Summertime Wanes while Bull Market Waxes

Trade tensions, moderating global growth, political drama, rising interest rates that boost borrowing costs, and a gripe with Turkey and others – all be damned! While these matters may pose risks, they haven’t collectively prevented key stock market indices from claiming new highs.

Last week the Russell 2000 (small cap) index closed at new highs as did the S&P Mid Cap Index as well as the large and mega-cap index, the S&P 500. It took the S&P nearly 7 months to take out its previous high from late January. The S&P closed at 2,898 on Tuesday (August 28th), and appears that it’s only a matter of time before we pierce 3,000. Amazingly, 50 years ago (June, 4, 1968) the S&P first broke through 100!

Asset Class Returns since March 2009 - July 2018
Asset Class Returns since March 2009 – July 2018

Since March 2009 through late August 2018, the S&P 500 is up nearly 325%. While short-term risks have rocked the boat, U.S. stocks have outpaced other global markets – over that time, and particularly this year – on strong corporate earnings growth and more favorable economic fundamentals.

While this year’s rally had been largely driven by a few large tech names, as summer rolls along it’s become more broad-based than tied to a handful of stocks which is healthier for investors.

Let’s quickly look back as to what’s driven the market rally for the past 9 ½ years. Mainly it’s been fundamentals – record corporate profits; an expanding economy; an accommodating Federal Reserve that gave us quantitative easing (QE) and zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) to get the economy back on track (and today, rates are still low and rate hikes are gradual, encouraging investors to look to riskier assets); low inflation that supports higher valuations; record stock buybacks; and economic confidence that supports higher valuations.

What’s held investors back from truly embracing the rally? The Wall of Worry!

This bull market run has been questioned frequently as there have been lots of concerns to sidetrack one from sticking to their long-term investment aims and financial goals – European Union economic turmoil; U.S. federal debt downgrade; QE’s end; China worries; extended valuations; collapse in oil prices; Brexit; political turmoil at home; Fed rate hikes; trade tensions; and the occasional currency crisis (to name a handful).

Like a car, you drive by looking ahead not in your rearview mirror, so let’s look ahead. Barring an unforeseen shock, bear markets coincide with recessions. While we’re late in the cycle, leading indicators suggest odds of a near-term recession are low. Last week the Atlanta Fed raised their estimates for 3rd quarter GDP to +4.6%, marking an economy that’s getting stronger.

GDP Growth - Economic Growth on Pace for Best Year since 2005
GDP Growth – Economic Growth on Pace for Best Year since 2005

Stock fundamentals, while stretched, remain favorable. Today’s forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the S&P 500 is 16.6, according to FactSet. While it’s above the 5-year average of 16.2 and the 10-year average of 14.4, it’s high but not unreasonable. Low inflation and low interest rates support higher valuations.

Corporate Earnings Growth - Actual and Expected
Corporate Earnings Growth – Actual and Expected – By Quarter – as of August 2018

There is a lot of speculation about when the bull market will end. While I continually look for signs or the symptoms of an impending recession, I don’t see them now. Some are worried about the yield curve inverting (that is the term premium going away – or the extra yield that investors require to commit to holding longer-dated bonds than shorter-term bonds).  We still have further to go before the 10-year Treasury minus the 3-month Treasury spread inverts (2.87%-2.11%=+0.76%, as of August 28, 2018). The Fed could raise rates by another 1.0% over the next 9 months, so it’s important to monitor easy financial conditions as they gradually start to tighten. I’ll be paying attention as rising interest rates and wage inflation begin to weigh on peak corporate profit levels. Perhaps this is as good as it gets?! (reminds me of a Jack Nicholson movie 20 years ago).

Record Profit Margins of 9.73%, Net Income Relative to Sales for S&P500 through 2q2018 Earnings Season
Record Profit Margins of 9.73%, (net income relative to sales for the S&P 500 though 2q2018 earnings season) Source: Nuveen, LLC

If you’re an investor that has maintained a diversified, disciplined approach to investing over the duration of the bull market, you have benefited and should be applauded for sticking to your plan. One thing is certain, markets move in cycles and giant beanstalks don’t grow into the clouds. As such, the key is to make sure that your financial plan has the right asset allocation to help you keep moving toward your long-term goals as the market keeps moving too. Let me know (or one of my fellow advisors) if you have questions, happy to help.

Enjoy the vestiges of summer and your Labor Day weekend; I hope it’s relaxing and fun. And if you have kids/grand-kids, I wish them a good school year ahead. For me, it’s kick-off to football season and I’m ready to cheer on my favorite teams. In San Francisco autumn means warmer, sunnier days ahead than the persistent fog bank that’s called summertime.

