The stock market is all about earnings. Corporate earnings and their level in relation to stock prices is the fundamental basis, the keystone, of stock valuation. US stocks have been enjoying an unprecedented period of earnings growth and price appreciation. Much of this stems from the stock friendly behavior coming out of Washington DC. In general, corporate America could not be more pleased with the US corporate tax cuts and the across the board emphasis on de-regulation.
For the month of May, this symbiotic relationship continued to self-reinforce, and stocks responded with a total return of 2.41%. The solid returns for the month brought the S&P back into the black for the year. May’s positive returns and moderate volatility (only three of 21 trading days had price moves +/- 1%) were a welcome relief for investors after two stressful months with sharply negative returns in February and March.
While stock returns are modestly positive this year, it’s a shadow of the 8.8% return through May of 2017. I do not expect the S&P 500 to return 22% again this year. Signs of trouble are brewing. Few asset classes are faring well. Most larger foreign markets are down (Brazil -11.9%, Germany -4.2%, China -4.6%). Gold and silver, and almost every maturity level across the fixed income spectrum are also down year to date.
It’s a challenge to make forward looking determinations on how best to position the portfolios in the face of so much media noise and misplaced commentary. In my opinion, there are two overhangs to the market that are threatening to spoil what has been an intoxicating run for stock investors.
One of the supportive backdrops for the upbeat market in 2017 into 2018 has been coordinated global growth. The idea behind this concept is a stronger global economy supports improving demand for US goods and services, and spurs corporate profits. The US$ had been low, amplifying the effect. Suddenly, this growth driver is under assault, and isolationism and protectionism are on the rise.
Further, tension on the Korean peninsula, threats of a trade war with China, tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and the Eurozone, and the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal have led to a destabilization of the world political-economic order. This is thin ice.
Much of the anticipated global growth was fueled by debt. Now, global debt has reached levels never seen before, equivalent to 225% of global GDP (according to the Economist 4/24/2018). China is guilty of leveraging up to sustain its economic growth. This is similar to the US tax cuts that will push the US deficit over the $1 trillion mark. Emerging markets are suffering with many of their obligations issued in US$s (Argentina, Turkey). Growth, measured by GDP has slowed. The question here is whether we have come to that point, the tipping point, when things begin to change, while no one wants to believe that is truly the case.
The question isn’t so much if there will be trouble, but when. I do not think any changes in asset allocation need to be made, yet. I do expect returns to bonds to be minimal, and stocks to be in the average range. I am pleased the market continues to reward growth over value. This is a tailwind for our portfolios. Our core approach to investing is referred to as GARP or growth at a reasonable price. Growth stocks continue to outperform value stocks at the large, mid and small cap levels, by notable margins. The two highest returning sectors are technology and consumer discretionary, both sectors where we hold overweight positions.
One of the clearest reasons to take a more cautious posture toward stock investing is because many, possibly too many investors and market commentators are overwhelmingly positive. They tend to tick down the list of supportive economic or consumer data points. There is a lot of cool-aid being consumed out there. I’m not a contrarian, but I’m also not one to get sucked into the vortex. The best course of action today is to avoid getting drawn in to owning too much stock. We need to stay well invested, while hovering one foot over the break.
Bruce Hotaling, CFA
April was a “backing and filling” month for investors. This is a stock market term that applies to prices as they attempt to digest a large run up. After a monstrous 5.6% jump in prices in January, the return to stocks in April, measured by the S&P 500, was a mere 0.27%. Year to date, returns have fizzled and are now down 0.38%. These results mask some eye catching day to day price moves. For example, out of the 21 trading days in the month, 9 involved an up or down move in prices of greater than 1%.
This volatile yet sideways pattern is likely a byproduct of last years extended rally in stock prices that led so many investors to the trough of complacency. Fifteen months of positive returns will attract a lot of attention – suddenly investors began chasing returns, and taking on more risk. It had become too easy. A reflection of this mindset was the craze over bitcoin. That was an extension of the high risk-taking mentality that consumed investors worldwide.
