Client Note June 2020

As we close June and the first half of 2020, financial markets continue their rebound from the first quarter’s corona-crash.  In very volatile markets there will be many “best/worst X since Y”.  The close at 3100 on the SP500 reflects the best quarter in the sp500 since 1987, with a gain of 19.9%.  After a 36% decline off the all-time high and subsequent 40% gain, puts the SP500 at -4% year to date and -9% below the all-time highs.  Our average moderate portfolio gained almost 15% for the quarter and is up 4% on the year.  While further upside is possible but in the short term, US equity markets are in a downtrend since June 23.  On a larger time, frame, we have downtrends since June 8 and off the highs on February 19thGetting over 3200 should open the door towards 3400+, but if we lose the 3000 level, my medium-term outlook will change.  Our individual stocks continue to do very well.

International equities continue to sorely lag US equities.  European shares gained 2.5% on the month, and currently sit at -14% year to date.  Japan gained 1% and China ebbed 1.6% on the month and both fall well short of the SP500 at -7% and -9%, respectively, year to date.  Emerging markets were the winner on the month at +6% but also have made far less progress recovering post-crash, coming in at     -11% year to date. We sold the last bits of emerging and international equities towards the end of the month.

In credit markets, treasuries have dominated over all other areas of the bond markets.  The long bond/20-yr treasury ebbed by 2.25% during the month, is flat for the quarter and up a massive 20% for 2020.  Even with equivalent maturities, treasuries are outpacing investment grade and junk bonds by 5% and 17%(!) respectively.  The investment grade corporate bond etf, LQD is up 5.1% ytd, while junk bond etf, JNK is -7.7% ytd.   This disparity is due to the rapid credit deterioration seen during this severe recession.  Given this, and spike in covid19 cases, its unlikely rates will rise appreciably in the near term.  Our long treasury position was reduced late March at slightly higher prices.

Economic data released in June continue to show improvement over the April/May shutdown (naturally).    The pace at which the economy would rebound after reopening is a hot topic.  We are seeing rapid improvement in some areas but the estimates versus data are showing extremely poor forecasting ability by economists in the short term.  I am watching year over year data to see how much rebound we are getting.  If July and August data show similar growth as May and June, we could see 90% of more of the economy back by Labor Day.  The trend of economic recovery is far more important than the level.  Ideally, we will trend higher and higher until full recovery.   At the end of July, we will get the first read on GDP for the second quarter.  The Atlanta Fed current estimate has risen to   -36%. 

Looking forward, the recent spike in virus cases has opened the door to the risk that the re-opening of the economy will be slowed, as we are more likely to see county or regional shutdowns.  Continued support from the Fed and continuation of stimulus programs are critical.  A bit higher in equities may provide some momentum to get to 3400 and Fed intervention can keep rates low.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note May 2020

June 1, 2020

Like April, equity markets started the month of May off slowly, but over the past 10 days, the S&P500 has gained roughly 4.5% on the month putting it at -5.7% year to date.    International equity indices gained a bit more for the month but continue to lag the U.S. by a wide margin.     Bonds were generally flat, with junk bonds moving up alongside stocks, while a small move up in interest rates pushed the long bond (TLT) down slightly on the month.   Gold moved up almost 3% on the month, after being up almost 4% mid-month.  And our individual stocks continue to do well, enabling our average moderate portfolio to add just over 3.5% for May and for year to date returns approaching 4%.

Looking ahead, it appears investors are pricing the market in expectation of a solid second half recovery and near full economic recovery into 2021.  While investors have bid up prices in anticipation, there is a loooong way to go to recover from the sinkhole we are in.   Current earnings estimates for second quarter are expected to drop 35%, reflecting a full year estimate of around $100/share of the SP500. If that occurs and the expected earnings bounce in Q3 and Q4, we have a forward Price to Earnings ratio of 30x, which is extremely expensive.  We will see earnings in mid-July; first read on GDP at the end of July; and all the while we will see employment numbers each week.   On going jobless claims have now exceeded 20 million, reflecting an unemployment rate a bit under 15%.   Economic data will remain dire.  The hope is that employment and spending figures rebound rapidly in the coming weeks. 

As mentioned last month, the expectations and sentiment that direct short term prices are well ahead of actual improvements in employment or spending (declining).  We have made significant progress in flattening the curve with the virus.  We have seen stock prices climb dramatically alongside the hope of a rapid economic recovery. However, we are seeing an even more stretched disparity between current prices and reality on the ground.  This does keep markets at risk of wide price vacillations.

