the stock market cycle–where are we now?

As I wrote yesterday, stock market price-earnings multiples tend to contract in bad times and expand during good.  This is not only due to well-understood macroeconomic causes–the effect of higher/lower interest rates and falling/rising corporate profits–but also from psychological/emotional motivations rooted in fear and greed.

(An aside:  Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) and Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes (1978) are only two of the many books chronicling the power of fear and greed in financial markets.  In fact, the efficient markets theory taught in business schools, which denies fear and greed have any effect on the price of financial instruments, was formulated while one of the bigger stock market bubbles in US history, the “Nifty Fifty” years, and a subsequent vicious crash in 1973-74, were taking place outside the ivory tower.)

Where are we now?

My take:

2008-09  PEs contract severely and remain compressed until 2013

2013  PEs rebound, but only to remove this compression and restore a more typical relationship between the interest yield on bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

today  The situation is a little more nuanced.  The bond/stock relationship in general remains much the way it has been for the past several years, with stocks looking, if anything, somewhat undervalued vs. bonds.  But it’s also now very clear that, unlike the situation since 2008, that interest rates are on an upward path, implying downward pressure on bond prices.

In past plain-vanilla situations like this, stocks have moved sideways while bonds declined, buoyed by an early business cycle surge in corporate profits.

Since last November’s presidential election, stocks have risen by 10%+.  This is unusual, in my view, because we’re not at the dawn of a new business cycle.  It comes from anticipation that the Trump administration will introduce profit-boosting fiscal stimulus and reforms.  The “Trump trade” has disappeared since the inauguration, however.  Our new chief executive has displayed all the reality show craziness of The Apprentice, but little of the business acumen claimed for the character Mr. Trump portrayed in the show–and which he asserts he exhibited in in his long (although bankruptcy-ridden) career in the family real estate business.

Interestingly, the stock market hasn’t weakened so far in response to this development.  Instead, two things have happened.  Overall market PE multiples have expanded.  Interest has also shifted away from business cycle sensitive stocks toward secular growth stocks and early stage “concept” firms like Tesla, where PEs have expanded significantly.  TSLA is up by 76% since the election and 57% so far this year–despite the administration’s efforts to promote fossil fuels.  So greed still rules fear.  But animal spirits are no longer focused on beneficiaries of action from Washington.  They’re more amorphous–and speculative, as I see it.

Personally, I don’t think we’re at or near a speculative peak.  Of course, as a growth stock investor, and given my own temperament, I’m not going to be the first to know.  It does seem to me, however, that the sideways movement we’ve seen in the S&P since March tells us we are at limits of where the market can go without concrete economic positives, whether they be surprising strength from abroad or the hoped-for end to dysfunction in Washington.

 

discounting and the stock market cycle

stock market influences

earnings

To a substantial degree, stock prices are driven by the earnings performance of the companies whose securities are publicly traded.  But profit levels and potential profit gains aren’t the only factor.  Stock prices are also influenced by investor perceptions of the risk of owning stocks, by alternating emotions of fear and greed, that is, that are best expressed quantitatively in the relationship between the interest yield on government bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

discounting:  fear vs. greed

Stock prices typically anticipate or “discount” future earnings.  But how far investors are willing to look forward is also a business cycle function of the alternating emotions of fear and greed.

Putting this relationship in its simplest form:

–at market bottoms investors are typically unwilling to discount in current prices any future good news.  As confidence builds, investors are progressively willing to factor in more and more of the expected future.

–in what I would call a normal market, toward the middle of each calendar year investors begin to discount expectations for earnings in the following year.

–at speculative tops, investors are routinely driving stock prices higher by discounting earnings from two or three years hence.  This, even though there’s no evidence that even professional analysts have much of a clue about how earnings will play out that far in the future.

(extreme) examples

Look back to the dark days of 2008-09.  During the financial crisis, S&P 500 earnings fell by 28% from their 2007 level.  The S&P 500 index, however, plunged by a tiny bit less than 50% from its July 2007 high to its March 2009 low.

In 2013, on the other hand, we can see the reverse phenomenon.   S&P 500 earnings rose by 5% that year.  The index itself soared by 30%, however.  What happened?   Stock market investors–after a four-year (!!) period of extreme caution and an almost exclusive focus on bonds–began to factor the possibility of future earnings gains into stock prices once again.  This was, I think, the market finally returning to normal–something that begins to happens within twelve months of the bottom in a garden-variety recession.

Where are we now in the fear/greed cycle?

More tomorrow.

falling sales, rising profits…

…are usually a recipe for disaster on Wall Street.  Yet, in the current earnings reporting season, a raft of companies are reporting this presumably deadly combination   …and being celebrated for it, not having their stocks go down in flames.

What’s happening?

the usual situation

First, why falling sales and rising profits don’t usually generate a positive investor response.

To start, let’s assume that a company reporting this way is maintaining a stable mix of businesses, that it’s not like Amazon.  There, investor interest is focused almost solely on its Web Services business, which is small but fast growing, and with very high margins.  AWS is so valuable that what happens in the rest of the company almost doesn’t matter.

Instead, let’s assume that what we see is what we get, that falling sales, rising profits are signs of a mature company slowly running out of economic steam.

So, where does the earnings growth come from?

Case 1–a one-time event.  Maybe the firm sold its corporate art collection and that added $.50 a share to earnings.  Maybe it sold property, or got an insurance settlement or won a tax case with the IRS.

All of these are one-and-done things. How much should an investor pay for the “extra” $.50 in earnings?  At most, $.50.  There’s no reason to make any upward adjustment in the price-earnings multiple, because the earnings boost isn’t going to recur.

