It’s time to fire up the interneuronal connections and carve out 10 big ideas for 2016.
My first offering is that Australia will likely become an Asian nation in its ethnic orientation. Apologies to the xenophobes, but it’s happening under your nose. An incredible 28 per cent of Australia’s population (or 6.6 million people) were born overseas – the highest in 120 years. During the last census a remarkable 12 per cent of Australians said they had Asian ancestry.
In Sydney and Melbourne, 19 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, of residents are Asian. In Sydney regions like Parramatta and Ryde, the Asian share of the population is as high as 34 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. China and India have overtaken the UK as Australia’s biggest source of new migrants, collectively accounting for 35 per cent of the intake in 2013-14.
The idea of Australia stealthily yet ineluctably becoming an Asian nation is a big deal: it will reinforce our unique antipodal trading position and powerful role as a politically stable economic conduit between east and west; it will help improve our cultural commonalities with major regional actors like China, India and Indonesia (mitigating geopolitical hazards); and it should serve as a source of innovation, productivity and growth, just as the influx of ambitious European migrants did after World War II.
Idea number two is that the major banks’ returns on equity (RoEs) are inevitably going to fall from around 15 per cent towards their 11 per cent cost of equity as result of the banking system becoming a highly competitive and level playing field. While this process may take five years or more, it should mean that rather than trading at an unusually high two times book value, the majors will price at circa one times. If I’m right, there is much downside to current valuations, which is a proposition reinforced by analysts’ crazy forecasts that bad and doubtful debt charges will stay around 30-year lows.
In five years the majors will have ceded the competitive advantages that fuelled their world-beating RoEs. Rather than carrying 25 per cent more leverage than rivals, they will end up having less leverage and more equity capital in the funding mix. Combined with the fact that smaller banks tend not to source as much funding in the dearer wholesale bond markets – underwriting assets with cheaper deposits that are now a government-guaranteed (and more stable) funding source – I believe the majors will wind up having more expensive funding costs. In short, we will migrate to a system where the majors are much safer banks with reduced risks of failure, with the trade-off of lower returns on equity than competitors that have loftier leverage and lower funding costs. There should, therefore, be an economic role reversal between the big four and their rivals.
If the majors are going to become slow-moving, yet bullet-proof, utilities, a third idea is investors should look for superior returns from more fleet-footed alternatives that are not saddled with the financial baggage of being too-big-to-fail. One day we will eventually see another Nicholas Moore who creates a new Macquarie Bank with a much skinnier 50 per cent dividend payout ratio (compared to the majors’ 80 per cent pay-out policies) that retains earnings to support investments in innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities. Macquarie has done a fabulous job of continuously reinventing itself to maintain growth and studiously avoided allocating too much capital to competing in the majors’ commodity markets.
On this note, the majors will likely lose significant market share in home loans to regional banks that for the first time will be able to compete effectively with them on price without crushing their returns. Rather than being price setters, the majors will become price takers and have to give back the recent rate hikes they have foisted on borrowers to compensate for expanding equity funding costs or suffer market share losses.