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

Observations and Outlook January 2018

Investors have not been as fully invested in the stock market since 2000.  Does this mean anything?

Maybe.  It is a reflection of investor expectations though.  One can infer this by assuming investors own what they think will go up in price and therefore is investors are very long, then they expect prices to rise.  The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) recorded the highest level of optimism in 7 years, since December 2010.  The historical average is 38.5%.   In an article from AAII, dated January 4, 2018 they review how markets performed after unusually high bullish and usually low bearish sentiment readings.

From AAII:    “There have only been 46 weeks with a similar or higher bullish sentiment reading recorded during the more than 30-year history of our survey. The S&P 500 index has a median six-month return of 0.5% following those previous readings, up slightly more times than it has been down.   Historically, the S&P 500 has realized below-average and below-median returns over the six- and 12-month periods following unusually high bullish sentiment readings and unusually low bearish sentiment readings. The magnitude of underperformance has been greater when optimism is unusually high than when pessimism has been unusually low.”

This does not necessarily mean that our current market will decline rapidly.  Actually, AAII finds that while returns are below-median, they are positive.  Positive as in ‘above zero’.   Sentiment drives markets and when sentiment gets too extreme, either in bullish for stocks or bearishness for bonds or any other financial asset, returns going forward are likely to disappoint.  If everyone has bought (or sold) who is left to drive prices up (or down)?   What we need to recognize is that investors become optimistic after  large advances in the stock market, and pessimistic after declines.  UM-Probability-of-Stock-Mkt-Rise-Oct-2017-1024x705_thumb1

Again, this chart above does not mean we are about to enter a bear market.  It only shows the markets progress at points of extreme optimism.  We can see in 2013 into 2015 rising expectations and a rising market as well as from 2003 to 2007.   Now that we can visualize the mood of the market, lets review some other metrics from 2017 and what is in store for 2018.

2017 was interesting in several areas.  It was the first time in history the S&P500 had a ‘perfect year’ where every month showed gains in stock prices.  We are also in record territory for the longest length of time without a 5% pullback, almost 2 years.   Historically, 5% drawdowns have occurred on average 3-4 times each year.  In addition to price records, there are several valuation metrics at or near all-time records.    The ‘Buffet Indicator’ (market capitalization to GDP) just hit 1.4, a level not seen since Q4 1999.  “Highest ever” records are exceeded well into mature bull markets, not the early stages.  Stock markets generally spend most of the time trying to recover to previous highs and far less of the time exceeding them.    Momentum and priced-to-perfection expectations regarding tax policy are driving investors to be all-in this market, as reflected by Investors Intelligence Advisors’ (IIA) and American Assoc. of Individual Investors (AAII) stock allocation and sentiment surveys each at 18 and 40-year extremes.  Combined with the Rydex Assets Bull/Bear Ratio, at its all-time extreme bullish reading, it’s difficult to argue who else there is to come into the market and buy at these levels.

However, bullish extremes and extreme valuations can persist.  Their current levels do likely indicate that we are well into a mature bull market.   The bull was mature in 1998 too and went on to get even more extreme.  This is the case many perma-bulls trot out, that since were not as extreme as 1999, there is plenty of room to run, and ‘dont worry’.

The US Dollar and Quantitative Tightening

The current ‘conundrum’ is why is the US dollar so weak?  We have a Fed that is raising interest rates growth likely to exceed 3% in the fourth quarter.  Usually a rising currency would accompany these conditions.    The dollar declined throughout 2017.  This was a tailwind for assets outside the U.S. whose value in dollar terms increases as the dollar declines vs foreign currencies.   If the dollar begins to move back up this will be a headwind for ex-US assets and for sales/profits to large companies in the S&P 500 who do almost half their business outside the U.S.

In addition, central banks have given notice that, while the Fed ended QE in late 2015, other central banks are beginning to end their programs with the European Central Bank reducing its bond purchases from 60 billion euros per month to the current 30 billion, and down to 0 in September 2018.   The Bank of Japan (and the Japanese Pension Fund) have declared they are reducing their purchase of stocks, bonds, and ETFs.  Only China hasn’t formally announced and end to market interventions.   Most pundits are pointing to the bond market as the area that will be most affected.  Possibly, but to claim that bonds will get hurt and stocks will be fine is ignoring how global equities have performed hand-in-glove with banks’ liquidity injections over the past 10 years.  Both stocks and bonds will likely be affected.

