classes — delivering a 6.5 per cent return in the year to February, says Pendal’s head of equities Crispin Murray.
The recent ASX reporting season delivered an earnings revisions distribution — the ratio of upgrades to downgrades — in line with long-term averages as a post-Covid sales boost dissipated.
Earnings are on track for 2 per cent growth in 2023 and 1 per cent in 2024, Murray says in his new biannual Beyond The Numbers webinar.
That means a material decline in shares is unlikely over the course of 2023, he says.
“However, if we do get the RBA forced to hike rates far higher than the economy can absorb — and we do get a downturn — then we’re going to see much more material downgrades.
“That is the risk scenario for the market. But that is not the scenario we expect.”
Why have Australian companies proven relatively defensive over the past year?
Partly it’s structural, he says.
The Australian share market skews to financials and resources. Banks have benefited from higher interest rates and commodity prices have buoyed the mining companies.
But a more important underlying explanation is the rise in company earnings that has meant that even as stock valuations fall in the face of higher interest rates, stock prices have been largely unaffected.
“What we’ve actually been able to achieve in Australia is a derating of the market without the actual market having to drop because earnings revisions were positive and these were positive across all parts of the market,” says Murray.
biannual ASX outlook
“Even the industrials really haven’t been exposed to an economic slowdown and they were bouncing back from impacts of the pandemic.
“Where we are sitting today, we’re quite comfortable with the overall rating of the market.”
Four key issues will drive the underlying economic picture for Australian companies, Murray says:
The US economy is proving more resilient than many people thought, Murray says.
“There has been a material change in US interest rates and for a lot of people that was inevitably going to lead to a recession — but it so far has not.
“There is clearly now a school of thought saying that the US economy is more resilient.”
He says some measures of monetary tightening suggest the worst has past, setting the US up for soft landing.
On the flipside, a “very negative” yield curve and the biggest ever one year decline money supply growth since the 1930s indicates tough times ahead.
“As we stand today, we would expect perhaps a mild recession — we’d still be somewhat cautious.
And that’s why we believe that you still need to be very careful about what you’re paying for certain companies in this market environment.”
The growth of China is a significant factor in the success of Australian corporations.
Murray says the key question for investors is how much Chinese growth can accelerate out of the zero COVID period.
“China dealt with COVID very differently to the rest of the world.
“They did not throw anywhere near as much stimulus at their consumers so they saw consumer spend falling well below trend for an extended period.
“So the first thing that will underpin Chinese is growth is a return to that trend level of consumption and that in itself can add 2 per cent to 3 per cent to growth over the next couple of years.”
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Growth could be even stronger if Chinese consumers dip into the money they have saved like their counterparts in the US and Australia.
“There is a big debate about whether this will happen,” says Murray, noting Chinese people are typically quite cautious in terms of their saving to protect themselves and their families’ health care and education.
”But clearly, China is in a far better position today than it was six or 12 months ago.”
Closer to home, the trajectory of the Australian economy is a critical driver of corporate earnings and an important factor in determining which parts of the market to invest in.
The key to the economy is interest rates.
Mortgage repayments in Australian households as a percentage of disposable income have risen in line with rates, but there has been a change in mix — as people pay more interest they are cut back on principal payments.
This is a reversal of the recent past, when low interest rates allowed higher principal repayments.
“This probably explains why we haven’t necessarily seen any real effect on consumption — as those interest payments are going up, we’re just compressing the principal repayments.”
Murray says that, as a proportion of household income, interest repayments are unlikely to reach the heights of the GFC and should remain below the levels of the early 1990s.
“This doesn’t mean we won’t still see a material consumer slowdown, because the rate of change is material. But it’s not as bad as perhaps it is perceived. In my view, we will not get a recession here.”
A growing trend towards government policy intervention is becoming an issue, says Murray.
Partly, this is evident in the recent regulation of the gas industry and the stepping up of Australia’s carbon reduction pathway.
Murray says he is also hearing from banks that they are concerned about the potential for more regulation on deposit rates.
Companies with a high share of labour costs could also be impacted by the government’s push for real wage increases.
Overall, 2023 will be a good year for investors with deep insight into individual companies, Murray believes.
“Today reminds me of 2012 going into 2013, where the markets were very thematic — and that’s creating a lot of stock opportunities.
“We are seeing this as a great time to identify opportunities and really differentiate and get some insights into the stock.
“We’re very confident on the outlook.”
Crispin Murray is Pendal’s Head of Equities. He has more than 27 years of investment experience and leads one of the largest equities teams in Australia. Crispin’s Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund has beaten the benchmark in 12 years of its 16-year history (after fees), across a range of market conditions.
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This information has been prepared by Pendal Fund Services Limited (PFSL) ABN 13 161 249 332, AFSL No 431426 and is current at March 15, 2023. PFSL is the responsible entity and issuer of units in the Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund (Fund) ARSN: 113 232 812. A product disclosure statement (PDS) is available for the Fund and can be obtained by calling 1300 346 821 or visiting www.pendalgroup.com. The Target Market Determination (TMD) for the Fund is available at www.pendalgroup.com/ddo. You should obtain and consider the PDS and the TMD before deciding whether to acquire, continue to hold or dispose of units in the Fund. An investment in the Fund or any of the funds referred to in this web page is subject to investment risk, including possible delays in repayment of withdrawal proceeds and loss of income and principal invested. This information is for general purposes only, should not be considered as a comprehensive statement on any matter and should not be relied upon as such. It has been prepared without taking into account any recipient’s personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Because of this, recipients should, before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness having regard to their individual objectives, financial situation and needs. This information is not to be regarded as a securities recommendation. The information may contain material provided by third parties, is given in good faith and has been derived from sources believed to be accurate as at its issue date. While such material is published with necessary permission, and while all reasonable care has been taken to ensure that the information is complete and correct, to the maximum extent permitted by law neither PFSL nor any company in the Pendal group accepts any responsibility or liability for the accuracy or completeness of this information. Performance figures are calculated in accordance with the Financial Services Council (FSC) standards. Performance data (post-fee) assumes reinvestment of distributions and is calculated using exit prices, net of management costs. Performance data (pre-fee) is calculated by adding back management costs to the post-fee performance. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any projections are predictive only and should not be relied upon when making an investment decision or recommendation. Whilst we have used every effort to ensure that the assumptions on which the projections are based are reasonable, the projections may be based on incorrect assumptions or may not take into account known or unknown risks and uncertainties. The actual results may differ materially from these projections. For more information, please call Customer Relations on 1300 346 821 8am to 6pm (Sydney time) or visit our website www.pendalgroup.com