A worm in the Apple

Apple Inc (AAPL) enjoyed stellar growth over the past 12 months, jumping more than 50%.

Apple Inc (AAPL)

But is that due to solid operating performance or window-dressing, with almost $140 billion of stock buybacks in the last two years?

Apple Inc (AAPL)

Free cash flow — operating cash flow less stock compensation and investment in plant and equipment — has been falling since 2015.

Apple Inc (AAPL)

And the company has depleted its cash reserves over the last two years, to fund stock buybacks. The graph below depicts the change in Apple’s net cash position (cash plus marketable securities less debt).

Apple Inc (AAPL)

So why the management enthusiasm for stock buybacks?

Is the stock a good investment? No. Free cash flow per share has barely lifted since 2015 despite $237.5 billion used to repurchase 1144 million shares.

Apple Inc (AAPL)

Apple have returned surplus cash to stockholders in the most tax-efficient way possible, by buying back stock rather than paying dividends. The added bonus is the reduced share count which gooses up earnings per share growth and return on equity.

Apple Inc (AAPL)

Investors in turn get excited and run up earnings multiples. The current price/free cash flow ratio of 23.2 exceeds that of the heady growth days up to 2015.

Apple Inc (AAPL)

The stock keeps climbing, supported by buybacks and rosy EPS projections. The problem for Apple is when they run out of cash, or exceed reasonable debt levels, then the band will stop playing and those heady multiples are likely to come crashing down to earth.

It’s not only Apple that’s doing this. The entire S&P 500 is distributing more by way of buybacks and dividends than it makes in earnings, eating into reserves meant to fund new investment.

S&P 500 Buybacks & Dividends

The result is likely to be low growth and even more precarious earnings multiples.

Apple Inc. (AAPL) – window dressing with buybacks

Apple (AAPL) is a notable omission in my international model portfolio. Here is one of the reasons.

Michael Santoli at CNBC reports that Apple’s sales and earnings over the past 4 years are essentially flat. The only metric that has improved is earnings per share (EPS) because of stock buybacks. Shares in issue have shrunk by 20.7%, from 5.8 to 4.6 billion.

Apple (AAPL) Metrics

Let’s break this down.

Earnings per share grew by an average 5.7% over the past 4 years, of which 0.2% was from actual growth and 5.5% from buybacks. Apple spent $170 billion on stock buybacks in the 4 years to September 2018 at an average of $150.85 per share.

Apple Stock Buybacks

In FY18 buybacks totaled $72.7 billion, or 7.5% of current market cap ($965.4 bn), well above its earnings of $59.5 bn. Apple is distributing capital to stockholders by way of buybacks.

FY19 estimated earnings yield is 5.4% and dividend yield is 1.4%, leaving retained earnings are 4.0%. Far less than the buyback yield. The company has heaps of cash and can basically keep doing this for a long, long time. But it erodes shareholder value.

Total return investors can expect, if they buy at the current price of $213.04,  is 5.6% (5.4% earnings yield and 0.2% actual growth). That is all that Apple will earn on the money invested into buybacks. An admission that the company is standing still, powerless to inject new growth.

A PE ratio of 17.9 appears modest but it isn’t if you only have 0.2% growth. That amounts to a PEG ratio of a staggering 90 times growth!

Bottom Line

Apple is no longer a growth company. Earnings are shrinking in real terms and the only way the company can maintain the illusion of growth is by buying back stock at exorbitant prices.

Buybacks are hurting growth

Preliminary Q1 results from S&P Dow Jones Indices show S&P 500 dividends and buybacks continue to exceed reported earnings in the first quarter of the current year.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Earnings

While this could be a spill-over of offshore funds repatriated as a result of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, companies have distributed more than they earned since 2014 (Q4). That leaves nothing in reserve for new investment or increases in working capital, both of which are necessary to support growth.

In my last post I highlighted that before-tax corporate profits, adjusted for inflation, are below 2006 levels and declining. Reported earnings for Q1 2019 on the above chart (preliminary results) are only 3.5% higher than the same quarter in 2018. If we strip out inflation, estimated at 2.0%, that leaves only 1.5% real growth.

