COVID-19 Impact on the Australian Capital Markets with Thomas Lambeth & Simon Ondaatje

Thomas Lambeth and Simon Ondaatje of Australia’s VP Capital discuss the current state of the Australian economy as it relates to COVID-19.
Thomas Lambeth and Simon Ondaatje of Australia’s VP Capital discuss the current state of the Australian economy as it relates to COVID-19. China has played a large role in the uncertainty within Australia’s capital markets due to their large interest in Australian commodities. Despite this, Lambeth, as well as many economists, believe that the Australian economy will return to economic stability within the next three years.

Contrary to what the economic impact of COVID-19 may lead you to believe, the country has experienced relatively low infection rates and the health care system has yet to become overwhelmed as we have seen in many countries worldwide. Their neighbor, New Zealand, has successfully flattened the curve, striking hope in Ondaatje for his own nations ability to weather the COVID-19 storm.

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Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we’re joined by Thomas Lambeth and Simon Ondaatje from VP Capital based in Melbourne, Australia talking to us today about the impact coronavirus has had on the capital markets in Australia. This is Non-Beta Alpha.

                                           Tom, Simon, welcome to the show. How are you guys?

Simon Ondaatje:             We’re doing fine, thank you, Ryan. And we’re based in Melbourne, Australia and Melbourne, Australia happens to be, I suppose, an island now that is coming out of the deepest lockdown. Not quite clear of it, of course, but coming out of lockdown, and so things are on the improve here. But we’re doing well, thank you, Ryan.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, gents, we’d love to hear your opinions on how Australia is doing, how the government has been reacting, and what the markets are doing down there, and what your view is from Australia over the horizon to your neighbors in China and the global markets. So Tom, would love to hear some of your opinions.

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah, sure. Look from a… Thanks for having us on Ryan and Ramon. I think from a coronavirus standpoint, Australia has held up relatively well. Our infection rate is low, our healthcare system hasn’t been swamped yet, and we pray that that remains the case. If there is a second or third wave, as many epidemiologists to predicting, then that may change, but as of early May, 2020, we are okay relative to the rest of the world.

                                           I think from an economic standpoint, it’s a different story. As you would be seeing over there in the United States, the shutdown of our economy has meant a material impact on people’s livelihoods. And you’re starting to see that across many sectors. Certainly travel, leisure, consumer discretionary. Australia, and particularly Melbourne, has a very vibrant restaurant culture, as does much of the East coast of the US, and that’s been smashed, to put it frankly. There are many people who are working in the industry and obviously, many of them are on casual [inaudible 00:02:46] employment contracts, and it’s sad to see that that’s the case, that those people lose their jobs and their livelihoods. So from an economic standpoint, it’s tough. Numbers wise, I’ve seen estimates of a double digit decline in GDP, on an annualized basis as the worst case, and then the best case of a single digit decline. Let’s see where it ends up.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. I mean, Goldman Sachs came out in a comment last week that their head economists thought global GDP was going to be down 17%. But in the sequential quarter, it’s going to start to look like there’s high growth rates, but they’re extrapolating that from the Chinese data that they were able to get out of the Q1 shutdown. And they were down 25% in Q1 and they had much more rigid regime of lockdown than I think the West had. But do you guys feel that the growth of the virus, and the transmission, has been arrested in terms of the policies that were put in place from a social distancing standpoint?

Tom Lambeth:                 Look, I think the government’s done relatively well. I think we weren’t as early as maybe some countries, but the response was not quite Communist Party of China-esque in its policy, but it was, I guess, erring on the side of more authoritarian rather than less. And I think in these times, that appears to have worked. Certainly worked in massaging the numbers down to almost zero new infections on a daily rate. So from that standpoint it’s worked. Now, time will tell to say whether that’s sustainable or not, because at some point citizens have to come out and participate in the economy.

Ryan Morfin:                    And is it right, I thought I heard somewhere on the news in the last week or so that New Zealand’s claimed to have gotten rid of the virus on the island as well?