On January 26th, stock prices hit their 14th record high of the year. Over the next couple of weeks we experienced a full on reversal of the prior year’s blind optimism and things turned ugly. By February 9th, stock prices had fallen over 10% on an intra-day basis. The dust settled, and things seemed ok, until April 2nd when prices went right back down to those uncomfortable levels. The origins of this sudden shift in market direction initiated a raft of media speculation as to what might have gone wrong. Was it the US 10-year Treasury nearing 3%, the looming Federal Reserve interest rate hikes or possibly saber-rattling talk from Washington about trade wars? When market trends change, it is often unclear what precipitated the change. For us, the more important question is the emerging trend – what does the slope of the developing trend in prices look like?
As an investor, it’s important to focus on and identify investment goals, particularly long term. The big considerations are, what are we working toward and what is the best path to get there? Trouble often shows itself in the short term. While things that come up admittedly do not normally have any bearing on long term goals, or the agreed upon path, they can be un-nerving to the point investors retreat. There are times when owning stocks is flat out uncomfortable.
After years advising people how best to position their financial assets, one thing clear to me is how easy it is for investors to become disillusioned. Admittedly, there is some concern the world at large is sliding down a slippery slope. This may be true, or it may not. In my opinion, though we perceive a tenuous backdrop today, there has always been a long list of things that could go wrong. Often, we did not know there was a monster under the bed. I suspect our current cautious awareness puts us in a better position to look ahead and acknowledge risk. Stocks are inherently high risk, high return, and when investors dismiss this we are collectively on thin ice.
Our goal is to guide our investors in a way that allows them to hold quality investments during challenging times. As active investment managers, this requires our constant attention and a balance of art and science. We use analytical tools and fundamental analysis, along with a considerable dose of experience. We also use a risk-on, risk-off approach to profit during the good times and temper the effect of the difficult periods. This is in stark contrast to passive index strategies or a blind reliance on asset allocation models.
My expectations are for the recent surge in volatility to continue, though tempered somewhat. I also expect stock prices to move higher by the end of the year. Earnings have been strong through the first quarter and analysts’ forecasts through the year-end are high. I do not expect stocks to deliver anything close to the 20%+ returns we saw in 2017. Considering the backdrop, we ought to expect it to remain challenging. We are constantly asking whether the choices we are making today are additive to your long term goals. At the moment, I am optimistic we are well positioned for the year ahead, but I am also prepared to change course if need be. I invite you to call if you have concerns.
Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Let’s hope March of 2018 was an anomaly. Just as signs of spring were beginning to appear, folks living in the northeast and mid-Atlantic encountered what was likely their first ever cyclone bomb. Exhausted from shoveling snow, they were then clobbered by three more nor’easters in a three week span. It could be we need to place more trust in Punxsutawney Phil’s early February predictions.
The unpredictable nature of these storms reflects closely the unsettled activity in Washington, which is becoming so chaotic it looks to be finally having the effect on financial markets many had feared back in November 2016. Stock prices, measured by the S&P 500, have begun to mimic both the unforgiving nature of recent weather – and the chaos inside the beltway. Stocks fell in March by 2.7%. This is on the heels of a 3.9% decline in February. Year to date, stock prices are down 0.76%.
For some context, over the last 30 years, the S&P 500 has produced an average return of 12.2%, with an annual standard deviation of 17.3%. There have been 5 years (17% of the time) when the return to stocks was negative, and in those years, stock prices fell on average 16.6%. After a larger than average 21.8% return in 2017, stock prices may be reverting to the mean.
On a more granular level, the stock market looks to be attempting to assess the potential damage from a trade war. Old school protectionism is the latest contrivance out of Washington in hopes of making America great again. Restrictive trade, whether it leads to a trade war, will put the brakes on the positive effect foreign competition has on holding down price inflation.
The recent stock price volatility highlights the concern that fractured global supply chains may negatively impact US corporate margins. Free trade is proven to stimulate economic growth. Higher tariffs will eliminate the process of comparative advantage that allows all parties to benefit from globalization. If the root of the problem is infringement of intellectual property rights, then that needs to be addressed directly, without the random and damaging effects of trade warfare.
Recent economic data has not been compelling and the nine year expansion is long in the tooth. Employment levels are high, so high investors have been on alert for signs of inflation. The brutal stock sell-off in early February was ignited due to clear signs of inflation based on reports of increasing wages. Stock investors are well aware, if a cycle of higher inflation has begun, the Fed will continue to raise interest rates.
