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What A Difference

A year ago, most investment markets were experiencing freefall.  The Federal Reserve, intent on normalizing interest rates, had raised the Fed Funds rate eight times since 2016.  By late 2018, markets in general were beginning to exhibit their collective displeasure.  The Fed then announced it would ease up on its tightening program, and stock prices have been rising ever since.  Stocks, measured by the S&P 500, rose 2.17% in October 2019 and are making new highs.  They are now up 23.16% year to date after a dismal -4.75% in 2018.

The stock market has been deftly climbing a wall of worry.  This somewhat dated reference alludes to the ability of stock prices to continue to rise in the face of factors or issues that one generally would consider a deterrent to that growth.  This backdrop makes it extremely difficult to put fresh money to work – there never seems to be a clear green light.  Many investors have experienced this hesitation since November 2016.  The worry is in fact the market’s risk premium: the risk of loss investors must embrace in order to receive equity-like returns.

One month ago, many investors and market pundits were expecting corporate earnings to continue on their recessionary track.  The trade war was wreaking havoc in multiple ways on US business overseas, supply chains and access to markets; and global economic growth was stalling in China, Europe and the US.  There was also the inverted yield curve, a tell-all indicator that the US economy was on the brink of a recession.  There was not much to look forward to.

Today, it seems all that has changed.  Whether true or not, the administration via popular media outlets is feeding the public optimistic soundbites regarding the eventual resolution of the trade war.  The “seasonal effect” which tends to see stock prices perform well during this period of the year may be influencing investor thinking.  The global economic backdrop suddenly appears brighter too, based on more recent economic data points. 

In my opinion, more central than the above is the fact that 3Q earnings were more or less on target.  This was immensely reassuring to investors.  Over 70% of companies reporting earnings have done better than expected, a stark reversal from 2Q where the earnings beat rate was the lowest in over a decade.  Investors were poised for disappointing earnings, and surprised with the outcome.

Two factors have produced a nice bump in stock prices:  the PE ratio has increased about 20%, largely due to falling interest rates and earnings for 2020 are anticipated to increase in the high single digits above their expected 2019 level.  The key now is whether forward earnings forecasts can hold up as we move into 2020. 

In my opinion, US stocks remain the best game in town.  We can more accurately assess the intrinsic value of US companies based on reliable and transparent data.  So even at somewhat elevated levels, the expected return from US stocks still remains more attractive than other asset classes, bonds in particular.  While we consider the valuation of the market as a whole, we do not buy the market – we focus on specific investment opportunities inherent in individual names, their unique merits in relation to their peer companies, growth rates, strength of their management, and other factors.

Lastly, I have some news to report on changes here at Hotaling.  First, we have added another advisor, Gretchen Regan.  I’ve known Gretchen for some time.  She is a talented analyst and immediately adds value to our work for you on a number of fronts.  You can read about her at www.hotalingllc.com.  Second, after years of working together, Valerie has decided to move on to the next big thing and retire.  She intends to spend important time with her family.  We will all miss her here, as I’m sure you will too.  In our attempt to fill that void, we have brought Jennie Wilber on board.  Jennie is young and energetic and will do everything Valerie had done for you, and then some.  I’m sure you will have the opportunity to meet her, at least over the phone, before year end.  We have been doing a lot of outreach to make sure you are informed, but please do not hesitate to call if we have not been in touch recently.  

 

Bruce Hotaling, CFA

Managing Partner

Haunted House

Amidst a torrent of unrest around the globe, the US stock market has essentially reacted with a shrug, racking up returns of 20.55% through the first three quarters of the year. September, often a challenging month for stocks, returned 1.72%. Historically, when stocks have done as well as they have at this point in the year, they tend to finish out the year with positive results. On the other hand, here we are in October, the month of Halloween and also the two worst months in recent stock market history: October 2008 and October 1987.

In my opinion, the backdrop is something akin to a haunted house. The fear people sense is related to the shenanigans in Washington DC. Controlling the narrative, manipulating the average person’s view, is the tool in traditional and social media. The goal is to sway the popular viewpoint. With November 2020 looming, one powerful tenet dating back to 1992 is “it’s the economy, stupid”, meaning one’s election fortunes are closely tied to the economy, and by extension, the stock market. The conviction that everything will be done to buoy the stock market may well be the foundation investors are building their hopes on for the coming 12 months.