S&P 500 earnings per share growth for Q1 2019 is marginally better,  at 6.1%, because of stock buybacks.

S&P 500 Earnings per share Growth

But the S&P 500 buyback yield is 3.49% (Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices). On its own, that should boost eps growth by 3.6% (1/[1 – 0.0349] – 1 for the quants). There seems to be 1.0% missing.

S&P 500 Earnings per share Growth

Warren Buffett has pointed this issue out repeatedly for the past 20 years:

“…We will repurchase stock when it falls below a conservative estimate of its intrinsic value. We want to be sure that when we repurchase shares that the remaining shareholders are worth more the moment after we repurchased the shares than they were before.”

If stock is repurchased at above intrinsic value then shareholders will be worse-off. The company receives a poor return on its investment in much the same way as if it had over-paid for an acquisition.

Here is a simple example:

If a company is trading at 100 times earnings and achieving 20% organic earnings growth per year, it is most likely over-priced. Now that company buys back 10% of its own stock (numbers are exaggerated for illustration purposes). Earnings will stay the same but earnings per share (eps) increases by 11.1% (the inverse of 90%).

If the same funds used for the buyback had been invested in a new project with a modest 5% initial return on investment, earnings would have increased 50% (and eps likewise).

The larger the buyback yield, the more that growth is likely to deteriorate — especially when earnings multiples are dangerously high.

Rate cuts and buybacks – the emperor’s new clothes

The interest rate outlook is softening, with Fed chairman Jerome Powell hinting at rate cuts in his Wednesday testimony to Congress:

“Our baseline outlook is for economic growth to remain solid, labor markets to remain strong and inflation to move back over time.”
but…. “Uncertainties about the outlook have increased in recent months. In particular, economic momentum appears to have slowed in some major foreign economies and that weakness could affect the US economy.”

Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Sydney Morning Herald comments:

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fed shifting into an easing cycle before there is strong evidence to warrant it, is economies already stuck in high debt and low growth environments will be forced even deeper into the kind of policies that in Japan have produced more than 30 years of economic winter with no apparent escape route.”

If the Fed moves too early they could further damage global growth, with long-term consequences for US stocks. But markets are salivating at the anticipated sugar hit from lower rates. Stocks surged in response to Powell’s speech, with the S&P 500 breaking resistance at 3000. A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

S&P 500

The argument for higher stock prices is that lower interest rates may stave off a recession. The chart below shows how recessions (gray bars) are normally preceded by rising interest rates (green) followed by sharp cuts when employment growth (blue) starts to fall.

Fed Funds Rate & Payroll Growth

Rate cuts themselves are not a recession warning, unless accompanied by declining employment growth. Otherwise, as in 1998 when there was minimal impact on employment, the economy may recover. Falling employment growth is, I believe, the most reliable recession warning. So far, the decline in growth has been modest but should be monitored closely.

Falling employment is why recessions tend to lag an inverted yield curve (negative 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yield spread) by up to 18 months. The negative yield curve is a reliable warning of recessions only because it reflects the Fed response to rising inflation and then falling employment.

Yield Spread

Valuations

A forward Price-Earnings ratio of 19.08 at the end of June 2019 warned that stocks are highly priced relative to forecast earnings. The forward PE  jumped to 19.55 by Friday — an even stronger warning.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

June 2019 trailing Price-Earnings ratio at 21.52 warned that stock prices are dangerously high when compared to the 1929 and 1987 peaks preceding major crashes. That has now jumped to 22.04.

S&P 500 Price-Earnings (based on highest trailing earnings)

The only factor that could support such a high earnings multiple is unusually strong earnings growth.

But real corporate earnings are declining. Corporate profits, before tax and adjusted for inflation, are below 2006 levels and falling. There are still exceptional stocks that show real growth but they are counter-balanced by negative real growth in other stocks.

Corporate Profits before tax adjusted for Inflation

Impossible, you may argue, given rising earnings for the S&P 500.