The yield curve has shifted upward, and flattened. This is a mixed signal. It may well be telling us growth expectations have deteriorated. The Federal Reserve has raised rates now for the sixth time since the first 0.25% hike in mid-2015. Expectations are for 3 hikes this year and 3 more in 2019. Ambitious fiscal spending, at this late point in the economic cycle, will support the Fed’s hawkish position. The ballooning deficit, continued deficit spending and higher interest rates will raise the probability of a slowdown (recession) sometime in the near future.
The other curiosity I’ve discussed before is the perpetual weakness in the US$. It has been in a steady decline since the November 2016 election. The higher interest rates available in the US would support buying dollars. On the contrary, global investors have been selling US$s, and buying yen and euros. It’s not clear what is causing this, though it’s likely related to increased tariffs, restrictive immigration and rising deficits. The persistent US current account deficits are spurring talk the US$ may not be the safe-haven it once was.
The current backdrop is mixed. Earnings estimates remain high and stocks are not excessively expensive with the forward P/E multiple in the 16x range. Volatility has risen, making stocks harder to own. From a contrarian perspective, this is constructive. Yet, if the earnings forecasts falter, for whatever reason, this will spell trouble for stock prices. With the high level of volatility, and two successive down months in stock prices, we are taking a more constructive stance, and will become more cautious if conditions persist. Please feel free to call us if you would like to discuss further or if your investment parameters have changed since we last spoke.
Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Investor behavior has been by and large complacent. The market commentary has been Pollyannaish. The combined effect has been an extended period of positive returns and low volatility. Stock prices, measured by the S&P 500, rose for 15 consecutive months, something they had not done in over 20 years. Then, in February, stock prices fell by an uncomfortable 3.69%. Sharp price drops, 4.1% on the 5th and 3.75% on the 8th, echoed swings felt prior to the onset of the financial crisis.
The market backdrop looks to have shifted. A trend change cannot be extrapolated from one month’s returns. Just the same, it may be that the majority of the market friendly changes (tax cuts, regulatory roll-back, loose spending) are baked in. If this is the case, the return/risk profile stocks offer may have begun to seesaw. Here are some observations worth your consideration.
The dominant factor influencing stock prices is earnings. 4Q 2017 was one of the strongest earnings seasons in the last 20 years, according to Bespoke Research. The “inflection” in earnings is remarkable, as they had been flat. We tend to extrapolate data forward, and expectations going forward may be too high.
The surge in US corporate earnings has been bolstered by an up-swell in economic growth around the world. Manufacturing PMI’s around the world are simultaneously rising, and although Europe’s emergence from the global debt crisis lagged, it’s now the catalyst for a full-fledged global economic revival.
Another boost to earnings has been a weakening US$. This allows for a currency translation bump, when earnings from abroad are repatriated. This tailwind has been in effect since November 2016, as the US$ has fallen roughly 15% against the Euro.
The current administration’s weak US$ policy is apparently intended to cure the trade deficit. Curiously, the trade gap widened in January to the highest level since October 2008. The recent imposition of tariffs on various imports may help offset the trade deficit but the true economic result will more likely be a decline in domestic growth – the opposite effect from the intended goal of making America great (protecting US industry).
The recent emphasis on fiscal policy and deficit spending is a significant concern at this point in the economic cycle. It’s inflationary by definition, and the budget deficit may well exceed $1TN in 2018, something last accomplished in the dismal recovery from the financial crisis. The looming cost of financing increased government debt levels is a large reason for the sharp increase in longer term interest rates.
Wages are also going up, which is good for workers earning the $7.25 federal minimum wage, but this too is a source of inflation. Last month’s inflation data was the spark that ignited the February stock market sell-off. The Fed has signaled it will raise rates three to four times in 2018. Long term, there is a good likelihood the Fed (rising interest rates) will take the blame for triggering the next recession – not the ambitious policies that catalyzed the need for higher rates.