While stock prices are up over 20% year to date, it’s more or less a return to baseline. Everyone is avoiding the fact that at the start of the year, stock prices had just fallen nearly 20% from their late summer 2018 highs. Today, if we consider the trailing 12-month returns of the S&P 500 (instead of the year to date) stocks are up 4.25%, less than ½ the long term historical average.

Fundamental concerns for investors at this juncture are related to upended global trade and business activity in disarray, the Federal Reserve’s next move, and the all-important earnings for 4Q2019 and forecasts for 2020.

The trade war the administration has undertaken with China, Mexico, Canada and the Euro-zone is not benefitting US business. To the contrary, it’s a significant factor in the deceleration of global growth. Without constructive policy and a predictable rules-based system, the current backdrop causes businesses to withhold investment. In the coming years, there is a good chance we will experience economic fallout in the form of low growth and negative interest rates due to lack of business investment today.

The Federal Reserve may not be able to jump-start an economy that is principally under pressure from erratic policy from Washington. Since 2008 and the financial crisis, many cite monetary policy has become a far less effective tool. I would argue that the economy in fact needs targeted spending (fiscal stimulus) and public/private partnerships to jump-start largely stalled economic growth. The deficits resulting from the 2017 tax-cut will of course make stimulus more challenging.

Earnings are clearly the elephant in the room. At the moment, according to FactSet Research, estimated earnings for 3Q 2019 are expected to decline 4.1%. This will mark the third successive quarter of year over year earnings declines. Heading into the end of the quarter, more and more companies have been issuing negative guidance. The 12 months forward earnings estimates (through 9/30/2020) for the S&P 500 are 181.66. The S&P is currently in the 2,900 range, implying a 15.9x forward P/E multiple. From here, for stock prices to rise, earnings growth must resume.

October is typically not the time of year to taunt the stock market with anything that might frighten investors. At the same time, U.S. corporations, up to this point, appear to be making their way through the corn maze. This is the foundation on which our guarded optimism rests. Stocks remain the most attractive investment option. We are still finding growth opportunities, though it is clearly a market for stock pickers. Quality U.S. corporate names with solid fundamentals and prospects for steady earnings make up the universe of names we keep on our short list.

As we approach year end, we will be reaching out to you to make sure we have addressed your concerns, capital gains constraints, or any other aspects of your financial life. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any concerns in the meantime.

Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Managing Partner

Hurricane Dorian

For days now Floridians have been in a state of suspension – the massive hurricane Dorian sitting just off the coast. It ravaged the Bahamas and is now making its way slowly northward. Much as they try, meteorologists (and presidents) cannot truly predict the direction or the intensity of a hurricane. So, Floridians are more or less forced to brace themselves, and then wait it out.

In many ways, this tension is precisely what investors in the equity markets have been facing. For the trailing 12 month period, stocks have generated a total return of 2.92%. This was hard-earned, as during that period of time, stocks fell during 4 months, and in each case, by an average 6%. Year to date, stocks have rebounded off their 2018 year-end low for a total return of 18.34%, as measured by the S&P 500. In stormy August, stock prices fell 1.81% and were down on 10 of 22 trading days. The worst damage was from three days in particular, when prices fell nearly 3%, and those happen to be the three worst trading days of the year so far.

There are a lot of things investors in stocks and bonds are fixating on. High on the list is the trade war the administration boldly initiated, and the resultant economic fallout around the globe. Economic fundamentals are beginning to erode and it’s not clear how some aspects of the global economic mosaic will repair itself. For instance, distribution channels have been shut, supply chains cut and re-routed, hours worked in manufacturing are on the decline and corporate (S&P 500) revenue growth has fallen from 8% a year ago to 2%. Corporate leaders are less likely to make capital commitments related to trade as long as Washington is unreliable.

While Washington has taken to brow beating the Federal Reserve Bank in an attempt to influence policy, it is not clear monetary policy functions as it once did. We are late in the economic cycle and rates have been low for a long time. The 10-year US Treasury note, which anchors many aspects of the borrowing markets (student loans, mortgage loans) is now at roughly 1.45%. It is nearing the record 1.36%, the lowest level ever, set in July of 2016. The Federal Reserve Bank and the European Central Bank are both expected to lower their respective benchmark rates later this month by 0.25% and 0.10% respectively. Neither of these amounts are significant, economically, apart from the symbolic messaging. People, and companies, are unlikely to change their behavior due to a 0.10% drop in rates.

