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

“Good” Inflation: Rising rates and falling stocks

Over the past week, the Dow fell by 4%, more than halving its ytd gains through Friday 1/19 (all time high).   Bonds continued the decline started in mid-December, bringing losses during the current ‘bond rout’ to -5.7% year to date.  That is a one week decline in the Dow of 4% and a four-week decline in long-bond prices of 5.7%.  Balanced investors have seen stocks gain and bonds lose, putting most investors (moderately conservative to moderately aggressive) at a mild gain or loss so far this year.  Generally, diversification across asset classes reduces volatility when bonds go up, stocks generally are weaker and vice versa.    When the classes move together differentiation across risk profiles diminishes.  Stocks remain in a strong uptrend and given the substantial gains over the past few months, equity centric investors should be able to take this in stride (or they shouldn’t be equity-centric) as 4% is a small blip in a strong multi-quarter uptrend awash in investor optimism, all-time low cash levels, all-time high exposure to stocks and financial assets and expectations of higher wages, earnings and GDP growth.   In this light, a rebound, or ‘buy the dip’ would not be surprising.  The new feature though is that volatility has returned.

The ‘bond rout spilling into equities’ explaination has to do with relative attractiveness.  If rates keep rising, bond prices are hurt, while becoming more attractive (due to higher yields) to equity investors, putting pressure on equity prices.  At some point, earning safe interest attracts enough investors from stocks to weaken stock prices.  The S&P 500 dividend yield is now 1.8%, similar to what can be found offered on 18 month CD.

Rate have climbed due to rising inflation expectations.  Inflation is expected to, finally, exceed the 2% goal set by the Federal Reserve ‘in the coming months’.  Current thinking is that a tight labor market is pushing AHE (average hourly earnings, +2.9% Jan ’18 vs Jan ’17), combined with more take home pay (via tax reform), will result in more spending from consumers and investment from business.  This will take time but markets have already priced it all in.  Just like the stock market has priced in exceptional earnings growth to match its exceptional valuations.  The chart below shows us that we’ve been in a tightening labor market for years without being able to hold above 2.0% inflation but briefly.

infl vs unemplmnt

Given the new feedback loop between stocks and bonds, perhaps we shouldn’t be so excited about inflation, even if its ‘good’.  On the bright side, the past few years has seen 3.25% as a top in 30yr bond yields and perhaps a decline in rates near term may help both bond holders and stock investors alike.