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah. Look, so New Zealand’s in a very similar boat to Australia, and both countries have adopted similar policies. New Zealand was earlier than us to be fair, and it seems to have worked in terms of flattening in the curve, so [inaudible 00:05:08] call it. I guess the real question in my mind is the sustainability of that policy. Six months from now, will that prove to be a wise decision? I’m not sold on that yet.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so it seems that Australia is looking to come back on a few weeks earlier than anticipated. Are you seeing a loosening up of the restrictions and people starting to go out and about, open up the economy?

Tom Lambeth:                 Look, we are. There’s some anecdotal evidence to suggests that traffic numbers in the CBD are up materially since the lows. 30, 40%. And that’s a good sign. I think driving around myself to sort of drop supplies to family, you kind of see an up-tick in traffic from where it was, say 30 days ago. But we haven’t seen that in the really beaten up sectors, like travel, leisure, discretionary retail. That hasn’t picked up as I understand it yet. I think consumers are deferring their spend in those sectors for the moment.

Ryan Morfin:                    You know, one thing that I noted this week in the news cycle is that a Prime Minister Morrison has been really taking a lead role from the West’s perspective at really dogging China for their response, I guess, or lack thereof of warning everybody. And I saw that there were some articles out there about state-owned enterprise property companies in Australia, having employees in Australia, gather up PPE early January, February, and shipping it back to China, which really should have stayed in Australia, had they shared the data. What is the public sentiment in Australia about this and kind of how has the politicians in Australia, what’s the rhetoric there on the ground?

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah. I mean, you raise a very difficult question for Australia from a GDP legal standpoint. I mean, how do we react here? Because I mean, Scott Morrison, I think rightly has called into question those kinds of practices and you’re absolutely right. That did happen. Now it’s a separate question as to whether sending supplies back to China was an ordinary business activity for [inaudible 00:07:38] companies anyway. And it is, by the way, mainly around the consumer end of the market. [inaudible 00:07:46] for instance, this is a very popular Australian [inaudible 00:07:49] China as consumers. But we’re talking about medical supplies here I understand, so it’s a different category all together.

                                           So I think we’ve got to be careful between making this [inaudible 00:08:03] and maybe responding to China, and China has increasingly become more nationalistic in its, I think, its approach with Australia. We need to be careful about how we manage it. I think public [inaudible 00:08:22] is I guess rising here against the Chinese Communist Party. We’ve kind of handled a crisis and particularly some of the information that has been disseminated globally around who’s to blame for the fires. So I think more broadly it’s on the move against China, and then things like, as you pointed out, these medical supplies example, don’t help at all with Australians view.

Ryan Morfin:                    And is the Australian economy, and I know that they’re a major trading partner for you all. Are the capital inflows, have they stopped over the last several months? Have they kind of grinded to a halt, or are you seeing a lot of buying opportunistically from China? I’ll give you an example of what happened in the US last week. There was a $1.3 billion distress energy company that was bought here in Texas by the Chinese company at a dirt cheap price. Have you seen trading activities slow down from China, and what’s the trading activity like historically between the two countries?

Tom Lambeth:                 It’s very high. So look, China makes up Australia’s biggest export partner, to be clear. And the answer is it depends on which sector you’re looking at. So the first thing is our treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, actually changed the foreign investment rules at the time of this virus I guess limit foreign nationals buying up companies in a similar way to you described in the United States. So that’s been stopped. So there are no opportunistic buys that can really occur of that scale.

                                           Separately, there’s… Australia’s a big commodity producer and exporter as you would know, and that hasn’t stopped. So iron ore has continuing to flow out of the country into China and so is coal and copper and all the things you’d expect. But I guess the more discretionary elements of Chinese capital inflows have completely stopped, and that’s things like property acquisitions, company acquisitions, large scale agricultural landholding acquisitions. These things have basically stopped for now. Now at some point I expect them to return.

Ryan Morfin:                    And are there a lot of capital flows also into the ASX, the Australian Securities Exchange?

