Gradually, then suddenly

Sinclair Currie, NovaPort Principal and Co-Portfolio Manager

Markets always present a multitude of opportunities and obstacles.  However at any given point in time there are only a select few, around which traders coalesce.  Commentary and action align to these few factors, which then powerfully drive markets. Recognising this, and the rationale for it, or indication of a pivot in market trends helps identify and reprioritise risk. In this way, issues which the market has long ignored can suddenly seem to be the only thing that matters.

During the GFC, the market seemed only to care about balance sheets. In recent years it has been pre-occupied with innovation and disruption. Today, we are grappling with the most fundamental changes to international relations since the end of the Cold War. These risks have always been present, yet the reprioritisation of these risks is changing the flow of funds, between nations, between asset classes, and within the underlying sectors of asset classes.   

Small cap investing: Top down has become paramount

A trend of the last decade has been the grouping of stocks into ever more diverse ‘baskets’ (often known as an index). Today these ‘baskets’ are sold by securities dealers as a product. Stocks can be grouped by industry, quantitative factors or thematic association. In the past, the profit motivation behind these classifications formed part of a two-step process.

  1. Identify companies exposed to sectors and factors expected to benefit from ongoing or forecasted tailwinds.
  2. Assess the actual and prospective performance of these companies relative to expectations and peers and select the best stocks.

When investors purchase a basket from a dealer, they are de-emphasising stock selection.  

In recent years we have observed a shift in Australian Small Companies market dynamics. Increasingly, money is deployed with a greater emphasis on macro-strategy (i.e. step one above); yet seemingly without significant focus applied to the fundamental performance of the underlying businesses (step two).

The outcome is a growing number of companies exhibiting a divergence between their share price performance and operational performance. The most obvious demonstration of this has been the increasing correlation of stocks within certain baskets. For example, the correlation of Australian Technology stocks to the US NASDAQ index. This correlation ignores the fact that each Australian tech stock has its own fundamental and operational opportunities and challenges distinct from the success of Nvidia, Facebook, Netflix or Tesla.

In contemporary markets, it seems that share price performance depends on being allocated to the ‘right’ group of stocks rather than actual business performance. This has been particularly evident in the last two reporting seasons. We saw many companies fail to deliver on expectations.  Yet their share price performance was more powerfully explained by broader market trends than their underlying performance. It is important to note that this relates not only to profit but outcomes have also been skewed for looser metrics, such as revenue.

The willingness of markets to overlook operational performance of individual stocks is not sustainable.  However we do not dictate how the market chooses to reward speculation. Markets are expressions of emotions as well as logic and we cannot expect them to be rational. What we can look for is catalysts which might change sentiment and behaviour. At this point in time, there are several. None of these are new, yet suddenly they have become relevant.

Looking ahead

We believe identifying and responding to change faster than the market is key to successful investing.

So much has changed since March 2020 and the market is still adapting.  The assumption that markets will resume their pre-covid trajectory ignores the profound changes that have occurred.  The following trends are reshaping market dynamics in our view.

1. Demographics

The ageing global population has been apparent for a long time however its adverse impact has been offset by globalisation and trade, which delivered to enterprises the gift of a huge increase in the pool of available labour. While its sustainability has always been questionable (particularly due to the ageing population in China) it has not registered as a concern for markets. The escalation of tensions in global markets brings the challenges of a shrinking workforce into sharper focus.

2. ESG

Awareness of Environmental, Social and Governance issues is challenging the status quo. For example, the current US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has been vocal in raising ESG issues at the World Trade Organisation, arguing that trade policy must take the environment and workers’ rights into account. Whilst coming from a different angle, this approach is a continuation of the more assertive trade policy adopted by the previous US administration. Trade frictions will not only impact labour markets but will also alter the flow of capital through financial markets. When President Trump first pushed back against free trade the market seemed less concerned. Now it is clear that scrutiny of trade relationships is bipartisan. The market must now reprioritise this risk.

3. Geopolitics

Relationships between the world’s great powers were evolving prior to the pandemic. Tensions were evident due to conflicts in Syria and Crimea. Since the shocking invasion of Ukraine there has been a call to action. Today global leaders are not only worried about the equitable distribution of the benefits of trade, but also the security and resilience of their economies. Our own Prime Minister has recently committed to support development of ‘Just in Case’ rather than ‘Just in Time’ models for critical supply chains.

Aligning national security with industrial development is a significant contrast to decades of globalisation. It will require substantial investment and impact trade relationships, labour markets and capital markets. The weaknesses of globalisation have always been obvious. The sudden need to address these weaknesses has become a priority which is rapidly changing the investment landscape.

4. Market structure

The pandemic forced economic change at a scale and breadth almost unimaginable to contemporary financial markets. GFC-era measures were enhanced and expanded to ensure the resilience of financial markets. There was also increased validation for the role of Government in the economy. The US Federal Reserve has put in place massive backstops to ensure the liquidity of the market for US Treasuries and the core banking system. Yet today, with extra ordinary guard rails around banking and risk-free assets, there may be scope for a lower strike of the famous “Fed Put” on markets.

5. Experience

The current cohort of market leaders have enjoyed their dominant position for an extended period. Software as a Service and the Cloud are no longer new concepts and markets have had time to become more discriminating about which companies they are going to support. After a period of time, all start-ups progress from ‘promising’ to having a demonstrated track record. Good or bad. The incipient pivot from judging the best known and loved start-ups of the last decade on what they promise to deliver relative to what they have delivered is inevitable yet will seem sudden.   

In summary, plenty has changed…

These five themes will force markets to reprioritise their risk assessments. None of these risks are obscure or unknown, however changing events is triggering a reassessment. The market tends to focus on a relatively small number of issues.  So when these change, price movements can seem extraordinary.

Therefore, we adapt

There are important implications for investors in Australian Small Companies. Over the last half decade investors converged around a growth thematic supported by the theory that low inflation, low interest rates and market-friendly central banks would remain enduring features. As a result, investing in baskets of stocks aligned to this theme became as important if not more so than  understanding the actual performance of underlying businesses.

Changes in the inflation and monetary outlook also challenge the significant weight of money aligned with the established macro-strategic positioning. Investors can adapt by re-evaluating the outlook for the businesses they are invested in on a case-by-case basis, then refocusing on those businesses which they consider enduring or alternatively finding new investments which can be beneficiaries of change.