Eric Linser, CFA

3rd Quarter Update: Earnings, GDP, U.S. Dollar All Higher

Earnings for companies in the S&P500 grew by more than 20% year over year during the second quarter, repeating first quarter’s Tax Reform-boosted performance.  Companies that beat estimates were rewarded, and companies that missed either on guidance or sales were pushed down, but not to the degree we saw in the first quarter.   The increase in earnings has taken the market (SP 500) trailing P/E ratio down from very expensive 24.3 to modestly expensive  22.6.   Sentiment remains constructive with investors mildly positive, but below average bullishness for stocks’ outlook over the next 6 months.

Economic data is coming in mixed.  While GDP for the second quarter (4.1%) came in at the 5th fastest pace over the past 9 years, a large portion of this can be attributed to increased govt spending and the ‘pull-forward’ effect the Trade War tariffs have had on areas affected by increased taxes.   Adjusting GDP for these areas to average still gives a GDP read in the upper 2% range which indicates growth in the second quarter was strong.    The last previous 4% reads were followed by sequentially lower GDP prints over the following year however.

Real wages have stagnated year over year as inflation has increased its pace.  Wages climbed 2.9% while inflation is running at 2.9% year over year.    Wages had been the feared cause of inflation arising from Tax Reform stimulus.   The 70% climb in oil prices, along with healthcare and housing costs and tariffs/taxes being passed along to consumers are the actual drivers over the past 12 months.

As I referred to in my January Observations and Outlook, the US Dollar was destined to climb in 2018 after an incessant decline throughout 2017 (despite many factors that should have supported the greenback).   In January large traders were certain the US Dollar would continue to fall, and European and Emerging stock markets would do at least as well as US stocks.   Now seven months later, indeed the US Dollar has climbed dramatically while most stock markets outside the US are negative year to date.    The strong dollar has also taken its toll on precious and base metals.  Given the price declines abroad (and attendant airtime and print space) and US Dollar rapid increase, pundits are talking about ‘how bad can it get’, and reasons why the US Dollar will continue to strengthen, it may be time to again take the contrarian side of the dollar argument.

Valuations in emerging markets look much more attractive at lower prices, and no one seems to own gold anymore.  Vanguard recently shuttered one of its metals and mining mutual funds.  The price you pay for an asset has a tremendous impact on the return one sees, and currently prices are low.

Observations and Outlook July 2018

July 5, 2018

Selected Index Returns Year to Date/ 2nd Quarter Returns

Dow Jones Industrials    -.73%/1.26%        S&P 500   2.65%/3.43% 

MSCI Europe   -3.23%/-1.27%         Small Cap (Russell 2000)   7.66%/7.75% 

Emerging Mkts -7.68%/-8.66%     High Yld Bonds  .08%/1.0%

US Aggregate Bond -1.7%/-.17%       US Treasury 20+Yr -2.66%/.07%  

Commodity (S&P GSCI) 5.47%/4.09%  

The second quarter ended with a sharp decline from the mid-June highs, with US stock indexes retreating about 4.5% and ex-U. S markets losing upwards of 6%.  This pulled year-to-date returns back close to zero in the broad stock market indexes.  The only areas doing well on a year to date basis are US small cap and the technology sector.  Equity markets outside the US are in the red year to date languishing under the burden of a strengthening US Dollar and the constant threat of a tit-for-tat Trade War.  Areas of the market with exposure to global trade (US large cap, emerging markets, eurozone stocks) have had marginal performances while areas perceived to be somewhat immune to concerns about a Trade War have fared better.

Additionally, the bond market has only recently seen a slight reprieve as interest rates have eased as economic data has consistently come in below expectations—still expanding, but not expanding more rapidly.   Job creation, wage growth, and GDP growth all continue to expand but only at a similar pace that we have seen over the past several years.  The stronger US Dollar has wreaked havoc on emerging market bond indexes have fallen by more than 12% year to date.  And in the U.S., investment grade bond prices have fallen by more than 5% year to date, hit by a double whammy of higher interest rates and a widening credit spread (risk of default vs. US treasuries) has edged up.