Yield Curve Inversion (or not)

I102YTYS_IEFFRND_I30YTR_chart

The chart above shows in red the persistent decline in 30-year treasury rates.  This week Bill Gross called the bottom (in rates, the top in prices).  This may be premature as one can see dips and climbs over the past few years, all of which have been accompanied by calls of the end of the 35 year bond bull market.

What is more interesting is that in the past 3 recessions, the yield curve as seen through the 10-2 Year Treasury Yield Spread declines, through the zero level (aka inversion, 10yr bonds paying less than 2 year notes) before a recession.   Our current level of .5% is not far from zero.   Most people are waiting to see it invert before saying a recession in on the way, often adding it will be a year beyond that point.    If one looks very closely at the chart we can see said spread actually increase after bottoming out, just prior to a recession starting (which wont be officially recognized until 6-8 months along).   While there are different factors influencing the 2yr and the 10yr rates, a spread widening might be a more important development than continued compression.

Finally, what does all this mean for an investor.   In short, we must all recognize that a 24 month span without a 5% decline is extremely unusual, as there are often 3-4 in a given year.   Also that when investors are most optimistic, returns often lag with the more extreme readings leading to more significant changes.  Mature bull markets eventually end and investors with a longer term horizon need to have a strategy not only for growing their investments, but also protecting the gains one already has.

We all know how to deal with a bull market, but few people have a strategy on how to deal with a bear market.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Oberservations and Outlook July 2017

Selected Index Returns 2nd Quarter/ Year to Date
Dow Jones Industrials    3.95%/ 9.35%          S&P 500   3.09%/9.34%         MSCI Europe   7.37%/15.36%

Small Cap (Russell 2000)   2.46%/4.99%     Emerging Mkts  6.27%/18.43%     High Yld Bonds   1.37%/15.3%

US Aggregate Bond 1.45%/2.27%   US Treasury 20+Yr   4.18%/5.66%    DJ/UBS Commodity -3%/-5.26%

2017 and its second quarter continue to be kind to financial assets, with both stocks, bonds and gold all climbing year to date.    European and Emerging Market equities have been the strongest this year, rising smartly after falling by 10% during the second half of 2016.  Emerging Market equity funds are back to a price area that stretches back to 2009!

Bonds continue to vacillate in an upward trend since mid-December. The commodity index is down primarily due to oil, as agriculture and base metals are essentially flat on the year after a recent climb.

Correlations between stocks and bonds have increased recently, with equities being flat over the past 6 weeks as bond prices have declined over the last two weeks.   While this phenomenon is negative for investors, equities appear to remain well inside their uptrend while bonds (and gold) appear to be near medium-term support levels.  We may see both stocks, bonds, and gold again climb concurrently reflecting a continuation of the year to date behavior.

What has been driving stock prices?  Growing earnings, low interest rates, lack of inflation, and ‘moderate’ GDP growth are the most common reasons to explain how prices have gotten to these levels.  Earnings have been on the rise since the end of the ‘earnings recession’ that lasted from June 2014 through March 2016.   After a decline of some 14% we’re now growing again, even robustly, given the low base from the previous year.  Earnings are still one or two quarters away from hitting new all-time highs, yet the S&P500 is roughly 20% higher than in early 2015.  The chart below gives us a visual of what prices rising faster than earnings looks like. Anytime the ratio is moving up indicates prices climbing faster than earnings.

shiller cape 6 30 2017Source: www.multpl.com

By this metric (and there are many others) stocks are valued at a level only exceeded by the roaring ‘20s and the dot-com era.  Can earnings continue to grow to support valuations?  The continued lack of wage growth and continued generationally low labor participation rate are headwinds to growth in consumer spending.  Consumer credit growth has slowed dramatically over the past six months and without wage or credit growth it’s difficult to see how the consumer will spend more to support ‘moderate’ GDP growth.  Low interest rates, or the comparison of low rates to dividend and earnings yield have provided much support over the past several years to the reasoning behind bidding up stocks faster than their earnings growth.

