Making sense of low JSE returns – and identifying the conditions for better returns

May 5th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

Over the past 24 months the returns realised from most asset classes available to the rand investor have been well below their long term averages. Since May 2015, as may be seen in figure 1, only rands invested offshore in the S&P 500 would have provided anything but pedestrian returns.

The returns over the past 12 months are shown in figure 2. The RSA bond market provided good returns of over 12% over the past 12 months, while the other asset classes, including inflation-linked RSA bonds, generated low returns. The S&P 500 has also provided poor rand returns since May 2016. This is an understandable outcome given the strong rand (it gained about 10% Vs the US dollar over the 12months to end April 2017). The S&P 500 delivered impressive US dollar returns of 15.9% over the same period.


Figure 3 shows how the performance of the rand over the two years contrasted strongly. Significant weakness was recorded through 2015 and the first half of 2016, with a strong recovery since. The JSE as a whole moved mostly sideways independently of the rand. This is because about half the companies on the JSE, weighted by their market values, can be regarded as rand hedges and the other half defined as rand plays. The effect of changes in the exchange value the rand on the JSE as a whole therefore becomes unimportant. The rand hedges are companies whose rand values can be expected to rise with rand weakness (other forces remaining the same) and the other half, the rand plays, are those whose rand values can be expected to decline with rand weakness and increase with rand strength. This is because rand strength can be expected to lead to lower inflation and lower interest rates and additional impetus for the SA economy.

Many shares listed on the JSE have their primary listing offshore, meaning often that the SA component of their share registers is a small one, as is the case with the dual or multiple listed British American Tobacco or AB Inbev, or the resource companies, BHP-Billiton or Glencore. In such cases the translation of their US dollar value – determined offshore – into rands at prevailing exchange rates is automatic and maintained by arbitrage operations in both markets. And so a weak rand translates automatically to higher rand values for these essentially offshore companies and vice versa when the rand strengthens. The same translation effect is at work for those companies whose primary listing is on the JSE but whose shares are held largely offshore. If so the dollar value of these shares may be regarded as being determined off shore and automatically translated into rands at prevailing exchange rates.

The largest company included in the JSE All Share Index, with a weight of about 17%, is Naspers and may be regarded as falling within this category. Thus a strong rand, up say 20% on a year before, as has been the case in early 2017, means that Naspers must have gained more than 20% in US dollars to provide positive returns for a rand investor. This becomes a very demanding target for US dollar returns that most companies would be very hard pressed to overcome. Most of the resource companies listed on the JSE however gained more than enough extra dollar value in 2016, to more than overcome the effects of a stronger rand.

In figure 4 we show the rand value of 14 stocks listed on the JSE (in this grouping all equally weighted) that we regard as global consumer and UK property plays, compared with the US dollar / rand (USD/ZAR) exchange rate since early 20161. They are global economy plays because their revenues and earnings are derived predominantly offshore. Their fortunes do not depend much on the state of the SA economy. Some of the companies on the list did poorly both in rands and in US dollars. They performed poorly for a variety of their own company-specific reasons. We show the sharp decline in trailing earnings per share (market weighted) of this grouping of global economy plays in figure 12. These companies account for a very significant proportion of the market value of the JSE, perhaps as much as 40%.


In figures 5 and 6 we compare the performance of this JSE global 14 with the S&P 500, with both groups of companies valued in rands. The JSE global 14 matched the S&P 500 well until approximately October 2016, where after, until year-end 2016, the S&P enjoyed a period of marked outperformance. More recently the two groups of companies have again been following a similar path.


The largely sideways movement of the JSE Index since 2015 is moreover consistent with the downward direction of index earnings per share over the same period. Figure 7 shows how JSE All Share Index earnings per share, measured in rands or US dollars, had lost 20% and 30% of their early 2015 levels by mid-2016 after which a recovery in earnings ensued. A time series extrapolation of these recent trends would suggest earnings per share at only 10% higher than their 2015 levels, by mid-2018.