On the bright side, per share earnings continue to grow more than 20%, with second quarter earnings expected to climb more than 20%, thanks in large part to the Tax Reform passed late in 2017.    As earnings have climbed and prices remain subdued, the market Price to Earnings ratio (P/E) has fallen making the market appear relatively less expensive and sentiment as measured by the AAII (American Assoc. of Individual Investors) has fallen from near 60% bullish on January 4th to 28% on June 28th, a level equal to the May 3 reading when the February-April correction ended. The Dow is approximately 800 points higher than the May 3 intraday low.

With reduced bullishness, increasing earnings, and expanding (albeit slow) GDP growth, there is room for equities to move up.  Bonds too have a chance for gains.  The meme of Global Synchronized Growth which justified the November-January run in stock prices and interest rates has all but died, given Europe’s frequent economic data misses and Japan’s negative GDP print in the first quarter.   This has taken pressure off interest rates and allowed the US 10-year Treasury yield to fall from a high of 3.11% on May 15 to 2.85% at quarter end.  I would not be surprised to see the 10-year yield fall further in the coming weeks.  Muted economic data with solid earnings growth would be beneficial to bonds and stocks respectively.

In my January Outlook I mentioned how the rise in ex-US stock markets followed closely the decline in the US Dollar.   The Dollar bottomed in late February and has gained dramatically since April.  This has been a weight around European and emerging market share prices and has been at the core of the emerging market debt problems mentioned above.  Fortunately, the Dollar’s climb has lost momentum and appears ready to pull back, likely offering a reprieve to shares priced in currencies other than the US Dollar.  It may also aid in US company earnings. So, while global economic and market conditions have changed since January, hindering prices of most assets, I believe we will see an echo of the 2016-2018 conditions that supported financial asset prices globally.   A declining dollar, muted investor bullishness, slowing global growth all should conspire to allow stock, bond and even precious metal prices to rise over the coming weeks, at least until investor bullishness gets well above average and the expectation of new lows for the US Dollar become entrenched again.

Looking Ahead

As second quarter earnings begin in earnest in mid-July, expectations are for approximately 20% climb in earnings.  A large portion is estimated to be due to tax reform passed late in 2017.  With market prices subdued and earnings climbing, the market’s valuation (Price to Earnings ratio) is looking more attractive.  While not cheap by any metric, this should give investors a reason to put money to work.  In the first quarter, analysts underestimated profits and had raised estimates all the way into the start of earnings season.  This is very rare.  The chart below shows us that generally analysts’ estimates decline going into earnings season.  Estimates start off high and then get lowered multiple times usually.   Second quarter of 2018 is setting up to be another rare event where we see again earnings estimates being raised into reporting season.
factset earnings 7 2018

The downside to the effect tax reform is having on earnings will be seen in 2019.   When comparisons to 2018 and 2019 quarterly earnings start to come out (in late 2018) the impact of lower taxes on the change in earnings will be gone.  In 2019 we will only see the change in earnings without the impact of tax reform.   Earnings growth will likely come down to the upper single digits.   How investors feel about this dramatic slowing in 2019 will dictate the path of stock prices.

Quantitative Tightening (QT) will dominate the headlines towards the end of the year.  Over the past 9 years central banks have pumped more than $12 trillion in liquidity into financial markets.  The US Fed stopped adding liquidity and has begun to let its balance sheet shrink, removing liquidity from financial markets.    During 2017 and 2018 the European Central bank and Bank of Japan more than made up for the US absence.   Europe and Japan are scheduled to reduce and eventually cease all new liquidity injections during 2019.  Combined with the Fed’s liquidity reductions, global financial markets will see a net reduction in liquidity.   This will have an impact on markets.  It is argued whether this will cause bond prices to fall (rates to rise) or it will have an impact on equity markets.   I believe it is likely this will impact both areas and the likelihood of falling bond and stock prices at the same time is significant.

US Dollar liquidity is another topic just starting to show up in the press.   The rise in 2018 of the US Dollar after a long decline has taken many market participants by surprise.  The “short US Dollar” and “short Treasury” trades were the most popular at the beginning of the year and have been upended.  It is often that once ‘everyone’ knows something, like that the US Dollar will continue to weaken, its about the time that area reverses and goes against how most are positioned.   The mystery really was given rising interest rates in the US and a stronger economy, why was the US Dollar weak to begin with?  Now the causes of a stronger Dollar are the weakness in Eurozone and Emerging market growth.    But which came first, the stronger Dollar or the weaker economies?