Interest rates bottomed one year ago at 1.3% (10-year treasury) and then ran up to 2.6%, mid-range since 2010 and the upper range of rates since late 2013.  The jury is out still on whether this marks the end of the bond bull market that has lasted since 1981.  The problem is that if consumers and businesses must increase their interest expense, there is that much less left to expand their consumption and investment.   Low rates had been a key enabler of more borrowing, leading to more consumption, and higher profits.  Now, in some areas, analysts are saying that higher rates are ALSO good for stocks because it represents growth expectations.  Frankly we’ve been ‘expecting’ growth now for several years, and the only positive representation of growth (GDP) we have seen is due to a willful under-reporting of inflation.   Gains in expenses in housing, healthcare, and education have far outstripped the general inflation rate.  At the same time, official statisticians tell us our TVs, cell phones, and other tech devices are far cheaper, because we ‘get more’ for our money.  This is called hedonic adjustments.  Look this up and you will understand why one’s personal experience with the cost of living doesn’t mesh with the official inflation statistics.

It seems the main reasons we are given for buoyant stock prices appear tapped out or stretched.  The thing is, it’s been like this for a few years now.  So then, what really is driving prices?  Some of it has to do with FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.  No one wants to get left behind as prices rise, even if said prices already appear expensive.   As fundamentals have deteriorated over the past few years what is causing or who could be that marginal buyer who always seems to have more money to put towards financial assets? Perhaps this chart has something to do with it.

Central-Bank-Balance-Sheets-Versus-MSCI-World-Index

As central banks have purchased outstanding bonds (and equities in the cases of Japan, Switzerland and Israel among others) the cash or liquidity provided has found its way back into the equity markets.  Additional effects have been to put a bid under bonds, increasing prices and lowering rates.  What many investors in the U.S. don’t realize is that the European and Japanese central banks continue to this day putting approximately $400 billion per month into the financial markets.  If this is the true reason behind stock and bond price levels today, any cessation, slowing or even anticipation of slowing will likely have negative effects on asset prices.  The chart below shows where the U.S. Fed ended its QE efforts while Japan and Europe picked up all the slack and then some.  The astute observer can see where the Fed tapered, while the ECB was not adding liquidity, from 2014 to 2015.  From mid-2014 to early 2016, the Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF dropped by 29%.

central bank buying 4 2017

Beyond central bank liquidity creation there is also the concept of growth in the private sector.  Here too we see that a phenomenal amount of debt must be created to sustain growth.   New debt creation in China dwarfs the rest of the world.  China has put up high growth numbers the past several years, more than 7% annually.

private sector debt creation qe

Going forward it will be crucial to watch for central banks’ behavior as to ending current ‘QE’ policies.  Japan is still committed to a 0% 10yr bond rate, yet the ECB has begun to state that its bond buying won’t last forever, and is likely to slow by mid-2018.  The U.S. Fed has indicated continued tightening via rate hikes (likely one more this year) and to begin to let ‘roll off’ maturing bonds.  The roll-off will take liquidity from the markets.  It will start small and gradually increase in 2019 and thereafter.  These cessation tactics are done under the current understanding that financial conditions are ‘easy’.  Put another way, the banks will start to slow new liquidity and then drain liquidity as long as financial conditions, which include stock market levels, don’t get to difficult.   What exactly is the Fed’s downside tolerance is unknown.  What is knowable, is that the decision-making process takes months to be put into effect and by that time, markets could move down and growth could halt.

Near Term vs Long Term

The concepts of credit creation and central bank balance sheets and their respective monetary policies are will have impacts on asset prices over the longer term.   Year over year earnings growth forecasts, specific companies’ ‘beats’ or ‘misses’ and monthly data on inflation, job growth, and wages all have short term impacts on the stock market.  Currently, earnings are expected to grow robustly, official inflation is subdued and official unemployment are all in the “very good” range.  Combine that with the Fear Of Missing Out concept and that should help keep the markets up and even higher for a while longer.  The problem is that simply because we want markets to move higher doesn’t mean they will.  At some point paying 30x earnings will seem too expensive and the markets will lose some marginal buyers and some will become sellers, for whatever reason.   Based on current valuation metrics and the business cycle, we know that equity returns over the next several years will be very low.  If rates go up, and/or credit (the ability to pay) worsens for individuals and businesses bond funds will likely suffer as well.  Over the long term, avoiding large losses or drawdowns, even while lagging the market on the upside, can have a dramatic positive impact over a full market cycle.

What Can Be Done

If one suspects returns will be lackluster, and prices volatile, should one endure it?  The solution is at once simple and difficult at the same time given our cultural of equity ownership and the media’s constant focus on one asset class: equities.

