Monday, June 6, 2011

The Big Picture

Recently both the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) and the Bank of Canada described the economic picture as “unusually uncertain.” And this was before the unrest in the Middle East and Africa and before the devastating development in Japan. Add to this scenario the recent downgrading of Spain and Portugal by Moody’s, and you have a world that is even more uncertain than “unusually uncertain.”

If the real measure of intelligence is what you do when you don’t know what to do, then the next few months will test the economic IQ of both the Fed and the Bank of Canada. Given the increased uncertainty, it is reasonable to assume that both banks will be extremely conservative when it comes to monetary policy.

While short-term volatility will continue to influence markets in the near term, the focus should be on the big picture, which is much more predictable. And this big picture is changing. The great recession gave birth to a dramatic shift in the engines of economic growth in North America, and any successful investment strategy must incorporate this information.

The near 3% growth rate projected for gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011 masks the dynamics of powerful economic forces pulling in different directions. A vibrant business sector will gradually take over an exhausted consumer and restrained government.

Government spending was a buffer for economic activity during the downturn, but with ongoing gains in business activity, the coming years should see the government hand the reins of growth back to the private sector. Significant reductions in spending will come by late 2011, when infrastructure stimulus projects wrap up. Additional cuts to program spending should see compensation expenses drop on wage restraint, employment attrition and select job cuts.

On the other side of the scale, corporate Canada is doing much better. By any measure, the current recovery in capital spending is impressive. The rate of return on capital employed is back to its mid-2008 level, and despite the surge in investment, corporate Canada’s cash position is at a record high (in relation to both equity and sales). Large corporations can still raise funds relatively cheaply, and cash-starved small- and mid-sized firms can now borrow more easily, with overall credit outstanding to this sector starting to show signs of life after being in negative territory for the past two years.

In fact, the manufacturing sector is already positioned to start expanding — with its current capacity utilization reading of 81%, it stands above its long-term average and a record six points above that of the rest of the economy. The last time the utilization gap approached this level was in 1995, and manufacturing investment advanced by an average annual rate of more than 10% for the following three years. With relatively elevated capacity use and rates of return on capital employed in the manufacturing sector approaching a 10-year high, look for business investment in manufacturing to rise strongly in 2011, joining the upswing in western oil sands projects.

While current economic uncertainty will continue to influence markets and lead to sharp swings in commodity prices and related equities, the new mix clearly suggests that investors should focus on the improving the conditions of corporate Canada, in general, and the manufacturing sector, in particular. With supply-chain opportunities arising south of the border as a result of the U.S. manufacturing sector’s increased exposure to emerging markets, look for growing opportunities for high-end Canadian exporters in the coming years with positive implications for their valuations.

Another opportunity in this environment is the dividend-paying segment of the market. The recent increase in risk aversion will benefit this sector directly, as it tends to attract conservative money, and indirectly as increased uncertainty will limit any potential upward pressure on interest rates