Below we can see the relationship of the US Dollar (UUP) and the TED Spread which is the difference in short term rates in the US and Europe.  The recent spike in funding costs (rates) parallels the rise in the Dollar index.  The rapid Dollar rise in 2014 was partly responsible for the Earnings Recession we saw in 2015.  There’s about 6 months to a year lag from when the Dollar strengthens to its impact on earnings.

ted spread july 2018

Ironically, part of the Tax Reform passed is a cause of poor Dollar liquidity (higher short-term rates result) and the strengthening Dollar.  The ability for US firms to repatriate earnings from abroad at a lower tax rate is causing Dollars to move from Eurozone back to the US.  Additionally, the $1 trillion plus budget deficit the US will run in 2018 and on into the future is also soaking up liquidity.  Repatriation, US deficits, and Fed tightening are all pushing the US Dollar up, and will likely see the Dollar stronger in 2019, which may impact US earnings in 2019.

Finally, there is China.   China is the largest consumer of raw materials.  Besides US PMI, the China Credit Impulse impacts base metals and other raw materials that other emerging market economies export.  When China is creating more, new credit we can see a rise in prices and in the growth of raw material exporting countries and a rise in US PMI with about a 12-month lag.  The chart below indicates that beyond the first half of 2018 the impact from the past China impulse will be fading.   This fade is happening at the same time global Central banks will be withdrawing liquidity and the US Dollar likely strengthening.   This scenario doesn’t bode well for risk assets in 2019.

china credit impulse pmi

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Happy 4th of July!

As our great country celebrates its independence, freedom and amidst the spectacular color and lights, as you gather with family and friends enjoying good food and laughter, we wish you a quiet moment to join us in reflecting on the wisdom and courage of the men and women who founded our country.

The values the set forth in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are just as important today as they were in 1776.

Take a moment and thank all of the people that have helped us remain free and independent.

If you or a loved one was or is in the military service, I thank them for their thank sacrifice.

Remember: freedom is never free!

 

My 2 Cents

Amid all the that often surrounds politics in the news, there is something happening economically, across the country that isn’t discussed nearly as much, because it’s the numbers, not the political pundits doing all the talking.

The U.S. Department Labor says that the U.S economy is growing with 276,000 new jobs added on average per month in 2018 alone.  That is, 94,000 more per month than in 2017.

Unemployment is down, help wanted signs are up! 

Today the fewer Americans file jobless claims, since 1969 and in March we saw Help Wanted Twounemployment rate fall below 4% fo the first time since 2000.   The Consumer Confidence Index is at an 18 year high and wages for American worker have increased by more than we since since 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These economic results seem to lean towards a theme that a combination of reduced federal regulations, lower taxes, protectionist trade positioning and an aggressive America first philosophy lead to a notable positive economic impact.

Potentially, this could mean continued higher earnings growth for workers and business owners.

May Turn Up in Stocks Likely to Last

After a very volatile correction lasting just over 4 months, May 3 marked a turn up in markets.   During the correction some indices made consecutively lower highs, and either higher lows (creating a triangle formation, small cap indices) or held at support multiple times (large cap stocks).    May 3 saw a price reversal and only a few days later many indices were making higher highs, breaking up through the downtrend.  During the rest of May stock price marched higher, despite on going geopolitical concerns and a disruptive Italian bond market.

International stocks also turned up early May, but were thwarted by the ongoing difficulties, politically and regarding the US Dollar strength.   Ex-US stocks appear to have retested correction lows at the end of May but have yet to catch up to US markets in exceeding high-water marks during the January-April correction.

Drivers of the renewed bullishness in prices are both fundamental and sentiment driven.  Fundamentally, earnings in Q1 grew by more than 25% year over year, with upwards of half that coming from tax reform.  After hitting a 7-year bullish extreme in January at 59%, sentiment towards stocks became quite negative after the correction took hold, bottoming at 26% bulls in early March.  Recently bullish sentiment was back up to 35%, and I expect bullish sentiment to increase to very high levels again prior to any significant declines in stock prices.

Additionally, the record earnings (and Q2 forecasts) have driven down the market Price to Earnings ratio from nearly 25x in January into the mid 22x range, based on trailing 12 months as-reported earnings.  Furthermore, according to FactSet analysts have been raising Q2 forecasts, contrary to history where estimates steadily decline into earnings season (setting up easy ‘beats’).   The decline in prices and increase in earnings, past and forecast, has pushed the ratio down, and essentially removed the discussion of how expensive the market is.   Sentiment moving up from lows, and earnings (be they tax driven or economic) climbing should make it easy for investors to push money into stocks over the coming weeks or months.