Tom Lambeth:                 Not in the same way that there are direct purchases. My experience, the ASX is heavily dominated by the super funds here, which are like our Canadian pension fund equivalents. But Chinese money hasn’t yet reached the point of speculating on the ASX in the same way that it’s speculated on on property and in other direct, I guess, ownership holdings in Australia.

Ryan Morfin:                    Interesting. And were there some policy changes recently about super fund withdrawals, people allowing or being allowed to change the rules so they can pull money out in this period?

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah. So the rules were changed to try and help ordinary Australians have access to their money so they can spend that money in the economy and obviously create a [inaudible 00:11:55] effect. But to give you an idea, it’s around $20,000 per person that you can withdraw from your super. And that’s expected to be a small impact on the market. I read that it’s around 1% of daily volume if everyone goes up and redeems $20,000 and that’s about it. Sorry, it’s one day’s worth of volume will be the impact on the market. So I don’t expect it to have a big movement, a big impact on where stocks go in the short term, but let’s see.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. And how have FX rates for the Aussie dollar been impacted through this?

Tom Lambeth:                 That’s been a roller coaster. So we’ve gone from 69 cents US all the way down to 55 within a few weeks, and that was in March. And now we’re back with sort of low to mid 60s [inaudible 00:13:06] so 64, 65 again. So, I mean, it’s been some of the most volatile FX trading that I’ve seen. It reminds me of 2009 and 2010 in a way. And I think that’s a very interesting question about where the… It’s more driven by the US dollar, I believe, but it seems to be a relationship of high equity market, low US dollar, and that’s historically been the case. And when the US dollar runs, the equity market seems to tank, which is an interesting relationship, and there’s a number of reasons why I think that is. But the Aussie dollar I think will be governed by that in the short term.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, and it’s interesting. I think the countries that can get the consumer confidence back and short order without a lot of additional ripples or new transmissions I think are going to be the ones that have the out-performance in GDP. But how has this kind of, we’ll call it exogenous shock, changed your investment strategy or the way you’re looking at allocating capital to there?

Tom Lambeth:                 Ryan, it hasn’t changed the way we think about investments, but our portfolio is relatively balanced at the moment, so we have some shorts, we have some cash and we have longs. I think it’s always important to be net long through the cycle, because I think not being at net long just, you won’t make money. But we’ve I guess been a bit more opportunistic recently in some of the things we’ve been doing, and that would include looking for companies that we can buy with the cash balance greater than their market cap for instance. And there are opportunities like that, believe it or not.

                                           And each has a different reason why their cash is larger their market cap, but the key is to pick the ones that have the least worst reason, if that makes sense. There are opportunities as well to buy businesses that [inaudible 00:15:19] times earnings here in Australia, and it depends on what the business is. And again, that’s [inaudible 00:15:26], but that there are tremendous opportunities here in mining services and non-discretionary retail and then some of those sectors have been hit along with the rest of the sectors that I talked about: travel, leisure, discretionary retail. Unfairly so, in our opinion.

Ryan Morfin:                    One question on valuation here that we have is just trying to get a better forecast of earnings. This is second quarter earning season right now, and a lot of CFOs are coming out and really throwing their old forecasts in the garbage, and some companies aren’t even issuing guidance. Are you seeing a similar type of behavior from the reporting companies in Australia, and as an investor in this period, how do you look through the fog for good milestones on where value is?

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah, it’s a great question. Look, most companies have been okay at the disclosure. I think where it’s possible, they’ve come out and said, “Look, we’re impacted by COVID, and we’re not sure about the next three to six months, but here’s what we’ve done about it, and here’s how much we’re cutting our OPEX on an annualized basis by. Here’s our balance sheets. Here’s our liquidity runway.” You’re seeing businesses that I’m sure you would have heard of like Quantcast do that. Many of the airports have done that. Afterpay, which is a large Australian tech company expanding in the US currently has done that. Yeah, our biggest car sales company in retail, in Australia is, has done that. So I find actually as a fund manager, the disclosure on this in Australia hasn’t been too bad. It could be a lot worse in my opinion.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. The SEC’s making all the companies give a COVID statement in the coming earnings quarter, so it’s interesting to see just kind of the blanket responses that we’ve been getting, but is the banking sector healthy in your opinion in Australia today?