S&P 500 Earnings

There are three key differences that contribute to earnings per share growth for the S&P 500:

  1. Inflation;
  2. Taxes; and
  3. Stock Buybacks.

Inflation is fairly steady at 2.0%.

GDP Implicit Price Deflator & Core CPI

Quarterly tax rates declined from 25% in Q3 2017 to 13.22% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Quarterly Tax Rates

Stock buybacks are climbing. The buyback yield for the S&P 500 rose to 3.83% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Buyback Yield

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act caused a surge in repatriation of offshore cash holdings — estimated at almost $3 trillion — by multinationals. And a corresponding increase in stock buybacks.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Earnings

In summary, the 2018 surge in S&P 500 earnings is largely attributable to tax cuts and Q1 2019 is boosted by a surge in stock buybacks in the preceding quarter.

Buybacks plus dividends exceed current earnings and are unsustainable in the long run. When the buyback rate falls, and without further tax cuts, earnings growth is going to be hard to find. Like the emperor’s new clothes.

It’s a good time to be cautious.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

~ Warren Buffett

If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall

Annual employment growth is falling while average hourly earnings growth remains high. This is typical. Ahead of the last two recessions (gray bars below), average hourly earnings growth (green) held steady while employment growth (blue) declined.

Employment Growth & Average Hourly Wage Rate

If annual employment growth (blue line on the above chart) falls below 1.0% then a Fed rate cut is almost guaranteed. Not something to celebrate though, as the gray bars and further job losses illustrate.

Declining growth in hours worked points to lower GDP growth in the second quarter.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

From Bob Doll at Nuveen:

“China is taking a tough stance toward the U.S. on trade. Chinese officials appear open to ongoing negotiations, but a recently released statement denies the country’s role in intellectual property theft, blames the U.S. for negotiation breakdowns and calls out the damage done to the American economy as a result of the dispute. All of this suggests that trade issues will persist for some time.”

The CCP is upset that they are now being called out for bad behavior when this should have been addressed years ago. Conflict can no longer be avoided and is likely to last for a generation or more.

“On Monday, US President Trump told reporters that he would impose tariffs on an additional USD 300 billion of Chinese goods if Xi Jinping doesn’t meet with him in Japan.” ~ Trivium China, June 12, 2019

Trump is doing his best to kill any chance of a trade deal. He is making it impossible for Xi to turn up for a G20 meeting. Kow-towing to Trump would totally undermine Xi’s standing in China.

Xi wants a trade deal that is a handful of empty promises, so the CCP can continue on their present course. The US wants an enforceable undertaking, so that the CPP is forced to change course. Chances of both achieving what they want are negligible.

Both sides need to guard against economic war (time to call it what it is) slipping into a full-scale conflict. All it takes is a spark that sets off tit-for-tat escalation where neither side will back down.

Proxies such as North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are especially dangerous as they are capable of dragging great powers into direct confrontation (think Serbia before WWI, Korea after WWII).

Wannabe great powers like Russia will also do their best to foment conflict between their larger rivals. Stalin achieved this with the Korean War in the 1950s and Vladimir Putin is more than capable of attempting the same. The world is a dangerous place.

Upside potential for stocks is declining while downside risks are growing. Investors are flowing out of equities and into Treasuries despite minimal yield (10-year yield is negative after inflation and tax).

Stocks are being supported by buybacks but that can only continue for as long as cash flows (from earnings) hold up. Buybacks plus dividends for the S&P 500 exceeded reported earnings by more than $100 billion in Q4 2018.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Reported Earnings

That is unsustainable. If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall.

S&P 500: Beware the buyback blackout

We are now entering the blackout period when US corporates normally refrain from buying back stock, in the four to six-week period prior to their next earnings release. There is no outright ban on buybacks during that period but discretionary repurchases are restricted.

Zerohedge illustrates the extent to which stock buybacks are currently driving the market:

S&P 500 buybacks

Buybacks dwarf the $18 billion year-to-date inflow from ETF investors into US equities. The blackout period is likely to cause weakness.