A similar pattern of declines in earnings and their incipient recovery may be observed of the JSE sub-indices for financial and industrial companies and for JSE listed resources. See Figure 8 and 9, where the particularly sharp reduction in resource earnings and their subsequent recovery may be observed.


The trend in JSE earnings has not been supportive of higher share prices. The trend in share prices and earnings per share has closely followed the trend in earnings as we show in figure 10. Something of a re-rating of the JSE – given an expectation of improved earnings to come – occurred in 2016, making the JSE appear demandingly valued by its own standards. The recent recovery in earnings, especially resource earnings, has meant a reduction in the PE multiple (see figure 11).


In figure 12 we break down further the earnings of some of the major companies listed on the financial and industrial indices of the JSE. We divide companies into the same global plays and the SA interest rate plays. In this grouping the earnings per share are weighted by the market value of the companies. The earnings disappointments of 2015-2016 have come from among the ranks of the global plays, while the SA economy plays have continued to grow their earnings per share slowly, despite the weakness of the SA economy.



A number of these global plays have fallen from their once lofty perches for a variety of company-specific reasons that have had little to do with the behaviour of the rand. As we show in figure 13, the worst of the global companies on the earnings front have been MTN and the UK property counter, Capital and Counties. Aspen, Mediclinic and Richemont have also suffered significant declines in their rand earnings per share since 2015 – despite assistance form a generally weaker rand since 2015. Were it not for the continued success of Naspers, with its growing market value and ever larger share of the JSE, JSE index earnings per share would have presented a still weaker state.



These underperforming global companies will benefit from better management as well as a stronger global economy. A stronger global economy is more likely to be associated with rand strength r than rand weakness. Such rand strength in 2016 became a headwind for rand investors. Though it should also be said that their SA shareholders are well hedged against rand weakness associated with SA political developments of the Zuma intervention kind, as they were until mid-2016 assuming the absence of value destroying company specifics. They are even more likely to provide good returns when rand weakness (for SA reasons) is combined with global economy strength, provided again they do not run into further problems of their own making.

Rand strength for SA-specific reasons is something of a headwind for these global companies, as was the case in 2016 when the rand recovered both because the outlook for emerging market economies and their currencies was improving (and because it appeared wrongly that President Zuma’s willingness to interfere in the SA Treasury was contained). The current value of the rand, around the R13.30 level to the US dollar, still appears to depend to some degree on the chances that President Zuma will be forced out of office.

The earnings of SA economy plays benefit from rand strength, provided it is accompanied by less inflation and lower interest rates. So far they have been subject to a degree of recent rand strength, but as yet this strength is unaccompanied by lower interest rates. Without lower interest rates, a cyclical recovery of the SA economy, from which SA focused business and their shareholders stand to benefit, will not occur.

The Zuma interventions in fiscal policy have reduced the degree of rand strength made possible by an improving global economic outlook. It has moreover undermined the confidence of SA business and households in their economic prospects and their willingness to spend more. Yet the outlook for lower inflation has improved, given the partial recovery of the rand and lower food prices. The case for cutting short term interest rates in SA has therefore become more compelling. Perhaps there is enough of a case for the Reserve Bank to do what it can for the real economy by lowering interest rates. Its influence over the value of the rand remains limited, as one can only hope its Monetary Policy Committee finally realises. The case for rand plays on the JSE is the case for lower interest rates and at worst rand stability at current levels. The case for the global plays would have to be based on an improved outlook for the global economy, ideally for their SA shareholders, accompanied by rand weakness for SA reasons. But as important will be the ability of the managers of the fallen angels to restore growth in US dollar earnings.


1The fourteen companies included in this grouping with equal weights are British American Tobacco, Richemont, Mediclinic, Aspen, Steinhoff, Reinet, MTN, Naspers, Sappi, Intu, Capital & Counties and Netcare