In a volatile market, it’s vital to be disciplined about what you want to own, the price you want to pay and what you think it’s going to be worth in a few years.

Investors are asking if this reporting season will make or break the extraordinary Australian sharemarket rally that started in late March. This August holds a greater degree of importance compared to previous years – the visibility of companies’ earnings outlook has deteriorated and, with it, the dispersion of market estimates has widened considerably.Compounding this scenario is an uncertain macroeconomic environment buffeted by a stop-start recovery.

The first half of 2020 has been unexpected, to say the least. Outlook scenarios turned obsolete quickly with the rapid spread of COVID-19, evolving public and health policies and a nascent new business cycle emerging from the economic trough. Some economy-sensitive segments of the market have begun to participate in the initial rebound but others are struggling to recover. It’s hard to hang a hat on which sectors or companies will ultimately seize leadership as the recovery takes hold.

Compared to previous years, financial guidance from companies will be less forthcoming, leading to large dispersions in analysts’ estimates for the 2021 financial year. Companies’ cash flows will be distorted by provisions for bad debts, inventory and working capital build-ups. Against this backdrop, companies that demonstrate visibility in earnings growth, strong cash flow conversion, robust balance sheets and management adaptability to change will be bid up.

In the near term, there are several observable trends that are worth highlighting.

Stay at home: E-commerce has exploded on the back of stay-at-home requirements and fiscal stimulus support. Online stores such as Kogan and Temple & Webster have clearly benefited. Some traditional retailers have been able to adapt well, including JB Hi-Fi, shoe retailer Accent Group and homeware retailer Beacon Lighting and Adairs. Enablers of the transition to online such as data centre operators NextDC and Macquarie Telecom have also seen demand soar. Finally, sustained demand for at-home dining will likely prolong the unprecedented demand for supermarket goods.

Reopening: Investors will be questioning the sustainability of stay-at-home trends as the economy re-opens. However, re-opening trends are uneven due to renewed efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in states where cases have surged. This makes the longevity of stay-at-home trends difficult to predict. Offshore experience clearly indicates stay-at-home demand will decelerate as pent-up demand fades and supply issues are ironed out as re-opening kicks in.

Sectors struggling to recover: Challenges continue to confront transport, tourism and media stocks as regional resurgences of COVID-19 keep demand trends uncertain. Any share price re-rating for these sectors will depend on the length of hibernation affecting operating outlooks and, in the case of toll roads and airports, the prospect of dividends resumption.

Management adaptability: Companies such as Alliance Aviation, City Chic and Perpetual have taken the opportunity to improve their market positions through acquisitions. This trend will continue to feature prominently as the management of a number of Australian companies turn opportunistic. In other cases, we expect companies to lean on self-help strategies through cost-containment plans to help them through a softer demand environment.

The August reporting season will not offer a silver bullet to the question of market direction. Let’s be clear: it’s a challenge to conceive a six- to 12-month outlook in the middle of a global pandemic when part of the answer will depend on evolving public and health policies.

As a base-case scenario, we expect the nascent economic recovery to continue in the second half of 2020. The recovery will be slow and pace uneven but will be assisted by additional fiscal and monetary support. However, views can shift meaningfully and quickly around a variety of factors affecting the macro environment – in particular, a meaningful change in the health outlook for COVID-19 that leads to a return to the normalisation of consumer behaviour offers the greatest upside to markets.

In such a volatile market, and where liquidity may be amplified both up and down, it’s important to be disciplined about what you want to own, the price you want to pay for it and what you think it’s going to be worth in two or three years.

ST Wong is the chief investment officer of Prime Value Asset Management.

Click here to read the article: Reporting season wont define market direction – ST Wong

Source – Australian Financial Review 

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