Finally, volatility is back. This is a reflection of these disparate factors. Stock prices move up and down and this normally tempers investor behavior. When price volatility is low, investing in stocks becomes too easy. The spike in volatility in February was only the second time the “fear” index hit those levels since the 2008 financial crisis.
Often times the stock market is not reacting to an event, as many TV commentators attempt to explain, rather it is signaling. Stock prices are a leading indicator. Along these lines, the sudden jump in price volatility (the VIX) may well be foreshadowing change. The stock market may be telling us inflation is here and the Fed’s response will be to raise interest rates. Four rate hikes may be the equivalent of taking away the punch bowl. In my opinion, a raised level of caution is healthy here. We have to be able to live with the ups and downs, and to do this may require owning less of the risky asset. We have been repositioning portfolios to reduce oversized positions and address our view of the trend going forward. If you would like to review this with us in more detail, please don’t hesitate to check in.
Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Happy New Year! I wish you a peaceful and prosperous 2018. Looking back, 2017 was prosperous for US investors, as stocks generated a total return of 21.8%, measured by the S&P 500. It was a good year, by historical standards. Over the last 30 years, stocks have averaged a total return of 12% with an annual standard deviation of 17%. Other years with big returns, such as 2009, 2003 and 2013 to some degree, were classic rebound years. Then, there was the stratospheric run in the late 1990’s when stocks averaged 28% returns for five consecutive years.
What drove stock prices in 2017? There were several things that cumulatively led to a “perfect storm” for stocks: the US $ weakened against most major currencies, oil prices moved back into a range supportive of normal capital spending, OECD countries collectively grew, US corporations experienced double-digit earnings growth after several flat years, the prospects of corporate tax cuts stirred animal spirits, interest rates remained low and the Federal Reserve was somewhat accommodative, all with a general backdrop of full employment and improving consumer sentiment.
What should we look for in 2018? According to FactSet Research, Wall Street analysts are forecasting S&P 500 earnings growth to continue at an 11.8% clip, with energy, materials, financials and info tech leading the way. Stocks with higher international exposure generated superior earnings growth in ’17 and this is expected to persist in 2018. Analysts’ estimates are for continued double-digit growth and $146.60 per share in 2018 and $161.30 in 2019. Stock investors are thrilled to move on from the meager 3.2% pace of growth from 2012 to 2016.
The tax cuts recently passed by Congress have long been anticipated by investors. They will fuel investor optimism for a time – until the true benefits to corporate earnings and household wallets start to pencil out. Sadly, elected officials in Washington have given up on any sense of fiscal discipline. The federal deficit is north of $20 trillion. Tax cuts will unnecessarily increase the deficits (both financial and environmental), lead to higher interest rates and inflated costs (housing) and cause more sensible governments in the future to have to raise taxes to account for this generation’s need to have it all, now.
On the immediate horizon, there are flashing yellow lights – things to watch for that may stall the stock market juggernaut. Unemployment is low, and the number of job openings is near record levels. Labor force growth, a critical element in the economic equation, continues to decline. With no constructive immigration policy, higher wages will ultimately spark inflation and hamper profits. In response to an uptick in inflation, the Federal Reserve will likely raise rates, making credit more expensive.
We are also faced with a chaotic backdrop that many people cannot embrace. There is a lingering feeling of apprehension continually poked by twitter trolls and divisive memes. The trend is troubling and mirrored to some extent in the Bitcoin bubble – an emerging tendency for people to put more faith in computer code than human institutions. Technology is driving change that we are only beginning to understand in retrospect – there is risk these uncharted waters continue to disrupt.
My view is we have to rely on what we can measure. The market has been trending higher, so like a good angler, the trick is to play out slack. I think we have to defend against complacent thinking and remain disciplined. Early this year we will be busy resetting asset allocations that have become stock heavy over the past 18 months. This will require trimming some of our big growers, and repositioning to allow for more growth/value balance in your portfolio. Capital gains taxes have not changed, and this works to our advantage.
There is an old stock market truism, “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered”. As is the case, with heightened returns come animal spirits. Our job, at the moment, is to defend against greed trampling common sense. I have confidence in our process, and would be happy to review your asset allocation with you, necessary cash levels and tolerance for capital gains, as we start the New Year.
Bruce Hotaling, CFA