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah. I mean, the Morrison government has… The banking system in Australia is made up of four banks, and it’s somewhat of an oligopoly, many would say another arm of the government. And Morrison’s done a good job, I think, at perhaps using them as a sponge to soak up some of this, let’s call it, three to six month volatility in earnings in the real economy.

                                           And the banking system post-2009 has been relatively strong in Australia. We actually had a Royal commission not too long ago, a couple of years back. And that Royal commission tightened up a lot of the banks’ activities, but it also made recommendations to have, for instance, tighter capital rules and more of a buffering in their balance sheet, which we’re seeing now. So, one interesting thing is banks in Australia have allowed the average consumer to defer their loans for up to periods of six months, which is interesting. So no interest, no [inaudible 00:19:02], and it effectually becomes like a payment [inaudible 00:19:07] at the end of six months.

Ryan Morfin:                    And have you seen the retail industry start to pause rent payments to the landlords in the property sector?

Tom Lambeth:                 You’ve seen that, and that’s been a big dispute here. [inaudible 00:19:25] which is Westfield I think has been in the paper talking about it. You’ve had big retailers like Solomon Lu on the other side, and that’s certainly started to happen. So a company we’re invested in has also talked about this and we’re seeing deductions of 50 to a hundred percent. 50% over the medium term and a hundred percent in the short term, and they’re big numbers.

                                           And it’s going to be a tough spot for commercial landlords. I think it’s really tough. But then going back to your early question, that payout, I guess, has been funneled through the banking system, at least partially, because the banks stepping up as well, [inaudible 00:20:10] on the commercial loans or at least deferring. So it’s a matter of if every person along the line differs, where do you actually get to? That’s the big question. The buck’s got to stop somewhere. And my view is, it’s always been, it’s got to stop in the currency. The currency’s the ultimate sponge, because no one directly pays for it. We all share the costs, the inflationary costs, I suppose. And of course the government’s [crosstalk 00:20:41].

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. How has unemployment grown through this crisis? I know here we’re looking at, I mean, something as high as 15 to 20% is what people are forecasting for this year. Have people gone on furlough and been terminated, or have employers been able to carry the burden across the last few weeks?

Tom Lambeth:                 So our numbers are not as big as yours, but we’re talking in the order of five to 6%, and obviously growing. But whether we get to a 1991 recession, whether it’s 15, 20% unemployment remains to be seen. And again, I think that’s linked to whether we have a second wave and whether our policy of containment works in that environment. Employees I think have done the best they can. There’ve been government subsidies available to them. We have a job caper subsidy here in Australia which allows the employer to effectively get paid for keeping someone’s job. So there are benefits that the government’s handing out, and we expect to be in an enormous amount of public debt post this crisis. We went from basically having zero public debt to we’re looking at least 15% of GDP if not more over the course of the next one to two years, I think.

Ryan Morfin:                    Wow. Yeah, these debt-to-GDP levels in the West are starting to get very worrisome. Yeah, I’m just wondering if these unemployment levels that are going to be very high relative to historical norms are going to maybe dampen any of the inflation targets from central banks, but it seems like all the central banks have had the same playbook that just throwing the kitchen sink at the problem and saying liquidity will never run out, but at some point someone’s going to blink, I think.

Tom Lambeth:                 Yeah, that’s very much our view. I mean, the deflation that will be experienced in the short term I think is the bigger problem. We can have the money printing and the fiscal spending, but it doesn’t matter if the velocity’s zero, or at least the marginal velocity’s zero. A million times zero is still zero, so [inaudible 00:23:20] on where do we go? I think we get the inflation, but it may not be for the next 18 to 24 months post the crisis at least, and maybe post a return to consumer spending normality.