Attaining and holding 3000 on the SP500 does allow for further upside in the markets and while I rotate out of individual stocks that have lost their ‘mojo’ (or take profits), there is another handful I am tracking and may show up in portfolios in the coming days.  In my April Observations and Outlook, with tongue firmly in cheek, I outlined a path for stocks to 4000 if the Fed continues to add liquidity/monetize debt. Since that writing, the Fed has covered a quarter of that quantity.  The rise in the Fed balance sheet has paralleled a rise in equity prices. The Fed continues to plan for and express willingness to continue its balance sheet expansion in pursuit of its stated mandates: full employment and stable prices.

Prices across virtually all asset classes remain constructive considering Fed actions and optimism towards renewed economic vigor.  State re-openings have occurred, and the expectations are for rapid improvement in employment and spending.  There is a nascent uptick in the outperformance of equal-weighted and value indexes versus the general market.  This market characteristic often shows up at the beginning of economic expansions and longer bull markets.  June’s economic data and market price action should give us a great deal of insight into the remainder of the year.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note April 2020

Equity markets moved up strongly in April.  The S&P500 moved up 12%, and currently off 3% from the April 29th intraday high.  Gold jumped early in the month, then flat for a gain of 7% in April.  Long treasury bonds moved up in price by 1% but have been on the wane since April 21st.   Most asset classes have been rangebound (+/-3%) since early to mid-April, reflecting a decrease in market momentum.  The average moderate portfolio gained approximately 9% vs the SP500 gains of 12% in April.  Year to date, through April 30, SP500 is off 9.9% while most portfolios are very close to 0% year to date. 

Economic data continues to come in at extremely negative levels.  Auto sales fell by 45% April 2020 vs April 2019.  China, in February saw a 90% drop.  Current market sentiment is bearish and consumer confidence declined from 101 in February to 71 in April.  This is similar to the decline from February 2007 to June 2008 (the month Fannie and Freddie’s first attempted bailout, after losing 50% of their value that month), which saw a decline of 35%.  This could be another reflection on how this recession is being ‘front-loaded’.   We have seen already how GDP and employment has fallen as much as the entire 2008 Great Financial Crisis, but now expect robust rebound by year end.

In light of all this, equity markets have remained buoyant, after the March decline.  This may further indicate the front-loaded- ‘ness’ of this economic period.  And at the root of it all is the expectation that the economy will rebound strongly in the second half and especially in the 4th quarter of 2020.  While GDP estimates for Q2, which will come out at the end of July, range from -10% to -30% (annualized basis), some estimates for Q4 are as high as +20%.    I believe that we are again priced for perfection.  The past few years saw valuations (price to earnings, price to sales, etc.) elevated with expectations of an acceleration in earnings and wages to justify the then-current prices.  Today a significant economic rebound is priced into the market.   If the economy in late May and June isn’t picking up quickly enough it could put pressure on equity prices.  It depends on re-opening the economy and that depends on subduing the pandemic.

We have seen momentum decline recently and thus increases the potential for volatility in equity markets.  If the S&P500 cannot breakout above 3000 in the near term, we’re likely to remain rangebound vacillating +/- 6%.  Bonds and gold are at a point where they are testing support and have the potential to move several percent as well.  If we are to remain rangebound, my preference would be to reduce risk until there is more confidence in further upside.

On a side note, I have significantly reduced the amount of cable and national news I watch on TV.  It’s the same sad and fearful story we’ve heard the past 6 weeks.  I have noticed I feel better doing this.  A client went back north recently and was surprised/disheartened at the difference in the local news in Naples vs the local news in the tri-state area.  Avoiding the bad news TV and enjoying the good news of spending time with family/projects/hobbies/exercise can be an important factor in getting through this time and being ready to embrace the other side of this crisis.

Stay safe and thank you,

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

March Client Note

The collapse in prices is the fastest decline of 20%, off the market highs, ever.   Looking into the immediate future, the economic/unemployment/earnings data will be horrible.  GDP for Q1 will come in at -15%, Q2 may see -20%.  These should be expected given we’ve shut 1/3 of the economy down.  In a ‘normal’ recession, this data accumulates over several weeks and months, not all at once.  Most of the bad data were going to see is going to be front-loaded, and we will see this throughout April and into May.   Over the same 8 weeks, sentiment will change much more rapidly as the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more/less apparent.   Prices of financial assets will react even more quickly.  Those 3 elements (econ data, sentiment, market prices)  work together but at different paces, and appear to contradict at times (like the day the Fed announced all the backstop measures, markets fell—not because stimulus is bad but probably due to the increasing alarm over the virus).

As of March 31st, the SP500 is down 20%; the Dow is off 23%; US small cap stocks -31%; Nasdaq -14%; eurozone stocks -25%; long treasury bond (TLT) +21% and gold +4%.    The average moderate portfolio is down about 9% year to date.

During the quarter, we hedged the equity side of portfolios during the early decline (not changing actual positioning, just owning the hedge then removing it).   The idea is always to buy low/sell high and removing the hedge was akin to buying/gaining exposure at lower prices.   Long treasury bonds have done very well, and we have sold some into strength, locking in some gains.  Technology has been one of the stronger areas and have increased this area substantially.    In addition, we’ve added equity exposure via SP500 etf, IVV, at the 2550 SP500 level.  I plan to add more, once the pullback eases and prices are constructive again.

As it stands now, most portfolios have increased equities compared to the beginning of the quarter, with less exposure to bonds.  Gold still has some potential, but as I’ve mentioned before gains will be more gradual and believe $1700+ is attainable.  The near-term market movements will likely be tied to the general expectations of when the US can get back to work.   The past couple of days’ weakness, I believe, is tied to the extension from April 12 to April 30 of guidelines established to slow the spread of covid19.

My expectations (given the truly massive and quick stimulus) are that we are now in the pullback from the initial bounce in stock prices.  I believe it is likely to see another leg up over the next couple of weeks.   Staying over 2400 on the SP500 is very important.  The combination of several trillion dollars of stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, combined with the concept that the covid19 crisis will end, does set the stage for possibly, a very substantial rally in stocks in the coming months.  Very generally, if there is now (or soon will be) $2-5 trillion (new money) in the financial system and we get back 90% of GDP that has been lost,  prices could go much higher even if fundamentals don’t recover–that’s post-2009 in a nutshell.   Before that we need to turn the corner on the virus.

The past couple months has been a lesson in which is more difficult:  to sell high or buy low?   Buying high and selling low are easy choices.   “Everyone” is doing it and it feels better to be a part of the crowd, ‘getting a piece of the action’ when in bull market; and conversely ‘stopping the pain’ in a bear market.   Believe me, it is much more difficult to lean into the market in early stages than to jump on the bandwagon once most of a move has already occurred.   This is weighed against market outlook and risk tolerance.       The other lesson is basic financial planning:  do you have 2-6 months of living expenses on hand in case of financial disruption?  And is your at-risk money truly a multi-year holding period.    It’s no fun to be forced to sell into a weak market to raise cash for living expenses.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note December 2019

December was another strong month for US (+2.8%) and global equity markets (1.8%). Junk bonds gained 1.1% in price while treasury bonds were off, giving the Aggregate Bond Index a slight decline.   Federal Reserve intervention, beginning early September, as a result of the overnight inter-bank lending drying up, has totaled some $400billion.   The rate of additions to the Fed balance sheet, is faster than in QE 2 (Nov 2010-June 2011) which took 8 months to add a similar amount.  QE 3 was larger, adding $1.7 trillion, over 2 years.   Central bank liquidity is the primary driver of 4th quarter equity market gains.  Economic data and earnings growth remain slow and near zero.

Portfolios gained across the board in December averaging approximately 2%; owing largely to our individual stock holdings and exposure to gold and miners.  Bonds were muted and were a drag.  Bonds look best posed to gain in the near term. Gold can extend further, and stocks have hit a speed bump with the turmoil in Iraq/Iran and may be slightly choppy in the immediate term.

Gold and gold miners gained 3.6% and 8%, respectively, in December.  Both bottomed November 26th and earned most gains in the last week of December, prior to the assassination of the Iranian general.  International stock markets have outpaced US stock markets since 10/15 (as forecast in October’s Note).  Commodities, ex-US equities and gold have gained significantly since the US Dollar peaked October 1, and its most recent lower high, on 11/27.    The dollar has broken down and may find support another 1% lower, matching its level in late June, which would be 3% decline off its high on October 1.  A small change in the value and direction of the US $ can have large impacts on metals and other natural resources.

The decline in the US Dollar corresponds well to the Feds telegraphing its intentions to refrain from raising rates in 2020.  The dollar can fall/rise relative to other currencies for a variety of reasons.   The current decline is not getting much attention.  Most finance headlines are full of talk about “reflation”.  Given the SP500 is off its all time high by a mere .75%, its not a reference to stock prices.

Reflation, is the topic du jour.  This term refers to economic data.  Federal reserve interventions impact the markets first with a much longer lag to the general economy.  China’s recent modest liquidity injections are: 1) much smaller than in 2017 and 2014 and take about 6-9 months to impact the US/global economy. Positive economic data from central bank actions will take at least one quarter to begin to show up.  Easing amongst central banks is as significant today as during QE 2.  CBs have completely discarded the concept of ‘normalization’ over the next year.

The biggest risk I see in the immediate term is the start to earnings season.  Earnings estimates for the 4th quarter, as usual, have declined substantially over the past year.  IF stocks can ‘beat by a penny’ reduced earnings estimates, we should get through with only minor stock market fluctuations.  Conversely, if companies’ lower guidance and/or miss low estimates, we could see a more general ‘correction’.  Bonds appear to have completed a 4-month consolidation and any more gain will give it some momentum, while stocks consolidate 4th quarter gains.

Slow economic growth, questionable earnings growth and the ever present geo-political risk are risks to the stock market.  With bonds and gold looking up for a variety of reasons, diversifying across asset classes (into areas not correlated with the stock market) is always a prudent approach.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Observations and Outlook October 2019

October 8, 2019

Perspective

 Over the past 3, 12 and 18 months there has been a wide dispersion in the returns of various asset classes.  US equites remain range-bound while ex-US, stocks continue to ebb.  Risk-off assets like bonds and gold have done very well over the past year, while stocks vacillate.  Interest rates continue to fall, and inflation expectations are subdued.  Earnings growth for the third quarter are expected to be negative year over year, and likely zero growth for full year 2019. US economic data continues to be weak while Eurozone and Asia may be entering a recession.  Below are the approximate returns over the 3-month, 12-month and 18-month time frames.

 

3 mos.            12 mos.                 18 mos.

S&P500                                          1.7%                 4.25%                      13.5%

Russell 2000 (US small cap)      -2.4%                  -8.9%                         .5%

Euro Stoxx 600                                .8%                    -.5%                      -2.4%

Emerging stocks                            -4.2%                  -2%                       -14%

Gold                                                    4%                 23.1%                     10.4%

Long-bond price (TLT)                 8.1%                 25.2%                     21.8%

Aggregate Bond Index                 2.3%                   7.5%                        9.6%

 

Economic data in the US continues to roll over.  The chart below shows the top three inputs into the LEI (Leading Economic Indicator) as published by the Conference Board.  Data continued to slow and is now in contraction in some areas like manufacturing.  Payroll growth has declined significantly during 2019.  These data points must reverse very soon otherwise we will undercut the 2015 slowdown and increase chances of a recession in the coming months.

econ rolling over 10 2019

 

We’ve been seeing risk-off assets outperform substantially in recent quarters under the pressure of slowing global economic data and lack of growth in earnings.   More recently there are been reports of large-scale rotation from growth stocks (like Consumer Discretionary sector; XLY) to more value-oriented stocks (like Consumer Staples; XLP).  Value has begun to outperform growth.   While not completely uncommon, it is uncommon to see this while Consumer Confidence is very high.  Recently I came across the chart below from Sentimenttrader.com which shows how rare this is.

discretionary vs stpales vs consumer confidence

Discretionary items are what people buy with ‘extra’ money, while Staples are what people need for everyday life.  Defensive areas usually outperform only when consumers and investors are less confidence about the future.  Only just after the market peak in 1969 (far left side) and the 2000 peak (center) confidence was high (survey results) while defensives were beginning to outperform cyclical stocks.  If this rotation continues it may portend tough times for the general stock market.

Why might consumers be confident while investors are buying more defensive stocks over more cyclical stocks is a difficult question.  Sentiment is often a lagging indicator.  People feel good and optimistic after good things happen.  The long string of employment growth and a long bull market has buoyed sentiment, perhaps so much that any contrary information is being discounted.  A poor job report or two may change this outlook.  But again, we are faced with an imminent need for very good economic data points to counteract current downtrends.

Credit Expansion (aka QE/liquidity/debt)

china credit impulse pmi

 

us pmi 10 2019

 

These two charts show how China’s credit impulse (QE/liquidity/Reserve Rate reductions etc.) have a lagged impact on US manufacturing.   Coming out of the 2009 recession, China had the spigot wide open and we can see US PMI hit a high mark in early 2011. The Impulse was removed during 2010 which resulted in a decline in US PMI.  The renewed impulses in mid-2012 and late 2015 helped create the rise in US PMI in 2013 and 2016.  There is about a 6-9 month lag between an expansion in credit and its impact on the real economy.

Today we are seeing the impact of a lack of significant credit expansion which should continue   Global economies appear to be completely reliant upon increasingly larger credit impulses to maintain growth.   China has eased during calendar year 2019, but not as much in the past.  Hopefully we will soon see better US PMI numbers to avoid outright recession in the very near term.

