Elections and the taper do not matter much. These two most significant ‘known unknowns’ in 2014, in our view, will have limited impact on the economy and earnings. We find no correlation of growth with government fragmentation or its colour, and that India should be relatively immune to the taper. Both events may drive volatility given set expectations around their impact, but the market should revert to the trend soon after.
*Broad macroeconomic trends to continue. We expect the divergence in fortunes of large-scale investments and middle-income consumption on one hand and low-income consumption on the other to continue. The investment cycle is unlikely to pick up anytime soon, and middle income consumption growth is likely to stay subdued until the formal economy recovers, or until the 7th Pay Commission becomes effective. Growth in the informal economy though should continue to drive wage growth for the poor.
*Changing palette—market upside, but stay defensive. Indices have already started to reflect this divergence: consumption and exporters have gained weights from industrials, materials and banks. We are constructive on the broader market: (1) MSCI India P/E is 15% below its adjusted average, (2) consensus EPS has downside, but 6-8% index EPS growth is still likely. But our model portfolio is positioned defensively. Reliance, GCPL, HCLT and ITC are our top long ideas and L&T, Tata Steel and SBI our top shorts.
Elections and the taper: Overhyped ? The two ‘known unknowns’ in 2014 have limited impact on the economy and earnings. The market should revert to the trend soon after these events. Our analysis suggests that the fragmentation of the central government (i.e. number of parties coming together) has no correlation with GDP growth and market performance. The three major reasons for this are:
(1) state governments drive execution, whereas the central government just drives policies. The strong divergence in state-wise growth rates suggests state governments matter more; (2) Elections are not contested on economic ideologies but on caste, religion and local issues. This may be a flawed system, but the unintended benefit is the ruling party can do what is economically necessary without worrying about voters; and (3) Central government action can take six-eight years for a meaningful impact.
India will also be much less impacted when the Fed starts its taper than is feared. The current account deficit has shrunk substantially, and we believe sustainably, thus, reducing dependence on volatile external capital flows. Further, the Indian economy’s interest rate linkage with that in the US is feeble at best, with very little of FII debt holdings remaining.
Changing palette—market upside: We do not expect a pick-up in the investment cycle in the next two to three years: most types of large-scale investments, with the exception of oil & gas, have a depressed medium-term outlook. Similarly, middle income consumption should stay under pressure as stagnant wages (stress in the formal economy) and high inflation mar consumption. This is being exacerbated by a delayed supply response in white-collar workforce (courtesy the boom till 2010), and the government's pay commission cycle (every ten years: next one due in 2016), as a third of the middle class is paid by the government.
However, we expect income growth at the bottom of the income pyramid to stay robust. Continuing expansion in rural roads and electrification and the spread of mobile phones is driving unprecedented change and job creation away from the big cities.
Sector weights in market benchmarks have already started to reflect this divergence: exporters, healthcare and consumption have snatched weights from industrials, materials and banks. This sector rotation has implications for both earnings changes as well as P/E multiples for the broader indices. While MSCI India P/E is 7% lower than its average, once adjusted for the change in sector weights over time, it is 15% below its adjusted average.
Changing indices also explain why the sharp economic slowdown has not driven earnings declines for market indices. We expect earnings downgrades to continue (upgrades to consensus EPS since Sep-13 have largely been the mark-to-market of USD-INR), but stay constructive on the broader market, and maintain our defensive portfolio positioning.
The current beta rally in our view is a sign that investors are turning neutral weight to avoid being whip-lashed on the day of the election results. We believe this rally is an opportunity to cut beta exposure, and not a sign that large-scale investment is likely to recover.
The unknown unknowns: Each year sees some new surprise that few had foreseen at the beginning of the year: almost by definition, these are low probability events but ones that if known in advance can help outperform significantly. We list a few for the next year: (1) a sharp fall in oil prices; (2) the INR appreciating to 55-56 against the USD; (3) strong legislative action under the new government that shows potential GDP acceleration in a few years; and (4) banking system reform under the new RBI governor shakes the industry out of its zombie state.