Ryan Morfin:                    No, it’s going to be a quagmire for the West trying to find the way to grow ourselves out of this, but I’m hoping that it bounces back. I mean, I think some of the early research coming out is saying, “U shaped curve is obtainable,” but yeah, everyone’s got a different shape of the U I guess. What are the economists in Australia saying? What do they expect? How long do they expect kind of this earnings recovery to take?

Tom Lambeth:                 Some are saying it’s L-shaped. Some are saying… You’ve got to a range of views, and also a range of views between sectors, might I add. So I think broadly, the economists expect somewhere between a U and a V. So it’s a nine to 12 month episode with the U, V kind of shape recovery afterwards. And that’s… Maybe it takes a bit longer to get back to a hundred percent of what we were. So that’s the mainstream view. And then within that, there are economists that work within particular sectors that have very bearish views. And I’ve heard the most bearishing in hotels, I think is something like three years and until a hundred percent of consumers bearing returns, which is understandable, but it’s certainly very bearish if you work in that industry.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. In the US, the hotel industry, they’re talking about 15% of hotel keys may not survive. They may go away. So it’s an interesting 18 to 24 month recovery curve is what they’re talking about. Which it’s going to be interesting to see who the winners and losers are, but there’s still new hotel development going on around the world. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that sector plays out. But I think retailers as well, yeah. I don’t see people running back to the mall. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe people are sick of being quarantined in their house, and so looking for any escape or way to spend money, but eCommerce has bounced pretty high in the last six weeks globally, and so I think it’s going to be an interesting question to see what happens if consumer patterns shift during this. Do you think it’s a short term blip on consumption patterns, or do you think there’s maybe some permanent changes as to how the consumer globally responds post COVID?

Tom Lambeth:                 Look, I think it’ll accelerate some areas of consumer spending, you’re right. I mean, no doubt online spending has to increase. And we’re invested in companies that have exposure to this, and you’re saying a hundred percent increases during this period in volume, which is just extraordinary. I would have never predicted such a rise in such a short amount of time with some of these online businesses, but part of that, it’s not sustainable. Part of that goes back to bricks and mortar and the ordinary way of doing things. But I suspect some of it is, as it will catalyze some consumer behavior patterns. And we think there’s still good value to be found in some of these companies, not withstanding [inaudible 00:27:11] the online players I’m talking about. So it’s an interesting point.

                                           Just on your earlier comment around when we can expect the consumer to rebound. From an Australian perspective, it’s worth noting that we have a very high private debt-to-GDP here. So much of it’s driven by residential property investment. And I think we’re something like 200% of GDP, which is just extraordinary. So, that will… Yes, interest rates are very low and probably going lower, but that will dictate to some extent how quickly spending and therefore philosophy review presumes and whether that’s habit. Certainly in this country, I think it might be. As Australians receive their payments from the government, I think most will do what they did in 2008, which was just to pay our debt.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, no, that’s interesting. I mean, governments and consumers are in an unusual financing environment where it’s typically really, really cheap right now to borrow debt and keep piling it on. And I think we’re starting to see municipalities and state governments run into problems, even with the cheap interest levels that are obtainable today in the debt financing markets. Have you seen a lot of companies going to the institutional, either bond or credit markets, to borrow money? I mean, the US, there’s been a run on high yield and investment grade debt, and it’s all getting cleared, which is, I mean, it’s interesting. What I envisioned would have been in the credit crisis here in the US, there’s been a huge issue, which I mean, record issuance of debt in the last six weeks. The debt capital markets open in Australia?

Tom Lambeth:                 They are. They are right. In Australia, we don’t have a massive primary and secondary debt capital market in the same way that you do in the United States. We don’t really have the equivalent of a US PP market. We have a very strong banking sector which writes most of the loans. That said, there are bonds and liquidity available that the companies use from time to time. We’ve seen one major deal, which was just a syndication of banks and investors effectively refinance a fleet of aircraft. So you’re seeing things like that. But what you’re getting at I think is happening more in the equity market here. Keep in mind, just to use the global financial crisis in an analogy again, in 2009, we had one of the largest years in equity capital market issuance in Australia and I think we’re on track to sort of equal that or beat that in 2020. And so [inaudible 00:30:25] going instead of debt, they’re going for heavily discounted equity market placements and [inaudible 00:30:31] which is an interesting way to make money in this market as well.