This Correction Was Different

The dive in stocks in February came on the heels of a rise in interest rates.  The yield on the 10-year Treasury went from 2.38% December 29, 2017 to 2.85% on January 29.  This significant rise is akin to the rise in rates after Trump’s election and the ‘Taper Tantrum’ when Fed Chair Bernanke stated that the Fed will raise rates ‘sometime in the future’ in the summer of 2013.  Both post-election and in the summer of 2013 stock prices rose as bond prices fell (bond prices and rates move inversely to each other).    This time however rates were ‘too high’ and would either effect corporations’ profits or the relative attractiveness of stocks vs bonds, causing (or at least giving a reason) for both stocks and bonds to fall at the same time.

The significant prior declines in stock prices late 2015/early 2016, as well as 2nd half of 2011 (US credit rating downgrade) were accompanied by a decline in interest rates, pushing up bond prices.  The past several large moves in either rates or stock prices were met with opposite reactions from the other asset class.  This behavior is the root of Modern Portfolio Theory, investing across asset classes to reduce volatility.   This natural diversification that has been at the root of finance academia for over 30 years, but may be coming to an end.

The result is that investors who are more conservative, seeking a traditional 60/40 stock and bond split may encounter fluctuations like those more aggressive investors who are much more exposed to stocks.   And the worst-case scenario of a bear market in stocks may be accompanied by rising rates/falling bond prices.   Investors who are not aware of this and who do not have a plan on how to reduce volatility in both asset classes will have a very difficult time when the current bull market ends.  It will be important going forward to have a strategy in place if both assets decline in price and not rely on traditional diversification concepts.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

April Recap: Narrative Changes

Stocks rose a fraction of a percent, gold fell 1%, and the bond index fell 1% in April, continuing the very choppy sideways price movement we’ve experienced this year.   The month ended just below middle of the price range we’ve seen since the market top on January 26th.

Over the past few weeks, earnings have been spectacular, growing over 20% on an annual basis.  Unfortunately, stock prices have not reacted well to this great news.  Earnings season appears to have a ‘sell the news’ feel to it.  This could support the notion that stocks were priced to perfection going into reporting season.    The decline in prices and increase in earnings has reduced the market P/E (Price to Earnings) multiple, which could allow stocks to rise back to January levels.   Tax Reform has accounted for about 1/2 of the earnings growth.  There are two issues going forward.  One is that continuing

to grow at that pace will be difficult since we cannot cut taxes every year (and the tax changes to individuals are front loaded—the reductions we have seen will fade in the coming years). Secondly, earnings’ growth slowing, even from 20% to maybe 12%, can be seen as a negative: “slowing earnings growth”.   Surprising positive economic data because of tax reform needs to show up immediately, otherwise, the ‘hope’ baked into stock prices may be removed in the coming months.

Through the month of April, the narrative of ‘global synchronized growth’ has changed as European economic data has come in softer than expected and the US economy has pressed on.  So now we see the US as a main driver of global growth.  In the very short term, this narrative change has given the US Dollar a boost up.   Over the past few months, ‘dollar short’ and ‘rates higher’ have been very popular trades and have begun to unravel.   A stronger dollar will do harm to future US corporate earnings, make $-denominated emerging market debt more difficult to pay back, and serve as a headwind to ex-US assets (emerging, Asian and European stocks and bonds).  And slower growth will not support higher rates for longer term bonds.

The change in the growth narrative/data has been substantial enough for the Federal Reserve to remove from its FOMC Statement, “The economic outlook has strengthened in recent months.”   Often the Fed will change a word or two in certain sentences.  They could have change it from ‘strengthened’ to ‘remains strong’ or ‘continues to expand’.  Instead they dropped it altogether.   This is influencing perceptions of how many times more this year the Fed will raise short term rates.  In the WSJ today the front-page headline, “Fed is On Course for Rate Increases”.  Given the boldness of this headline, its odd to see in the article an inference that even if inflation was stronger, the Fed wont raise rates more than already indicated, which is twice more this year.  There is a dichotomy in the Fed’s statement: taking out the growth story but keeping to the idea that rising inflation is OK, or even good.  Last time I checked, slowing growth and rising interest rates weren’t a good combination: stagflation.   The Fed needs to review the difference between ‘cost-push’, and ‘demand-pull’ inflation.

AAII sentiment for the week ending May 2 came out this morning and Bullishness declined, and Bearishness increased.  This is as expected given that stocks were down over those survey days.  Bullishness isn’t quite as low as I’d like to see for a good bottom, but if stocks can undercut February’s lows, we should see Sentiment get negative enough to support a rally in stock prices going into the late Spring.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA