The S&P 500 is trading at about 25x current earnings, with 10% eps growth in prospect, implying the market is trading at around 22.7x forward earnings. During my working career, which covers 40+ years, high multiple/lower growth has virtually always been an unfavorable combination for market bulls.
Could the growth figure be too low, on the idea that forecasters give themselves some wiggle room at the beginning of the year?
For the 50% or so of earnings that come from the US, probably not. This is partly due to the sheer length of the expansion since the recession of 2008-09 (pent up demand from the bad years has been satisfied, even in left-behind areas of the country–look at Walmart and dollar store sales). It’s also a function of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Washington policies the have ended up retarding growth–tariff wars, suppression of labor force expansion, tax cuts for those least likely to consume, no infrastructure spending, no concern about education… So I find it hard to imagine positive surprises for most US-focused firms.
Prospects are probably better for the non-US half. How so? In the EU early signs are emerging that structural change is occurring, forced by a long period of stagnation. The region is also several years behind the US in recovering from the recession, so one would expect that the same uptick for ordinary citizens we’ve recently seen in the US. Firms seeking to relocate from the US and the UK are another possible plus. In addition, Mr. Trump’s life-long addiction to risky, superficially attractive but ultimately destructive, ventures (think: Atlantic City casinos) may finally achieve the weaker dollar he desires–implying the domestic currency value of foreign earnings may turn out to be higher than the consensus expects.
The biggest saving grace for stocks may be the relative unattractiveness of fixed income, the main investment alternative. The 10-year Treasury is yielding 1.81% as I’m writing this That’s 10 basis points below the dividend yield on the S&P 500, which sports an earnings yield (1/PE) of 4. I say “may” because, other than Japan, the world has little practical experience with the behavior of stocks while interest rates are ultra-low. In Japan, where rates have flirted with zero for several decades, PE ratios have declined from an initial 50 or so into the low 20s. Yes, Japan is also the prime example of the economic destructiveness of anti-immigration, anti-trade, defend-the-status-quo policies Washington is now espousing. On the other hand, it’s still a samurai-mentality (yearning for the pre-Black Ship past) culture, the population is much older than in the US and the national government is a voracious buyer of equities. So there are big differences. Still, if the analogy with Japan holds–that is, if the differences don’t matter so much in the short term–then PEs here would be bouncing along the bottom and should be stable unless the Fed Funds rate begins to rise.
That’s my best guess.
The consensus was of viewing last year for the S&P is that all the running was in American tech industries. Another way of looking at the results is that the big winners were multinational firms traded in the US but with worldwide markets and very small domestic manufacturing and distribution footprints. They are secular change beneficiaries located in a country whose national government is now adamantly opposing that change. In other words, the winners were bets on the company but against the country. Look at, for example, AMZN (+15%) vs. MSFT (+60%) over the past year.
The biggest issue I see with the 2019 winners is that on a PE to growth basis they seem expensive to me. Some, especially newer, smaller firms seem wildly so. But I don’t see the situation changing until rates begin to rise.
Having said that, low rates are an antidote to government dysfunction, so I don’t see them going up any time soon. So my practical bottom line ends up being one of the gallows humor conclusions that Wall Streeters seem to love: the more unhinged Mr. Trump talks and acts–the threat of bombing Iranian cultural sites, which other governments have politely pointed out would be a war crime, is a good example–the better the tech sector will do. As a citizen, I hope for a (new testament) road-to-Damascus event for him; as an investor, I know that would be a sell signal.
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