Rudi’s View: Quality Reigns, And How To Identify It

Always an independent thinker, Rudi has not shied away from making big out-of-consensus predictions that proved accurate later on. When Rio Tinto shares surged above $120 he wrote investors should sell. In mid-2008 he warned investors not to hold on to equities in oil producers. In August 2008 he predicted the largest sell-off in commodities stocks was about to follow. In 2009 he suggested Australian banks were an excellent buy. Between 2011 and 2015 Rudi consistently maintained investors were better off avoiding exposure to commodities and to commodities stocks. Post GFC, he dedicated his research to finding All-Weather Performers. See also "All-Weather Performers" on this website, as well as the Special Reports section.

Rudi's View | May 01 2024

In this week's Weekly Insights:

-Quality Reigns, And How To Identify It
-Macquarie's ASX Quality Compounders

By Rudi Filapek-Vandyck, Editor

Quality Reigns, And How To Identify It

I used to think investors' biggest challenge was related to a cheaper share price not always presenting a better opportunity, or that built-in urge we all have to be part of the next share market rally -FOMO! by any other name- but as my experiences grow, and my daily observations accumulate, I am now of the view the biggest challenge is coping with change.

Given we are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime period of innovative disruptions and technological breakthroughs, adapting to change may well become the all-important factor that separates the Winners from Losers, both in the real economy as among listed equities, but equally so for those investing in them.

GenAI and GLP-1s are now on everyone's radar given a strong presence among share market winners, but very few are equally aware about the small revolution that has taken place over the past two decades in terms of how to 'value' those companies and their brethren operating in cybersecurity, online retailing, and capital-light software and technology services generally.

Admittedly, in a market dominated by banks and resources companies, and with a large swathe of investors solely focused on franked dividends, there's never been too much urgency to catch up on modern day methodologies to value young-and-upcoming, fresh, modern-day business models. But even the ASX is changing noticeably.

According to my quick analysis, six of the ASX Top20 companies are now consistently trading on above-average PE ratios, while that number grows to eleven if I expand the focus to the ASX50.

The local market's sweet spot, companies ranked between 51 and 100 on market cap, offers plenty of growth achievers on higher multiples that look poised to develop into potential ASX50 members in the decade ahead.

But the likes of Car Group ((CAR)), Pro Medicus ((PME)), WiseTech Global ((WTC)) and Xero ((XRO)) do not only provide investors the opportunity to outperform the local benchmark, their ascendancy is also impacting on traditional measurements to determine whether the local share market as a whole is 'expensive' or not.

Simply put: drawing a straightforward comparison with how the index traded in the past should no longer cut it, if ever that was the case given BHP Group's ((BHP)) heavy weighting today.

Even if we ignore the counter-cyclical PE formation for Australia's largest index weight (high in downturns, low when the sun shines), the elevation of the likes of CSL ((CSL)), Goodman Group ((GMG)), Macquarie Group ((MQG)) et al means the average PE ratio for the Australian share market has by default increased vis a vis the lower references from the past.

So where exactly is today's 'equilibrium' in between undervalued and overheated? Since no such research has been conducted to date (not to my knowledge), we do not know the answer, other than it will be higher than the market's long-term average which is usually placed below 15x times forward earnings per share (EPS) projections.

The current average has already been impacted as the prior corresponding average was long quoted as 14.4x previously. My 'hunch' is today's number might be closer to 16x. Post August weakness, and the recent return of buyers, the average PE ratio for the ASX200 is now a smidgen above 16x.

My 'hunch' might not be too far off, or so it seems. Early conclusion: don't jump to the 'market is overheated' conclusion too quickly; the past does not offer apples with apples comparison (at least not on this widely used market valuation metric).

The same principle also applies to overseas indices, of course.

Value Versus Quality

A much more important change has taken place for investors' ability to identify winners and losers on the market. Still, the large majority thinks of low PEs when looking for opportunities, but there's a growing mountain of evidence suggesting low PEs have no predictive powers when attempting to find tomorrow's winners (beyond that brief rally).

Instead, achieving oversized investment returns over the past decade or so has been closely linked to High PE achievers such as the ones mentioned earlier. So, are we experiencing the next bubble waiting to burst? Is the late Benjamin Graham ringing alarm bells from his grave?

Hardly. Today's scholars will tell us the legendary Graham was much more flexible than his value-seeking disciples tend to be. What usually is ignored when investors base their investment philosophy on the principles explained and documented in The Intelligent Investor is that Graham never simply focused on buying 'cheap' assets - he'd also apply a quality filter.

'Quality', rather than 'Growth' or 'Value', has increasingly captured institutional investors' attention amidst changing market dynamics. There's one easily identifiable reason for this: those portfolios that own a variety of high PE achievers, be they on the ASX or on Wall Street, have significantly outperformed portfolios that stuck with AMP Ltd ((AMP)), Healius ((HLS)), Aurizon Holdings ((AZJ)) and other low PE 'value' opportunities.

Yes, indeed, share market dynamics have changed, posing enormous challenges for those investors not willing or unable to adapt. That sound you're hearing in the background is from Charles Darwin's grave.

The discovery of 'Quality' as a major defining factor has not happened overnight. Most indices and data providers, including MSCI and S&P, have compiled their own indices and stock selections representing 'Quality' and in most cases the outperformance of Quality over broader benchmarks looks pretty straightforward.

As we're talking about stocks trading on above-average PE ratios, times of significant bond yield resets are not favourable, but outside of 2022 and comparable periods, Quality indices typically outperform during tough times, either economically or because of elevated risks, and during times when 'Growth' outperforms 'Value', when 'Momentum' trades dominate, and when bond yields embark on a downtrend.

Most importantly; unlike 'Value' and 'Growth' which each tend to have specific periods of (out)performance, Quality works under most circumstances, most of the times. It's not difficult to see the attraction for investment portfolios that like to stay with the winners and avoid as much as possible the losers, without having to churn excessively.

The problem is, however, there is no universal concept or definition of what defines a Quality company, as also illustrated by the observation that all Quality indices and selections available are based on different filters and methodologies.

The full story is for FNArena subscribers only. To read the full story plus enjoy a free two-week trial to our service SIGN UP HERE

If you already had your free trial, why not join as a paying subscriber? CLICK HERE