Western companies have buybacks that only reward shareholders here and now; the East actually spends capex to invest into the future. Case in point: today's "holy grail" gas deal announcement, which in addition to generation hundreds of billions in externalities for both countries over the next three decades will result in an immediate and accretive boost to GDP, to the tune of $55 billion for Russia and $20 billion for Beijing.
Russia will invest $55 billion in gas exploration and pipeline construction to China, while Beijing will give roughly $20 bln to Moscow as part of the 30-year gas supply agreement, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.
And incidentally we are not joking when we say that the New Normal is one in which the west spends on buybacks while the east spends on growth. Here is Goldman explaining just this back in february.
Economic recovery should equal a capex recovery; that is indeed one of the key defining characteristics of the recovery phase of a business cycle. Yet we believe that “this time will be different”, certainly for developed market-based companies. Why? A combination of structural, cyclical and technological changes suggest to us that the need for capex will be lower going forward, one of the key reasons why we are cautious on capital goods.
Things are getting smaller, faster, lighter…
Ceteris paribus you need a big machine to make a big and heavy widget and a small machine to make a small and light widget; and a big machine generally demands a bigger investment than a small one. This may seem trivial, but as miniaturisation gathers pace you need less powerful motors, less space, a smaller truck to transport it around, less material to build it and much more – all with negative implications across the capex chain. In conjunction with miniaturisation machines are getting faster. A robot today can make more widgets than it could yesterday.
…until they disappear all together
The lightest and smallest widgets of them all are the ones that are now entirely virtual. As recently as the last up-cycle in 2003-2006, some companies invested capex building plants that made CDs, DVDs, video games, sat navs, maps, time tables and much more, that we now largely use our smartphones/tablets for. While capex will continue to be invested to produce our smart phones/tablets, it is difficult to envisage how it will compensate for the increasing number of goods that are becoming virtual.
Capex will be spent elsewhere…in Asia
While all capex counts, the capex we typically focus on is the that spent by listed companies in general, and listed DM companies in particular. However, the global supply chain looks very different today than it did only 10 year ago. Everything from electric components to steel is being sourced from non-DM companies, often not listed, and many of them based in China and other parts of Asia. This trend is particularly strong within tech, where Asian companies dominate the capex-intensive part of the value chain. However, myriad small Asian companies play an important part in the supply chain of many non-tech DM companies. And often, the part of the value chain that is being outsourced is the most capex-intensive part, such as producing raw materials or semiconductors, reducing both the cyclicality and the need for capex by DM-listed companies.
…and by states and private companies
The Chinese State Grid Corporation spent c.US$60 bn in 2012 and China Railway Corporation spent over US$100 bn. To put this into context, the 2,200 European non-resource companies GS covers spent in aggregate €250 bn. Over the last decade, FAI has increased by a factor of 2.5x in EMs while it has increased by only 10% in DMs. This has increased the proportion of capex spent by SOEs in a number of industries such as resources, transport and power generation and T&D. All capex counts, but this capex will not show up in the cash flow statements of the companies in our coverage, and we expect a declining slice to show up in the P&Ls of our capital goods coverage.
Too much was spent in the last up-cycle
The last cycle saw many booming end-markets: mining, power generation, shipping, O&G and Chinese construction among many growing 3x+. We do not expect this up-cycle to contain any booms, and see several of the preceding end-markets continuing (or entering) multi-year declines. At the core of our view is the long asset life of many of the capital goods sold into the booming end-markets of the last decade. This lends itself to multi-decade investment cycles. The 20-year decline in transmission and power generation capex in the US (early 1970s to late 1990s) provides a sobering example. We now believe that several end-markets are close to, or past, their peak. Of the five mentioned above, it is only O&G where we still expect growth, albeit at a substantially lower level.