Diversifying amongst the other 6 asset classes is a start.  Most advice revolves around two classes, stocks and bonds.  If one truly wants to buy low and sell high, one must identify the other areas that are “low”, increase exposure there, and reduce exposure to “high” asset classes.  Not only does this smooth out volatility but can increase long term returns.   Given the outlook for more volatility in stock and bond prices; very low prices (historically and relative to other assets) in precious metals, agriculture and oil; there should be many opportunities to take advantage of short term swings to benefit and move some ‘eggs’ from the equity side into other, non- and lower-correlated asset classes that are currently much lower in price.

Easier said than done, yes.  This is exactly why investors should seek out Investment Advisors willing to do this difficult work and that have a strategy to deal with changing markets.  For more information on how I am doing this for my clients, please contact me.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.

Observations and Outlook April 2017

Equity prices peaked on March 1 and have been sideways to down since.  Interest rates (10-yr treasury) peaked on December 16 and were nearly matched on March 10, but since then have declined, going slightly below the range we have seen since November 22.  Gold bottomed in mid-December (along with bond prices), climbed to a high in late February and as of today, is pushing through that high mark.    On balance, risk assets have ebbed lower while bonds and gold have increased in price since the end of February.  Bond and gold prices have climbed back to their mid and early November (post-election) levels.  This price action speaks directly to the “Trump/Reflation Trade” we hear about in the news.

Trump Trade Withers

trump trade

Source: heisenbergreport.com
The “Trump Trade” is seen to manifest itself in a rising US Dollar (green), higher stock prices (purple) and higher interest rates (blue).  The Trade has gone nowhere since mid-December, and was decidedly weaker as ACA reform failed to pass in Congress

The past five months’ gains in the stock markets have been widely attributed to the policies the new administration hopes to implement.   At the same time, U.S. corporate earnings ended an Earnings Recession, that had pulled down earnings to 2012 levels.   In the fourth quarter of 2016 the earnings recession ended and had been forecast to do so since early in 2016.   Most of the gain in earnings was due to the base-effect seen in the energy sector.  Energy sector earnings plummeted in 2015 and provided a low bar for earnings to cease its ‘negative growth’.     The two concurrent topics that coincided with the latest rapid climb in stock prices were the cessation of declining earnings, and anticipated policy changes along with their presumed financial impacts.

For the remainder of the year, the focus will remain on these two areas:  earnings and implementation of Trump’s promised policy changes.  The repeal and replacement of the ACA (Obamacare) did not occur and its unknown when it may.  Recently this was seen as the gateway to then reforming the tax code followed by a fiscal spending plan focused around a decrease in social programs, a large increase in defense spending and a $1T to $2T ‘infrastructure’ plan.   With the defeat of the first attempt to repeal and replace ACA, the collective Trump Trade was dealt a blow and the remaining policies passage and implementation are less certain.

Tax policy and regulatory reform are next up and as the conversation around these begins, it’s likely that hope of tax law change will increase. The expectation that these changes will have a meaningful impact on earnings and disposable income will buoy stock prices in the short term.  Passage, implementation, and resulting impacts of policy changes are literally a multi-quarter process.  During that time, as I indicated in January, markets are likely to swing up and down several percentage points as hope of passage and fear of failure compete for investors’ attention.

The low bar for the energy sector remains low, and analysts’ expectations for earnings to grow remains intact, supported by the lower-than-usual reduction in earnings forecast.  Often a full year’s earnings forecast can drop by 1/4 through the course of the year, and when we see earnings estimates decline less rapidly the end of year reduction is often more like only a 1/8 reduction from beginning of year estimates to end of year final numbers.   Current 2017 earnings estimates are $119.80, which is about 5% lower than forecast a year ago and 1% lower than forecast at the end of 2016.   Continuing this pace of reduction, an estimate for 2017 earnings is $112.50.    IF that number is accurate it puts the forward Price to Earnings ratio at 20.9, which is higher than 90% of all other time periods since 1900.   Longer term forward returns from this level are often in the low single digits.

Over short periods of time (less than 3 years) investors often bid up prices well above longer term averages, which we have seen since 2014 and the start of the earnings recession.  Stock prices have risen far faster than earnings have over the past 4 years and its likely with growth resuming we could see even more extended valuations.