10-Year Treasury yields also breached support at 2.60%, warning of a further decline in long-term interest rates. A sign of increased risk aversion.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Volatility on the S&P 500 has declined close to 1% but an upsurge in the next few weeks would warn of elevated risk. Breach of 2600 would indicate another test of primary support at 2350/2400.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility

We extend our sympathies to the victims of the shooting in Christchurch and their families. Our hope is that this atrocity will draw people together in support of each other rather than divide them.

It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence….
~ Eric Hoffer

Is GDP doomed to low growth?

GDP failed to rebound after the 2008 Financial Crisis, sinking into a period of stubborn low growth. Economic commentators have advanced many explanations for the causes, while the consensus seems to be that this is the new normal, with the global economy destined to decades of poor growth.

Real GDP Growth

This is a classic case of recency bias. Where observers attach the most value to recent observations and assume that the current state of affairs will continue for the foreseeable future. The inverse of the Dow 100,000 projections during the Dotcom bubble.

Real GDP for Q1 2018 recorded 2.9% growth over the last 4 quarters. Not exactly shooting the lights out, but is the recent up-trend likely to continue?

Real GDP Growth and estimate based on Private Sector Employment and Average Weekly Hours Worked

Neils Jensen from Absolute Return Partners does a good job of summarizing the arguments for low growth in his latest newsletter:

The bear story

Putting my (very) long-term bearishness on fossil fuels aside for a moment, there is also a bear story with the potential to unfold in the short to medium-term, but that bear story is a very different one. It is a story about GDP growth likely to suffer as a consequence of the oil industry’s insatiable appetite for working capital, which is presumably a function of the low hanging fruit having been picked already.

In the US today, the oil industry ties up 31 times more capital per barrel of oil produced than it did in 1980, when we came out of the second oil crisis. ….Such a hefty capital requirement is a significant tax on economic growth. Think of it the following way. Capital is a major driver of productivity growth, which again is a key driver of economic growth. Capital tied up by the oil industry cannot be used to enhance productivity elsewhere, i.e. overall productivity growth suffers as more and more capital is ‘confiscated’ by the oil industry.

I am tempted to remind you (yet again!) of one of the most important equations in the world of economics:

∆GDP = ∆Workforce + ∆Productivity

We already know that the workforce will decline in many countries in the years to come; hence productivity growth is the only solution to a world drowning in debt, if that debt is to be serviced. Why? Because we need economic growth to be able to service all that debt.

Now, if productivity growth is going to suffer for years to come, all this fancy new stuff that we all count on to save our bacon (advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.) may never be fully taken advantage of, because the money needed to make it happen won’t be there. It is not a given but certainly a risk that shouldn’t be ignored.

….For that reason, we need to retire fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Ageing of society (older workers are less productive than their younger peers) and a global economy drowning in debt (servicing all that debt is immensely expensive, leaving less capital for productivity enhancing purposes) are widely perceived to be the two most important reasons why productivity growth is so pedestrian at present.

I am not about to tell you that those two reasons are not important. They certainly are. However, the adverse impact the oil industry is having on overall productivity should not be underestimated.

I tend to take a simpler view, where I equate changes in GDP to changes in hours worked and in capital investment:

∆GDP = ∆Workforce + ∆Capital

Workers work harder if they are motivated or if there is a more efficient organizational structure, but these are a secondary influence on productivity when compared to capital investment.

The chart below compares net capital formation by the corporate sector (over GDP) to real GDP growth. It is evident that GDP growth rises and falls in line with net capital formation (or investment as it is loosely termed) by corporations.

Net Capital Formation by the corporate sector/GDP compared to Real GDP Growth

A quick primer (with help from Wikipedia):

  • Capital Formation measures net additions to the capital stock of a country.
  • Capital refers to physical (or tangible) assets and includes plant and equipment, computer software, inventories and real estate. Any non-financial asset used in the production of goods or services.
  • Capital does not include financial assets such as bonds and stocks.
  • Net Capital Formation makes allowance for depreciation of the existing capital stock due to wear and tear, obsolescence, etc.