Fallout from the protracted low interest rates is evident in the banking system. This is most apparent in Europe, where many banks have arguably never recovered from the financial crisis in ’08, and the sovereign debt crisis that followed in ’10. In the US, commercial banks have recovered, but they still cannot overcome the business challenges of perpetual low interest rates which pinch profit margins, and sow doubt in borrowers minds that rates may go lower. There is the fear rates are under pressure only to stave off recession. For monetary policy to work, bank lending is key, and people have to have a degree of confidence to borrow.

Based on our work, I continue to focus on select stocks that screen well for their growth characteristics, constraints on capital spending and strong levels of free cash flow. We are watching, though have not begun to own more defensive or value oriented stocks. As we’ve discussed, (the market) the S&P 500, is selling for 17x forward earnings ($178 per share). In general terms, for stock prices to move higher, either the multiple, or earnings, must rise. At the moment, the factor allowing the multiple to rise has been falling interest rates. Corporate earnings estimates have been declining, since Q1 19, as analysts have been revising their forward estimates down. Select stock picking, and judicious timing is the way forward.

The big question today is, how does this curious backdrop begin to disentangle itself? With no clear path forward, we have to continuously monitor the underlying activity in the markets and stock specific fundamentals for signs of real change. When we have some greater degree of clarity we will act accordingly. In the meantime, please feel free to check in if we have not spoken. I hope you are enjoying both the start of the new school year and the onset of fall and the cooler weather it will bring.

Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Managing Partner

August

According to meteorologists, July was the hottest month, ever. It was a relatively “hot” month on Wall Street too, as stock prices rose once again, gaining 1.3% for the month (as measured by the S&P 500). Year to date, the total return from stocks now totals a remarkable 20.2%. Thus far in 2019, stocks have only had one down month. That was May, when prices fell 6.6%. Otherwise, it’s been a rewarding time to own stocks and most investors, while somewhat guarded, are pleased with this.

The return to stocks looks less remarkable when viewed over a rolling 12 month period. Stocks delivered a 7.9% return for the trailing 12 month period. This is not a bad return, but nothing remarkable, and less than the historical return for large cap stocks. Last fall, stock prices fell 6.9% in October and an alarming 9.2% in December. The market was a whisker away from a full 20% decline, typically the benchmark for a bear market. In January of this year, when the Federal Reserve indicated it would stop raising interest rates, stocks immediately rose and erased all of the losses from the second half of last year.. 

We are now just coming to the end of 2Q 2019 earnings season. According to FactSet Research, as of July 31, 76% of companies reporting had beaten earnings and 73% had beaten revenue. The reports were a good bit better than expected. In general, margin contraction was offset by higher revenue growth. In the end, the change agent was fewer shares outstanding due to stock buybacks. Analyst forecasts of earnings estimates for 4Q19 and for 2020 have been drifting lower. This is due to deteriorating economic conditions in the US and around the globe, and is being exacerbated by tariffs.

Since the start of the year, stock prices have been on the rise. This is not due to improved fundamentals or an increase in earnings estimates. It is simply due to an increase in the P/E ratio (the multiple the market applies to earnings) which has risen from 16x to over 19X today. The increase in the multiple is the result of the steadily falling interest rate expectations. The multiple is not likely to continue to expand. In my opinion, stocks are fully valued, based on what we can discern at the moment.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, bonds are expensive too. As measured by the iShares Core US Aggregate (AGG), bonds have returned over 6% year to date, more than double the 2.5% per year the 2.5% the AGG has averaged over the last five calendar years. Bonds are important. They provide reliable, albeit modest income. They can also provide some protection from volatility in a portfolio holding stocks. We refer to this as ballast. In a perfect scenario, stocks and bonds in a portfolio together behave in a non-correlating manner. This is more often the case when utilizing municipal or corporate bonds, as opposed to bond mutual funds.

The recent collapse in yields is a significant tell that the economy is stalling. Anxiety over the trade debacle, and hopes of monetary policy penicillin (ever lower interest rates) has become a volatility cloud over investors’ sentiment toward stocks. If the economy goes into a stall, or if we even suffer several quarters of flat or declining earnings, it will be a challenge for stock prices. The ability of central banks around the world to repair the damage from a metastasizing trade war is limited, at best.