Other Considerations

The 30-year bond bull market is not dead.   Over the past few years, the idea that low interest rates were the ‘reason’ one should be accepting of high stock valuations (high p/e ratio, low earnings and dividend yields).  More recently we are hearing that increasing rates are also good for stock prices.   For rising rates and rising stock prices to occur together, there is a fine line to be tread.  Not too much inflation, not too much of an increase in rates while companies grow sales and earnings.   Essentially, we need the rate of change in the growth rate to be bigger than the change in interest rates.   Given the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now Forecast shows only .6% rate of growth estimated for the first quarter.   This rate is lower than the past few quarters while the yield on the 10-yr Treasury has gone from 1.33% to 2.37%.    It’s more likely that along with stock prices, bond prices will vacillate within a range as policy expectations evolve and we await economic growth.

10yr tsy yld

Additionally, we have seen this, and higher increases in nominal rates without the bond bull dying out.  Some may say that as our national debt and aging demographics continue, our interest rate outlook may be similar to Japan’s experience over the past 20+ years.

While the US Fed has ended, its bond buying (“QE”) the eurozone and Japan continue to add liquidity by buying government and corporate debt of approximately $300 billion per quarter.

central bank buying 4 2017

This is referred to as “Policy Divergence”.  While the ECB and Japan ‘liquidate’ their bond markets, the US has ceased and expectations are that the Fed will tighten/raise rates while Japan holds their 10yr at 0%.  This expected interest rate differential leads to changes in exchange rates.  The changes we have seen since mid-2014 is a much stronger US dollar.   There is nothing on the horizon that indicates this Policy Divergence will end, which should indicate a continued strengthening of the US Dollar.

usd eur bund rate differentialSource: SocGen

This chart shows how the relationship between interest rates corresponds (currently very tightly) with the exchange rate, EUR/USD.  The future path of the US dollar will be determined by US economic and Federal Reserve policy vs.  ECB and eurozone policy and rate of growth.  Since the US has the early lead, ceasing QE and beginning to tighten, along with a new pro-growth President, it’s hard to see how the US Dollar will weaken without dramatic shifts in US and ECB policies.

In Summary

The outlook for stocks and bonds remains:  choppy with large swells.   Since November, markets have priced in passage of, and perfectly positive impacts from, Trumps tax and reform policies.   While at the same time, earnings have begun to grow anew, but are only at 2015 levels.   This combination has made today’s equity prices among the most expensive in history.   The Hope and Expectations born from Trump’s election are still with us, despite the recent healthcare setback.  As such, stock prices may very likely become even more stretched (higher) as debate regarding taxes begins and evolves into the summer months.

Bonds were sold off very dramatically post-election and will likely continue to gain in price as uninspiring economic data comes in while we continue in our multi-year vision of “growth in the second half of the year”.

While earnings may be increasing, the age-old question of how much are investors willing pay for $1 of earnings persists.   Their ‘willingness’ is often derived from feelings and expectations of the future.  If the future appears bright, prices can appreciate.  Sometimes this appreciation begets its own feelings and can lead to further appreciation without commensurate changes in earnings.  The risk there is that of an ‘air-pocket’ where future expectations are cut to match a duller present and prices move accordingly.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.

 

The Definition of “Long Term Investor”

What is the difference between long-term characteristics of the market, and owning the market for a long term and how can an investor benefit from knowing the difference.

The phrase “Long Term Investor” is used quite often, and there are many definitions.  The IRS defines a long-term investment as anything held more than 1 year.  Most people though would agree that long-term refers to a much longer time frame, usually at least 5 years.  However, when we read about equity market statistics, we are shown 30 and often 70 or even 100-year time spans.  I saw a recent article with a 500-year time span.  Given the average human life span, and that our peak earning and accumulation years are from our mid-40s to mid-60’s, most investors actually have about a 20-year time horizon of accumulation.

A “long term investor” isn’t one who buys and holds for a long span of time.  A long-term investor recognizes the long-term characteristics of equity (and other) markets.  For example, over the very long term (+20yrs), earnings per share follow GDP growth, the average 20yr annualized return is just over 7% (with dividends adding to this), and that over shorter periods of time, actual returns can vary greatly from the average.  The long-term investor also understands that the averages over the more volatile shorter periods of time are the pieces that create the 20-year average. One can see the volatility, or range of returns, over shorter periods below.