Net Capital Formation peaked at around 5.0% from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, made a brief recovery to 4.0% during the Dotcom bubble and has since struggled to make the bar at 3.0%. Rather like me doing chin-ups.

Net Capital Formation Declining in the Corporate Sector

There are a number of factors contributing to this.

Intangible Assets

Capital formation only measures tangible assets. The last two decades have seen a massive surge in investment in intangible assets. Look no further than the big five on the Nasdaq:

Stock Symbol Price ($) Book Value ($) Times Book Value
Amazon AMZN 1582.26 64.85 24.40
Microsoft MSFT 95.00 10.32 9.21
Facebook FB 173.86 26.83 6.48
Apple AAPL 169.10 27.60 6.12
Alphabet GOOGL 1040.75 235.46 4.42

Currency Manipulation

Capital formation first fell off the cliff in the 1980s. This coincides with the growth of currency manipulation by Japan, purchasing excessive US foreign reserves to suppress the Yen and establish a trade advantage over US manufacturers. China joined the party in the late 1990s, exceeding Japan’s current account surplus by 2006. Currency suppression creates another incentive for corporations to offshore or outsource manufacturing to Asia.

China & Japan Current Account Surpluses

Tax on Offshore Profits

Many large corporations took advantage of low tax rates in offshore havens such as Ireland, avoiding US taxes while the funds were held offshore. This created an incentive for large corporations to invest retained earnings offshore rather than in the USA.

The net effect has been that retained earnings are invested elsewhere, while new capital formation in the USA is almost entirely funded by debt.

Net Capital Formation by the corporate sector/GDP compared to Corporate Debt Growth/GDP

Donald Trump’s tax deal will make a dent in this but will not undo past damage. The horse has already bolted.

Offshore Manufacturing

Apart from tax incentives, lower labor costs (enhanced by currency manipulation) led large corporations to set up or outsource manufacturing to Asia and other developing countries. In effect, offshoring capital formation and — more importantly — GDP growth to foreign destinations.

Offshoring Jobs

Along with manufacturing plants, blue-collar jobs also moved offshore. While this may improve the company bottom-line for a few years, the long-term, macro effects are devastating.

Think of it this way. If you build a manufacturing plant offshore rather than in the USA you may save millions of dollars a year in labor costs. Great for the bottom line and executive bonuses. But one man’s wage is another man/woman’s income (when he/she spends it). So, from a macro perspective, the US loses GDP equal to the entire factory wages bill plus the wage component of any input costs. A far larger figure than the company’s savings. As more companies offshore jobs, sales growth in the USA is affected. In the end this is likely to more than offset the savings that justified the offshore move in the first place.

Stock Buybacks

Stock buybacks accelerate EPS (earnings per share) growth and are great for boosting stock prices and executive bonuses. But they create the illusion of growth while GDP stands still. There is no new capital formation.

Can GDP Growth Recover?

Yes. Restore capital formation and GDP growth will recover.

How to do this:

Trump has already made an important move, revising tax laws to encourage corporations to repatriate offshore funds.

But more needs to be done to create a level playing field.

Stop currency manipulation and theft of technology by developing countries, especially China. Trump has also signaled his intention to tackle this thorny issue.

Repatriating offshore manufacturing and jobs is a much more difficult task. You can’t just pack a factory in a box and ship it home. There is also the matter of lost skills in the local workforce. But manufacturing jobs are being lost globally at an alarming rate to new technology. In the long-term, offshore manufacturing plants will be made obsolete and replaced by new automated, high-tech manufacturing facilities. Incentives need to be created to encourage new capital formation, especially high-tech manufacturing, at home.

Stock buybacks, I suspect, will always be around. But remove the incentive to boost stock prices by targeting the structure of executive bonuses. It would be difficult to isolate benefits from stock buybacks and tax them directly. But removing tax on dividends — in my opinion far simpler and more effective than the dividend imputation system in Australia — would remove the incentive for stock buybacks and make it difficult for management to justify this action to investors.

We already seem to be moving in the right direction. The last two points are relatively easy when compared to the first two. If Donald Trump manages to pull them (the first two) off, he will already move sharply upward in my estimation.