Just the same, stocks remain the best game in town, especially when we consider a holding period greater than 12-18 months. I prefer US stocks due to 1) a high degree of transparency and communication with respect to assessing how businesses are faring, 2) our access to research and quality information from an accounting and reporting perspective and 3) a data base that enables us to sort and screen stocks quickly and effectively. One of the components of success in the complex world of investment management is keeping watch for changes on the margin.

It seems obvious that figuratively and literally, temperatures are rising. I hope August is cooler than July, but my confidence is guarded. We remain on alert to raise cash and take a more cautious position, as soon as we see the beginning of a trend. Heightened volatility can mask or mark the onset of a trend. Please feel free to check in if we have not spoken recently.

Bruce Hotaling, CFA
Managing Partner

Wait For It

Stock prices, measured by the S&P 500, rose an impressive 3.93% in April, boosting the total return to stocks to 18.25% year to date.  These returns are among the best ever for the first four months of the year.  The month was notable in that prices rose in all but five of the 21 trading days, a 76% batting average.  Also notable is the low volatility, or daily price movement.  With the exception of April 1st, when prices rose 1.16%, the average daily price change (up or down) was only .25%.  This compares to December 2018, when the market was in free-fall.  The average daily price change was 1.38%.

Stock prices are behaving as though they are intent on setting a new high water mark.  The last time the S&P 500 hit an all-time high, September 20, 2018, it closed at 2,930.75.  At that point, prices were comfortably up 13.07% for the year.   Few investors would ever have guessed their returns would be negative by year-end.  Between September 20 and December 24, stock prices fell 19.36%.  One of the most universally unwelcomed Christmas presents ever – a bear market. 

A strong start to the year for stock prices cannot necessarily be extrapolated forward.   As we saw last year, the strong behavior of stocks can turn on a dime.  In the past, there have been years such as 1995, when stocks did continue higher after a strong start to the year.  Then, other years with strong starts, such as 1930, infamously saw the complete implosion of stock prices by year end.   More often than not, after a big start, the market tends to saw-tooth for the remainder of the year, challenging investor’s resolve against giving back precious gains with each subsequent downswing.

In an effort to gauge where things stand, investors often try and establish a point of reference based on the duration of the economic cycle.  The current expansion has been in place since early 2009.  The average expansion over the last 70 years has been roughly 5 years.  By these simple terms we ought to prepare for a contraction in the fundamentals and stock prices.  Some have pointed to the more services oriented nature of the economy, and the general low intensity of the expansion.  Questions revolve around the degree of pent up demand, the fact wages have been suppressed, and changes in the structure of the labor force.  The recovery has been going on since 2009, but not all segments of the economy have responded equally.

Currently, the fundamentals are mixed.  Economic growth is challenged.  The tax cut was a one-time thing and will not spur any further corporate spending.  1Q earnings reports have been alright, but only in relation to reduced estimates.  Revenues have underwhelmed.  It’s harder to mask underlying issues with revenues, than with earnings.  The US posture toward China, and other trading partners, will not likely be resolved anytime soon.  The risk here is for unintended consequences.  Finally, and likely a positive consideration, the Federal Reserve is seemingly on hold for a number of months.

We are seeing some positive signals.  While we find stocks with secular growth trends attractive, we are also paying more attention to defensive businesses.  Utilities and staples have been two of the best performing sectors over the last 6 months.  We are also seeing the beginnings of recovery in housing related stocks likely due to the lower interest rates and in spite of the SALT limitations, and some interesting support from semiconductors.

In conclusion, we do not want to give away our shot.  Stocks are fully priced and we are in the midst of a global stock price rally.  We are jointly committed to our secular growth stocks, and looking at select opportunities to take profits and put some $ onto the sidelines.  We are also beginning to see the first signs of value stocks attracting interest.  In many ways this is a signal long investors are beginning to lose their conviction.  If this continues, we will address some of our holdings appropriately.

In the immediate term, we look forward to speaking to you about keeping equity exposures in check.  Complacency is high and with this backdrop, things will be ok until all of a sudden they are not.  We don’t want to be looking at one another wondering “what did we miss.”  Please feel free to call if we have not spoken recently.

 

Bruce Hotaling, CFA

Managing Partner

 

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