Update on the Yield Curve

fed funds vs 2 year inversion 10 2018

We’re not hearing much on the Yield Curve lately.  It remains inverted with the 10-year Treasury yield being lower than the 90-day T-bill rate.  The 90-day bill and Fed Funds rate (set by the Federal Reserve) follow each other hand in glove.  We can see market rates, the 10-year Treasury yield began to decline in earnest about a year ago.  We can also see how the 90-day rate moved lower prior to the Fed lowering rates.  It is clear that the Fed follows the market.

Current market expectations are that the Fed will lower its rate again in October by another 25 bps (.25%).  I have showed in previous writings how the last two recessions began (the official dating) as the yield curve regained normalcy with the 10-year yield rising above the 90-day/Fed Funds rate by .33%.

If the Fed Funds rate decreases by .25%, from 1.75% to 1.5%, and the 10-year yield remains constant at 1.56%, the yield curve will un-invert and become positive.  Further decreases will cause the spread to go above .33%.   In 2007 the Fed lowered its rate enough (following the 90-day T-Bill) to get below the 10-year yield, resteepening/normalizing the curve again.  This occurred August-October 2007, and the official dating (which was given to us November 28, 2008(!) that it started December 2007.   Waiting for economic data regarding a recession, before reallocating one’s investments will always result in very poor returns

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

awaszkowski@namcoa.com

239.410.6555

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.

Client Note August 28 2019

August has been a volatile month.  Since August 2, the SP500 has seen 5 moves of 3-4% in both directions for a net, -3%, through today.

Gold, gold miners and long treasuries (TLT) continue to do well putting portfolios into the green for August.  For August, gold +9%; miners +15%, TLT +11%.  Prior to this almost 12 month run in these areas, it was commonly known that ‘gold is languishing”; and “rates will go up”.  Now, its “gold hits 5-year highs”, and “rates seen to continue to fall”.  Often by the time the media reports it widely, the trend is nearing completion.

As we approach Labor Day and the seasonally worst time of the year (Sept/Oct) I am watching for the SP500 to at least stay over 2850, and if we can get over 2940 it opens the door to climb further-but until then markets are under pressure.   Small cap, international stocks are still well below their highs.

Recently it appears the when the US Dollar weakens, US stocks fall while ex-US are more stable.   If the Fed continues to acknowledge further Fed funds rate cuts are likely, this can weigh on the Dollar—unless Europe et al jump ahead and push rates lower via more bond purchases.   So, we may see relative outperformance from ex-US stocks.

Of the individual names purchased recently, one has bee sold out.  IPHI was falling as the sector and general market was climbing, falling below a recent low in July.  The loss was less than 5%.  Cannabis remains under pressure.  Curaleaf reported 200%+ gain in year over year revenue and today saw a drop of 9% at the open, followed by a 23% climb!  This may mark a turn for the sector, but a reversal of these gains will see us abandon this sector in the near term.

The yield curve inversion has been big news.  The 10-yr treasury yield crossed below the 2-yr yield on 8/13 and again on 8/27.  While many other curve inversions have been occurring, this pair, coinciding with a 700 point down day on the Dow has gotten much attention.  The past 3 recessions have occurred as this curve normalizes, that is un-inverts and re-steepens.  I first pointed this out in my quarterly Observation piece January 2019.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Market Volatility–October

I believe we’re seeing a large repricing of growth expectations. The one time tax reform boost will wear off into next year, and higher borrowing costs, fuel costs are reducing discretionary income. 

In addition there is a great deal of leverage in the markets which will exacerbate declines. 

Often, at the end of bull markets/beginning of bear markets we will see relatively large price movements, 6-12%, down and up. I believe this correction has a good chance of bottoming or at least slowing in the immediate term, and  it’s bounce back could be half the decline, maybe more, which will be several percentage points. 

 

Focusing on keeping portfolio declines to the single digits while raising cash to be able to redeploy later can aid longer term returns–one has to have cash in order to buy low!   There is a very large amount of ‘bond shorts’ in the market which could set up a large ‘short squeeze’. Bonds were positive today. This is reminiscent of other recent periods when many bond speculators saw bond prices move very rapidly against them (UP) as they rushed to cover their deteriorating short positions.

 

Inflation scare is not the culprit here as inflation rates are slowing in several areas.  Something recent is that with the Fed raising interest rates, the yield, on 1-year and longer bonds is greater than inflation,  a positive “real rate” which is new to this economic cycle and takes a lot away from the ‘bonds dont pay so buy stocks’ argument.  The Fed further reiterated that it currently plans to continue to raise rates through 2019–even though we have already raised rates MORE than in past rate-raising eras.  I will have a chart of this in my Observations and Outlook this weekend.

Please reach out to me with any comments or questions.

 

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.