Judge a tree by the fruit it bears.

~ Matthew 7:15–20

Investment the key to growth

Elliot Clarke at Westpac recently highlighted the importance of investment in sustaining economic growth:

The importance of sustained investment in an economy cannot be understated. Done well, investment in real capacity begets greater production volume and employment as well as a productivity dividend. Its absence in recent years is a key factor behind sustained soft wage inflation and the US economy’s inability to consistently grow at an above-trend pace despite the economy being at full-employment and household balance sheets having more than fully recovered post GFC.

The graph below highlights declining US investment in new equipment post GFC.

S&P 500

source: Westpac

There are three factors that may influence this:

  1. Accelerated tax depreciation allowances after the GFC encouraged companies to bring forward capital spending in order to stimulate the recovery. But the 2010 to 2012 surge is followed by a later trough when the intended capital expenditure was originally planned to have taken place.
  2. Low growth in personal consumption, especially of non-durable goods and of services, would discourage further capital investment.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

  1. The level of stock buybacks increased as companies sought alternative measures to sustain earnings (per share) growth. The graph below shows debt issuance has soared while net equity issuance remains consistently negative.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

source: Westpac

Net capital formation (the increase in physical assets owned by nonfinancial corporations) declined between 2015 and 2017. While this is partly attributable to the falling oil price curtailing investment in the Energy sector, continuation of the decline would spell long-term trouble for the economy.

US Net Capital Formation

The cycle becomes self-reinforcing. Low growth in personal consumption leads to low levels of capital investment ….which in turn leads to low employment growth…..leading to further low growth in personal consumption.

Major infrastructure investment is needed to break the cycle. In effect you need to “prime the pump” in order to create a new virtuous cycle, with higher investment leading to higher growth.

It is obviously important that infrastructure investment target productive assets, that generate income, else taxpayers are left with increased debt and no income to service it. Or assets that can be sold to repay the debt. But the importance of infrastructure investment should be evident to both sides of politics and any attempt to obstruct or delay this would be putting political ahead of national interests.

Australia

Australia is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Business Investment

source: RBA

If we examine the components of business investment, it is not just Engineering that has fallen. Investment in Machinery & Equipment has been declining for the last decade. And now Building Investment is also starting to slow.

Australia: Components of Business Investment

source: RBA

You’ve got to prime the pump…. You’ve got to put something in before you can get anything out.

~ Zig Ziglar

Stock buybacks: Short-term gain, long-term pain

Companies are maintaining stock buybacks and dividends payouts despite falling earnings. Combined buybacks and dividend payouts for S&P 500 corporations exceeded earnings by an estimated $572 billion for 2015.

The chart below illustrates how stock buybacks, for S&P 500 stocks, have grown to exceed dividend payouts. The combined figure now exceeds earnings, leaving nothing for investment. The only way to make up the shortfall is to raise debt.

S&P 500 Stock Buybacks and Dividends compared to Earnings

Private nonresidential fixed investment (which excludes inventory increases) is declining as a percentage of GDP.

Fixed Investment

And corporate debt is rising relative to profits.

Nonfinancial Corporate Debt v Profits

But rising debt is not a recent development. Corporate debt has been growing since interest rates started to decline in the 1980s, doubling the corporate debt level as a percentage of GDP.

Nonfinancial Corporate Debt v 10-year Treasury Yields

Corporate profits have also grown dramatically, even when adjusted for inflation. But some of this increase is attributable to unsustainable low interest rates.

Corporate Profits in 2009 Dollars

And the more debt grows, the more unsustainable corporate profits become.

Corporate Profits / Debt

The graph above shows corporate profits as a percentage of corporate debt (excluding banks and other financial corporations). The lower the level, the greater the risk.

University of Massachusetts economics professor William Lazonick warned in 2014 that companies were forsaking new investment in favor of stock buybacks. His conclusion was that corporate executives are lining their own pockets:

“Corporate executives give several reasons …..But none of them has close to the explanatory power of this simple truth: Stock-based instruments make up the majority of their pay, and in the short term buybacks drive up stock prices.”