Ryan Morfin:                    And what are some of the silver linings that you see right now going forward for Australia and for the markets in general?

Tom Lambeth:                 Australia, I think with its exposure to commodities and China has the potential to rebound quickly. And I use the word potential cautiously for the reasons that I’ve discussed around the consumer and the dynamics around debt here. But if we can get out of this, it’ll be because we can restart the resources sector and perhaps restart’s the wrong word. We can go into another multi-year bull market, which is certainly possible. And that’s certainly what happened after the last crisis. So that’s what I’m pinning my hopes on. I think you wouldn’t bet the farm on that occurring straight away, and it’s obviously a function of Chinese stimulus. And from what I’m hearing over there, it’s not a good news, so we’re very much tied to China in many respects. We can talk about other sectors, but the reality is the majority of the Australian market’s resources.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, no, the Chinese industrial production has come back online, but only about two thirds of the way of what it was in January. So it’s still not fully corrected, but yeah, I think that’s right. I think if the Chinese market comes back on and they’re buying a lot of commodities, it should electrocute or jolt the Australian economy back, which will be good. Well, one final question for you, Tom. Any books of interest that you’re reading right now? Any research you’re doing that is noteworthy that you mind sharing with our viewers?

Tom Lambeth:                 Look, there’s lots of classics. I think, we’re probably [inaudible 00:32:42] in more of the value investing school, not just value, because we’re kind of broadly opportunistic as well. But rereading some of the old Warren Buffet letters obviously make sense in times like these. The patience that he had through the cycle to hold cash. I think he’s still holding cash now. I think it’s a great lesson to all investors. So, we’ve been doing that. Some of the old sixties, and seventies, and the eighties letters to shareholders is worth reading.

                                           From our point of view, we run a lot of numbers internally. And, I would say to investors who are looking at Australia, look at some of these mining services companies. I mean, some of the research that we’re doing, we’re meeting management and looking at the financials, but you can get these names on one to two times [inaudible 00:00:33:41], which is cheap. Now, whether you believe that that’s sustainable in the near term, but that’s a main [inaudible 00:33:51]. But if you’re patient, I think if you can make money, and that’s where the opportunity is in Australia, having talked about being a big resources economy.

Ryan Morfin:                    Fantastic. Well, Thomas and Simon, thank you guys for joining us. And we’d love to invite you guys back in a few weeks and kind of catch up to see where kind of the markets have taken us and how things are playing out. Thank you so much.

Tom Lambeth:                 Thanks, Ryan.

Simon Ondaatje:             Thank you, Ryan. Thanks everybody.

Ryan Morfin:                    Thanks for watching Non-Beta Alpha. And before we go, please remember to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcast or our YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha. Now you know.

Speaker 4:                        All price references and market forecast correspond to the date of this recording. This podcast should not be copied, distributed, published, or reproduced in whole, or in part. The information contained in this podcast does not constitute research or recommendation from Non-Beta Alpha Inc., Wentworth Management Services LLC, or any of their affiliates to the listener. Neither Non-Beta Alpha Inc., Wentworth Management Services LLC, nor any of their affiliates make any representation or warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements or any information contained in this podcast and any liability therefore including in respect of direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage is expressly disclaimed. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Non-Beta Alpha Inc. or Wentworth Management Services LLC, and Non-Beta Alpha Inc. and Wentworth Management Services LLC are not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. In addition, the receipt of this podcast by any listener is not to be taken as constituting the giving of investment advice by Non-Beta Alpha Inc. or Wentworth Management Services LLC to that listener nor to constitute such person a client of any affiliate of Non-Beta Alpha Inc. or Wentworth Management Services LLC.

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