Buying on April 1 last year wasn't totally foolish

The Shaker
Thu 02 Apr

It is said that fools rush in, but investors who bought on April Fools' Day a year ago and avoided resources companies did well.

Let's take a look at April Fools' Day then, and now.

THE MARKETS: They've been skittish recently. As of Wednesday, Wall Street's Dow Jones Industrial Average had posted three 200-point-plus moves in five days, one of them up, and two two of them down. The Australian market has traced a sawtooth pattern in sympathy, falling by 94 points, rising 41 points, falling by 74 points, rising by 45 points and falling by just under 31 points on Wednesday.

Investors who bought shares a year ago in pursuit of dividend yield are likely to be in the black, however. The S&P/ASX 200 index edged up until September, and then lost 10 per cent in the next six weeks as the oil price plunged. It took off in the New Year, and on Wednesday was 9.3 per cent higher than it was on April Fools' Day a year ago. The ASX Industrials index is up about 16 per cent, and has returned about 21 per cent including dividends.

Wall Street's S&P 500 index is level-pegging so far this year, but is still up almost 10 per cent since April Fools' Day a year ago, and up three times that in $A terms. The Euro Stoxx index that tracks Europe's sharemarkets is up 17 per cent. There's plenty of people saying this market is overvalued as the US Federal Reserve prepares to raise short-term interest rates, and as the prices of key Australian export commodities, including iron ore and coal, continue to fall.With interest rates actually headed lower here, those who believe that shares are overvalued are struggling to find alternatives, however.

The big four banks, for example, are trading at a record average multiple of more than 15 times expected earnings, but are still yielding about 5 per cent. They delivered a total return of 14 per cent in the March quarter. Jonathan Mott's banking research team at UBS says they remain attractive while the world is awash in liquidity that is keeping bond yields and interest rates low.

THE DOLLAR: Down, and it's not foolish to be pleased. It was at US92.5¢  a year ago, and on Wednesday it was a touch above US76¢. That is primarily a reflection of the US dollar's strength: the greenback has been rising against all major currencies because the US economy is getting stronger, and the Federal Reserve is getting closer to pushing interest rates higher, something that pushes the price of the currency up. The Australian dollar's weakness is also a reflection of weaker commodity prices, however, and our Reserve Bank would actually like it to go a bit lower, to make local companies more competitive.

It is worth noting that investors who moved money into the US sharemarket and left it unhedged in anticipation of the Australian dollar falling have profited. Wall Street's S&P 500 index is level-pegging so far this year in $US terms, but it is up almost 7 per cent in $A terms. The S&P 500's 9.7 per cent rise in a year is a 33 per cent rise when converted back to Australian dollars.

IRON ORE: On April Fools' Day last year, the iron ore price was $US117.76 a tonne. On Wednesday, it was $US51.35 a tonne. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto can still make good money at that price, but nobody else in Australia can, and the predictions are that the price will not be much higher in a year's time.

Anybody who rushed in to buy the iron ore miners on April Fools' Day last year has been burnt. BHP and Rio's shares are down about 18 per cent and 12 per cent respectively, and that's good compared with the iron ore juniors. The third-biggest iron ore exporter, Fortescue, was trading at $5.31 on April Fools' Day last year. It is trading at $1.93 now. Atlas Iron's shares are about 12.5¢, down from 96.5¢ a year ago. BC Iron's shares have fallen from from $4.81 to about 35¢.

OIL: Brent Crude was $US105.62 a barrel on April  Fools' Day last year, and West Texas Intermediate crude was $US99.74. On Wednesday, they were $US55.07 and $US47.40 a barrel respectively. The damage was done between June and January, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was foolish to assume as the markets did a year ago that the US oil shale revolution would not transform the supply-side picture, and trigger a response from Saudi Arabia. Like Rio and BHP in iron ore, Saudi Arabia is the lowest-cost producer, and the eventual winner of a price war.

THE ABBOTT GOVERNMENT: This time a year ago, Joe Hockey was preparing the government's first budget, and telling us he would fix Labor's mess. His stocks and the government's are lower now. If they were listed, there would be an ASX price query.

The government's first budget ran aground in the Senate and broke up, and we are now being told that the next one will be boring: where that leaves the battle to restore the nation's balance sheet is anyone's guess.

The government does at least now also have recommendations for changes to the financial sector and the competition regime to consider, from David Murray's financial system inquiry and Professor Ian Harper's Competition Review. If it has the will to fight off vested interest groups including the banks and big business and a route through the Senate, it may be able to revive its reformist credentials.