What is your short-term and long-term take on where stocks are headed?
- Longer term, global stocks look cheap vs. other asset classes. The S&P 500 dividend yield recently surpassed yields on 10-year Treasurys; the same dynamics are evident in Europe and have been in place in Japan for some time.
- The U.S. may be in better shape than Europe. Eurozone economic growth slowed to 0.2% in 2Q11, and headwinds have spread. But this may be priced in: although U.S. equities are cheap, European stocks are some of the cheapest on the planet.
- One of NFJ’s biggest weightings is in Brazil. With favorable population demographics and self-sufficiency in commodities—in addition to being a democracy with no hostile neighbors or religious conflict—it should become one of the top five economies in the world over the next couple of decades.
We have known for some time that the U.S. merited less-than-AAA credit, and that restructurings in Europe are likely. The best advice in the face of recent volatility is simply not to panic or stray from long-term allocation targets. Longer term, stocks look cheap around the world relative to other asset classes. Just last week, the dividend yield on the S&P 500 surpassed yields on 10-year Treasury bonds, which has not occurred in decades. The same dynamics are evident in Europe, and have been in place in Japan for some time.
There are also good opportunities in emerging markets (EM) equities. EM countries now make up 38% of global GDP and have produced most of the global GDP growth over the past 10 years, yet constitute a smaller proportion in terms of stock market capitalizations. Furthermore, if risk is defined as fiscal imprudence, then EM economies also look good, accounting for only 17% of all outstanding government debt.
How are you insulating your portfolios from the threat of a global slowdown?
We employ several methods of risk management to help insulate clients from exogenous shocks in any macroeconomic factors. Perhaps the most important is the diversification requirement built into our investment process to help manage sector exposure.
We also require every holding to pay a dividend—a simple but crucial part of our process. Value investment strategies tend to lag when an economy shifts into recession, but dividend-paying stocks help offset this by generally being a bit more defensive, garnering more of their returns from tangible cash payouts. Capital gains can be positive or negative, but dividends can only be positive.
Our price momentum and earnings revision quantitative models also offer risk management in times of economic weakness.
How does the situation in Europe stack up to the U.S.?
The U.S. may be in better shape than Europe today; Eurozone economic growth slowed to 0.2% in the second quarter. Core nations like Germany and France had previously been able to offset periphery weakness, but headwinds have spread across Europe. This makes it doubly hard for governments to stabilize their tax debt burdens, since lower growth means lower tax revenues. The best way to beat deficits is to grow out of them.
While we have seen sluggish U.S. growth, employment may be picking up and lower energy prices should act as a tailwind. Corporate balance sheets are the cleanest in decades, and our banking system is in much better condition than Europe’s. Demographic trends are better here as well, with our workforce expected to grow over the coming decades vs. a forecasted decline in Europe and, to an even greater extent, Japan. Likewise, if there are massive restructurings in Europe, we should see near-term money flows to the U.S. in a flight to relative safety—with relative being the operative term.
Of course, the markets may be pricing in this situation. As cheap as U.S. equities are today, U.S. P/E multiples are above the global average, while European stocks are some of the cheapest on the planet. Within the MSCI investment universe, the average yield in Europe was 3.4% as of quarter-end, nearly twice the 1.8% average for the U.S.
Where are you finding attractive opportunities in Europe right now, if at all?
There are pockets of good values in Europe—e.g., among companies that are international leaders in their fields and that have global business models. Unilever is a great example. Though it’s based in the U.K., 60% of revenue is generated in the developing world. However, its stock is being valued cheaply along with other European names, and it offers a steep discount to multiples found throughout EMs.
Drug companies are another example of firms with sales generated largely outside of Europe; Sanofis-Aventis and GlaxoSmithKline offer good opportunities. Finally, although European financial services firms have been the hardest hit, we believe the resulting low valuations in selected companies more than discount the risks. For example, Credit Suisse and Zurich Financial are both located in Switzerland, where corporate governance is somewhat superior to its European neighbors. Both trade at or below their book value, and both offer dividend yields north of 7%.
What about emerging markets?
One of our most significant weightings is in Brazil, holding such names as Vale and Tele Norte. Within the MSCI universe, Brazilian stocks currently trade at an average 11 times earnings vs. a recent average of 16x, making them much cheaper than China and India. And their average yield of 3.6% is double that of the other BRICs. Thanks to Brazil’s favorable population demographics and self-sufficiency in commodities—in addition to being a democracy with no hostile neighbors or religious conflict—it should become one of the top five economies in the world over the next couple of decades. Compared with China, Brazil has a resource advantage, better population growth and more thriving middle class.
From a valuation standpoint, which sectors or individual stocks look like a bargain right now?
We continue to find value in telecom, which has dividends near 10-year highs relative to government bond yields around the world. Wireless data demand continues to grow, with penetration rates still low in many EM countries.
One recent swap was for Tele Norte (TNE), Brazil’s largest telecom provider. Its P/E of 8 beats Telefonos de Mexico’s 13 and America Movil’s 11. Tele Norte offers a 14% dividend yield, which is well supported by free cash flow. Its wireless subscriptions grew 13% last year, and broadband penetration in Brazil remains minimal, allowing for a lot of room for growth.