Financial Foundations

Spring 2018

 

September is upon us and spring is in the air. Our farmers and firefighters will be hoping for some soaking rain to ease the drought and ward off bushfires. Meanwhile, AFL and NRL fans will be hoping the sun shines on their team this finals season.

Economic news was overshadowed by political instability in August, culminating in Scott Morrison being sworn in as Australia’s 6th Prime Minister in 11 years. Morrison is seen as a safe pair of hands economically, and consumer confidence rebounded after the vote. The ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence rating rose 2.1 per cent, its biggest lift in 11 weeks.

Elsewhere the economic signs are mixed. As the latest profit reporting season ends, over 60 per cent of ASX 200 companies lifted profits in the year to June while 93 per cent paid a dividend. The unemployment rate fell to 5.3 per cent in July, while wages growth lifted slightly to 2.1 per cent in the year to June. Offsetting this, national home values fell 1.6 per cent in the year to July according to CoreLogic, the biggest annual fall in 6 years. The Reserve Bank remains positive, noting in the minutes of its August board meeting that the economy is improving, and its next interest rate move would be up. But it sees ‘no strong case’ to lift interest rates in the near term.

The Australian dollar fell to around US73c in August, down more than 7 per cent this year. In contrast, Wall Street hit record highs in August following comments from the Federal Reserve that it will continue to lift rates gradually provided ‘strong growth in incomes and jobs continues’.

Plugging in to technology stocks

On August 2, Apple became the world’s first company to reach US$1 trillion in market value. It took 42 years to get there from humble beginnings in an LA garage, but a handful of younger technology companies collectively known as the FANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – are already nipping at its heels.

What do they have in common? All have used innovative technology to create new markets, often beginning with a single product or service. Think Apple’s early desktop computers, Amazon’s online book retailer, Netflix’s streaming service, Facebook’s social network and Google’s search engine.

According to Forbes magazine, these tech giants have become so much a part of everyday life that their products or services are regarded almost as utilities, as essential to modern living as power or water.i They have also used technology and digital transformation to redefine customer experience in a way that is leaving traditional companies behind.

While their products and services may be cutting edge, their investment appeal is old school. Legendary investor Warren Buffett has been a major Apple shareholder for some time. He is known to look for stocks with reliable, long-term earnings at an attractive price with a strong ‘moat’. A moat might be a brand name, key products or high barriers to exit. Switch your iPhone for another brand for example, and you lose your iTunes music library and countless apps you downloaded.

China unleashes BATs

While Apple and the FANGs are US-based, they face stiff competition in the global tech stakes from China’s BATs. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent may not be household names in Australia, but they deserve to be on investors’ radar because they are a dominant market force not just in China but increasingly elsewhere as well.

Hong Kong-listed Tencent Holdings is known as China’s equivalent of Facebook. Tencent was the first Asian company to reach the US$500 billion stock market valuation mark. It’s WeChat social media platform recently reached an eye-popping one billion members and it’s also involved in online gaming, music, e-commerce and smartphones.

Alibaba (China’s Amazon plus eBay) is the world’s biggest retailer. It’s New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) listing in 2014 was the world’s biggest and this year it became the second Asian company to be valued at more than US$500 billion.

Baidu (China’s Google) is the second most widely used search engine in the world. It’s also moving into mapping, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. And these are just the biggest of many emerging Chinese tech stocks.

Opportunities and challenges

The tech giants are also beginning to expand into new business areas such as cloud storage, music and video streaming. Some are also growing by acquisition, with Facebook buying What’s App and Microsoft buying LinkedIn.

Yet big does not necessarily deliver success. Facebook’s share price recently fell 19 per cent in a day. The sell-off was due partly to concerns about the company’s ability to deal with privacy issues, but also to a flattening out of user numbers. China’s BATs also face challenges from the worsening trade dispute with the US.

So how can Australian investors participate in the dynamic technology sector without getting burnt?

Getting down to business

Diversification is the key to investing in the world’s leading tech stocks, while minimising the risk of individual companies performing poorly. The simplest way to gain exposure is via a traditional managed fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF) which can be bought and sold on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) like individual shares.

For the broadest exposure there are global technology funds. A popular way to access the FANGs plus Apple, Microsoft and others is to choose a fund that tracks the Nasdaq 100 Index. Although the US-based Nasdaq exchange is home to a wide range of companies, it is well known for tech stocks.

Tech companies are often seen as exciting, but investors would do well to follow Buffett’s lead and make sure that the fundamentals are sound, looking at their financial health and ability to deliver sustainable returns. If you would like to talk about your investment strategy, give us a call.

i ‘Apple and the rise of the trillion dollar firm’, 6 August 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dantedisparte/2018/08/06/apple-and-the-rise-of-the-trillion-dollar-firm/#6eecde0c631d