File Photo: IOL
CAPE TOWN - A common word heard among JSE participants and traders of late, spoken both in despair and in hope, is “SA Inc”.

The despair is easiest to define.

The local equity market is going through a prolonged period of poor performance and many JSE investors and shareholders are anxious. An increasing number of asset managers are urging investors to take whatever investment funds they have off-shore.

The reasons: weak corporate earnings due to a barely growing economy, persistent political uncertainty, increasing fiscal constraints, low demand, rising poverty and government inaction on structural economic reforms.

For many investors, a third year of low single-digit growth, and the likelihood that economic fundamentals may not change as fast as hoped 18 months ago, has meant that now might be the time to diversify long held JSE positions.

For them, hearing asset managers carry on about how cheap the market is for bargain hunters is hard to hear. For them, it’s simply a matter of you get what you pay for.

But there are some investors who are readying their portfolios for the upturn.

They believe in the historical truth that markets are cyclical (although in the very same breath they will tell you that an asset manager's past performance is no predictor of future performance).

They believe that if they buy up shares at a low valuation now, they will simply make more money when the market recovers.

Much depends on when one enters the market - if you have already lost 30percent over the past three years, you certainly have some catching up to do - and of course, it depends on the investment requirements.

There are many locally focused companies on the JSE to choose from that are trading well below intrinsic value and which are operated by good managements and boards, and which should produce substantial earnings uplifts in an economic recovery.

One such company is Shoprite, which has as its target the aim of becoming Africa's biggest affordable-market supermarket group.

Its share price has fallen from R223.59 in August last year to R137.86, a decrease of more than 38percent.

Profits have been hit by persistent low food inflation and weakness in African currencies and earnings are still headed down, for now. But sales in South Africa for the half year to June surprised on the upside.

And it has continued to grow its store base, so the capacity is there to cope with higher numbers once the upturn gets into full swing.

Another company with good earnings uplift potential in an economic recovery, to my mind, is Motus, the biggest car retail and rental group by far.

Unbundled from Imperial Group last November with a market capitalisation of some R20billion, that figure is now only around R13.4bn. Nationally, car sales have dribbled lower.

But South Africans love their cars, have great distances to travel, public transport is weak, the country is big and there is a growing middle class. When the economy recovers, so will car sales and Motus will grow earnings swiftly.

Another company where earnings should fly in an upturn is Vodacom, majority-owned by Britain’s Vodafone. It claims a market-leading 43.2million cellphone subscribers in South Africa, and data usage is rising fast.

Its share price is down almost 40percent over two years.

Yet another company that should benefit from economic recovery here is Hyprop Investments, the owner of large, dominant shopping malls locally and in Eastern Europe, and which is in the process of exiting its regional portfolio outside of South Africa.

Online shopping is growing, but still comprises a very small percentage of the average shopping basket in this country. Hyprop’s share price is down more than 53percent over three years.

Another company with mostly South African operations that has seen its share price drop by more than half in three years is sprawling services, freight and distribution group Bidvest.

At the interim stage Bidvest increased trading profit 6.3percent to R3.3bn off flat revenue, and earlier this month it took control of the second biggest maker and distributor of pharmaceuticals, Adcock Ingram. It is also a large supplier of the public sector.

BUSINESS REPORT