1-3-5-10-20-yr-avg-returns-schwab-ctr-for-financial-research      Source: http://www.investopedia.com/articles/stocks/08/passive-active-investing.asp?ad=dirN&qo=investopediaSiteSearch&qsrc=0&o=40186

The periods when we most often hear the phrase “I’m a long-term investor” being used, unfortunately, are when stock markets have experienced a significant decline.  To assuage the pain of real or paper losses, investors will often claim this characterization, with the unspoken assumption that ‘it will come back’.  And it always has, if you waited long enough.   From Charles Schwab Inc., via Investopedia.com we can see that yes, over very long periods of time, 20 years in this case, the market always has a positive return.

The chart below shows us the extremes. The low seen in 1979 to 1982 at about a 3% 20-year annualized returns, and the late 1990’s, from 1998 to 2001 which saw 20 year annualized returns over 13%.  While still positive, it’s much more helpful for an investor to invest over the right period! But how can one tell when ‘the right period’ might be at hand? Or even better, when the ‘wrong time’ might, so one can avoid a period of poor returns.  While not widely disseminated, missing the bad times has a far more powerful impact than staying invested, per this study by Meb Faber of Cambria Investment Management https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1908469

avg-20-yr-returnsSource: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-average-S-P-500-return-over-20-years

So, while it is clear that, ‘in the long run’, if you wait long enough you will have positive returns.  From the chart above we can see that there are periods when long term returns are well below and above the 7% average.   How can we avoid being drawn into the low return eras?   Another long-term characteristic of equity markets is that Price to Earnings (P/E) ratios expand and contract.  That is for $1 in earnings, sometimes people pay $25 in price (a 25 P/E ratio) and other times less than $10.

For those well versed in market history, we know that the exemplary 20 year annualized returns seen in the late 1990’s, saw their birth in the low Price to Earnings era of the early 1980’s.  There are many studies showing how long term returns are borne from low P/E multiples.   Given that currently we are only beginning to enter the 20-years-later period after the dot.com bubble, we only have the first 20-year cycle from 1995, which gave us 7.3% annualized price growth.  Given that the late 1990’s saw large price appreciation, this acts as a headwind to the 20yr annualized returns in the next few years.  The S&P 500 started 1997 at 766 and if we end at 2200 in 2016 that will give us only 5.4% 20yr returns.  The S&P500 started 1998 at 963, and to maintain the 5.4% 20yr returns, the S&P500 would need to end 2017 at 2765, a gain of more than 25%!    The propensity is for the 20 year annualized returns to continue the downward slope that began in 2002 and likely repeat the bottoms like 1980, 1949 and four other periods where long term (20yr+) returns were very low.  The chart below is from Barry Ritholtz.

rolling-20-yr-returns-ritholzSource: http://ritholtz.com/2011/12/dow-jones-industial-average/

The results since this chart was created in 2010 are indeed following the red dashed line down.  Knowing that the market in 2000 was amongst the most expensive ever (highest P/E ratio) it should be considered that the 20 years ending in 2020 may see results that are amongst the worst in the past 100 years.  To have 0% return from 2000 to 2020, the S&P 500 would only need to decline by 31%, about the average for a bear market.   To have 2.5% annualized return from January 2000 to January 2020, the S&P500 would end 2019 at 2335, a change of about 6%, or only 2% annually.    The moral of the story is outlook for equity returns over the next 2-3 years is low and likely volatile, not a good risk to return prospect.

What Should One Do?

While 20yr annualized returns are slow moving data points, it’s clear that the long-term average is in decline.  Paying a high price (high P/E multiple) leads to poor long term returns is a slow lesson investors simply don’t have the time to learn from experience, and that many Baby Boomers can ill afford to learn now.

Knowing, or rather, expecting returns from stocks to be low going forward will enable an investor to seek returns from other asset classes.   Few Investment Advisors currently work with models outside of the traditional stock/bond portfolio mix.   An Advisor who recognizes that there are indeed 7 asset classes with which to pursue returns has an advantage.  Being successful at putting that understanding to work, is, indeed, the work of portfolio management.

Investors who want to earn returns in the medium term should look to other asset classes for returns, ideally ones that meet the ‘low’ metric for their markets.   True diversification is the call today, not simply bonds and stocks, but also commodities like oil and agriculture, precious metals and even cash.

If you would like more information on my Volatility Based Dynamic Asset Allocation process that seeks positive gains regardless of how equity or bond markets perform, contact me via email at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.