Future Trading Conditions for Energy Market Becoming More Difficult

Posted 4 August 2018 by Richard Gardiner

Until now, articles on the Total Utilities website have always been of direct relevance to the utility markets where we have operated since 1999.

In this case, we have included Jonathan Eriksen’s latest quarterly investment commentary below because it puts in wider New Zealand and global context the macroeconomic trading conditions that impact directly and indirectly on the utility providers in New Zealand.

I have an economics background and have known Jonathan since I emigrated to New Zealand 25 years ago. He is one of the leading actuaries in the country and his independent investment advice track record is second to none in my opinion.

The relevance of this advice to future trading conditions in the local ‘energy’ sector is very clear cut. Global energy market trading conditions are becoming more difficult due to well-publicised political factors including but not limited to the ebbs and flows of the Donald Trump Presidency. The New Zealand dollar exchange is weakening versus the major currencies overseas. We have a small, remote niche economy which has nonetheless been consistently successful over the past 20 years.

Focusing on the Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) side of ‘energy’, we have an energy source which is non-renewable but which is far ‘cleaner’ than other non-renewables like coal and diesel. Global demand for LPG is growing. There is a great opportunity for LPG to replace coal and diesel locally during the coming 30 year period. However the Government’s recent ill-advised (in my view) prohibition on all new offshore oil and gas exploration will inevitably constrain future local LPG supplies and hence force us to import more. This in turn will increase the proportion of imported LPG (particularly in winter) and hence increase our exposure to LPG price hikes driven by global political and economic forces in general and the Saudi Aramco Index in particular.

Investment Returns

The NZ Consumer Price Index rose to 1.5% for the one year to 30 June 2018. This was mainly driven by housing, construction, and food price increases. Inflation over the past ten years fell slightly to 1.6% p.a.

A number of funds within the Aon Master Trust were added over the quarter, raising FUM by $45 million. Total Master Trust FUM increased by $280 million over the quarter. Funds with a higher proportion of growth style assets (eg shares and property) had the best investment returns for the year to 30 June 2018.

The one year weighted average return for all Master Trust Growth funds was 10.6%; Balanced funds 8.1%; and Conservative funds 5.0%. Single Sector Aggressive funds returned 12.0% over the past year on a weighted average basis, while Defensive funds returned 1.8%.

Economic Commentary

The Trump administration demands to end all imports of Iranian oil have put pressure on prices as some key buyers, namely India, South Korea and Turkey look to source oil from elsewhere. The effects of the restricted supply pool are evident with oil prices still rising. However, it is unlikely that major importers will be able to switch suppliers entirely – at least by the proposed deadline of November.

Here in New Zealand, we are seeing our dollar depreciate. International trade uncertainty is one catalyst of this. During times of uncertainty, demand for riskier assets diminishes and the Kiwi dollar is viewed as a relatively ‘risky’ currency compared to many larger economies with more liquidity in their currency market from more transactions. This month, Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr released a statement that the OCR would remain unchanged at 1.75%. Also given acceptable inflation and employment levels, we can expect growth-supportive monetary policy for some time.

The effects of oil prices, petrol taxes and a weaker currency will flow through to domestic prices. CPI inflation is expected to rise to meet the target midpoint of 2%. However, escalating trade tensions between the US and China are beginning to give investors cause for concern as they could lead to even higher inflation disrupting the global economy. Energy market players are looking at rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve to quell this inflationary pressure. The ripple effect will eventually hit us, resulting in the RBNZ raising the OCR.

The expectation of higher short-term interest rates is supported by the US 10-2 yield spread curve which is at its lowest point since the 2008 recession. Bond investors are becoming increasingly more comfortable accepting lower yields for longer-term bonds. Historically, significant troughs in the yield spread have been followed by an economic slowdown. This was the case in both 2001 and 2007 (although it is not always the case).

The past does not always offer accurate predictions of the future, but there is some evidence in support of less optimistic economic forecasts going forward. The changes in investor sentiment and outlook over this calendar year are particularly relevant.

Last year the world enjoyed synchronised growth, low inflation and stable low interest rates which supported economic expansion. Oil prices below $60 a barrel was considered sustainable and reasonable.

This year the price of Brent Crude has reached $75 a barrel, interest rates in the US are projected to continue to rise steadily and inflation is starting to rise. This is worsened by the beginning of trade wars which can only increase consumers costs. They also raise geopolitical tensions and may derail global trade.

In this current climate of low interest rates and weaker currency in Australia and New Zealand, overseas buyers have pushed up share prices. Our equity market offers attractive dividend yields at relatively lower price to earnings ratios. In other words, you get more bang for your buck. The inflow of foreign capital will help companies grow while people are buying. Conversely, it would be potentially harmful to equity markets should they sell their positions. However domestic inflows from the SGC (compulsory Super in Australia) and KiwiSaver are also supporting local markets.

KiwiSaver

Over the past few years funds with a higher proportion of shares and property have seen some stellar returns. This has led to a number of investors who are invested in the more conservatively invested funds to ask: why their returns are so much poorer in comparison; and whether they should switch to a more aggressive style fund to begin reaping these same rewards. Our response is this: hindsight is a wonderful thing! We suggest to investors who have invested more prudently over the past few years to avoid a switch to growth options now. There would be nothing worse than jumping into a fund with a riskier asset allocation profile, after years of investing cautiously, to find that the markets take a dive just as they make the switch. After 30 years of falling interest rates and almost a decade of rising stock markets a correction will certainly happen. The only question is whether it’s this year or next?

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