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NZ listed company earnings underwhelm analysts in market priced for stronger growth

New Zealand's listed companies beat earnings estimates on average in the latest results season, but still fell short of the bullish growth expectations built into stock prices, analysts say.

Per-share earnings at the 42 companies followed by analysts at Forsyth Barr rose a median 3.5 percent, beating a forecast gain of 3.3 percent. Sales on that basis grew 7.4 percent versus a forecast 6.6 percent, while dividends matched estimates with a rise of 2.9 percent. First NZ Capital said about 80 percent of the 32 companies it follows met or exceeded expectations for earnings-per-share growth.

The results weren't enough, though, to justify an NZX 50 Index that has risen to all-time highs, gaining 5.8 percent this year and 15 percent in the past 12 months, Forsyth Barr analysts said. Companies in the benchmark index are trading at an average 16 times earnings and normalised EPS growth of 3.5 percent is below the annual 8 percent level the brokerage estimates is built into market expectations for the next five years.

"It is hard to get excited about opportunities when we line this up against elevated market multiples and the need for earnings to surprise positively to support these levels," Forsyth Barr analysts Brian Stewart, Matthew Leach and John Hughes wrote in a report. "Market pricing risks have therefore increased."

First NZ analysts Chris Green and Kar Yue Yeo noted that almost 60 percent of the 32 companies they track lifted dividend payments in the latest period, while none cut their payments.

"From our perspective, this reflects the continuation of relatively strong company balance sheets, together with a strong reluctance of firms to disappoint investors," they said.

The abundance of firms paying high dividends is a hallmark of the New Zealand stock market, and has drawn offshore investors seeking better returns than are on offer from fixed-income assets in a world of low interest rates. Power companies Meridian Energy and MightyRiverPower have been among the biggest beneficiaries of demand for yield, with their stocks rising 91 percent and 69 percent respectively in the past 12 months. Among property companies, Vital Healthcare, DNZ Property Fund, Property for Industry and Argosy Property have all gained more than 20 percent.

Forsyth Barr's analysts though, said investors needed to take a broader view of the market. "In this environment we believe the market needs to focus on these risks and not just yield," they said.

Both brokerages pointed to headwinds from the downturn in the Australian economy and the relative strength of the New Zealand dollar against the Australian dollar.

"On balance the outlook comments from management had a more mixed tone," First NZ research analysts Green and Yeo wrote in their report. "In particular, while a number of companies expected NZ trading conditions to remain constructive over the year ahead, a number also point to the competitive nature of the domestic market, together with the current challenging nature of the Australian market."