Similarly,

Case 2–a multi-year cost-cutting campaign.  AIG, for example, has just announced that it is laying off 20% of its senior staff.  Let’s say this happens over three years, and that the eliminations will have no negative effect on sales, but will raise profits by $1 a year for the next three years.

How much should we pay for these “extra” $3 in earnings?  Again, the answer is that the earnings boost is transitory and should have no positive effect on the PE multiple.  So the move is worth, at most, $3 on the stock price.

Actually, my experience is that in either of these cases, the PE can easily contract on the earnings announcement.  Investors focus in on the falling sales.  They figure that falling earnings are just around the corner, and that on, say, a stock selling for $60 a share, the non-recurring $.50 or $1 in earnings is the equivalent of a random fluctuation in the daily stock price.  So they dismiss the gain completely.

why is today different?

I don’t know.  Although early in my career I believed that earnings are earnings and the source doesn’t matter, I’m now deeply in the only-pay-for-recurring-gains camp.

I can think of two possibilities, though:

–Suppose Wall Street is coming to believe (rightly or wrongly) that we’re mired in a slow growth environment that will last for a long time.  If so, maybe we can’t be as dismissive as we were in the past of the “wrong kind” of earnings growth.  Maybe company managements that are able to deliver earnings gains of any sort are more valuable than in past days.  Maybe they’re on the cutting edge of where growth is going to be coming from in the future–and therefore deserve a high multiple.

–I’m a firm believer that most mature companies formed in the years immediately following WWII are wildly overstaffed.  I also think that even if a CEO were willing to modernize in a thoroughgoing way–and I think most would prefer not to try–it’s immensely difficult to change the status quo.  Employees will simply refuse to do what the CEO wants.  As a result, this makes companies showing falling sales prime targets for Warren Buffett’s money and G-3 Capital’s cost-cutting expertise.  In other words, such companies become takeover targets, and that’s why their stock prices are firm.

results from Disney (DIS): a lesson in how the market works nowadays

DIS and ESPN

A relative in the movie business called my attention to Marvel Entertainment a few years ago.  When it was acquired by DIS in late 2009, I held onto the stock I got and added more in the mid-$20 range Marvel, of course, has been pure gold for DIS, even though DIS initially went down on fears that DIS had overpaid.  Naturally I sold the stock way too early, in the mid-$60s–acting more like a value investor than a growth stock fan.

My first thought on reading the DIS 10-K, as I acquainted myself with the company,was that the company really should have been named ESPN, since at that time the cable sports network accounted for 2/3 of DIS’s overall operating profit and virtually all of its earnings growth.

red flags about ESPN

Over the past several years, a number of key warning signs have popped up about ESPN, however:

–ESPN decided to expand into the UK, signalling to me that it considered its US franchise on the cusp of maturity

–but ESPN was outbid for soccer rights by locals and effectively terminated its international expansion ideas–not good, either

–DIS began to shift cash flow away from ESPN and toward the movie and theme park business, which I took to be a sign of corporate worries about ESPN’s growth potential, rather than simply diversification for diversification’s sake

–serious discussion has begun over the past year about the demise of cable system bundled pricing, which likely benefits ESPN substantially (I suspect we’ll find out how substantially sooner rather than later)

–since ESPN.com’s recent format change, I find myself almost exclusively using Time Warner’s Bleacher Report for sports information

–personally, although this isn’t the most crucial part of my analysis, I think the progressive dumbing-down of ESPN coverage, in imitation of sports talk radio, to gain a wider audience will backfire.

To sum up,, there has been an increasing collection of evidence that ESPN probably won’t be the same growth engine for DIS that it has been in the past.

Yet…

…DIS shares were down by about 10% in Wednesday trading (in an up market) on the first signs in the earnings report of the factors I’ve just listed.

discounting?

Where was the market’s discounting mechanism, which in the past has been continuously evaluating corporate strategy and factoring worries like the long list I’ve mentioned above into the stock price?

…only on the earnings report, not before

To my mind, DIS trading yesterday is another indicator that information isn’t flowing on Wall Street as fast as it once did.  That’s neither good nor bad;  it’s just the way the game is being played in today’s world.  What we as investors have got to figure out is how to adjust our own behavior to fit altered circumstances.

My initial thought is that it may be riskier than it has been to dabble in down-and-out industries like mining or oil until the final bad news has hit income statements.

 

more on discounting

In actual practice, judging what the market has already discounted in the price of an individual stock or the prices of stocks in general, is a tricky thing.  Even seasoned professionals are often wrong.

There are trends in overall market direction that are relatively easy to spot.  In a bull market, investors tend to ignore bad news and respond strongly to good.  In bear markets, the opposite happens.

Perhaps the main reason for professionals that technical analysis is more than a curious practice of a more primitive time is that watching for deviations from the usual daily price action of individual stocks can give clues to what other investors are thinking/doing.  Rises on unusually high volume, for example, can suggest that others are figuring out what you already know and have acted on.  On the other hand, failure of the stock to react positively to news that supports your positive thesis suggests that what you thought was a new, investable insight actually wasn’t.

The reality that investors only act piecemeal, or the idea that we act differently when infused with greed than when in the vise grip of fear are both much too untidy for the statisticians who formulated the Efficient Market Hypothesis/Capital Asset Pricing Model that arose in the 1970s (and which–mind-bogglingly–is still taught in business schools).

These theories have no place for observation/practical experience.  They assume that everyone has the same information and that the market factors new information into prices instantaneously.  What’s particularly ironic is that they were formed during the early 1970s.  How so?

–1972 was the peak of the “Nifty Fifty” or “One-Decision Stocks” speculation.  Investors believed that a small number of stocks–Kodak, Xerox, National Lead, for example–would grow rapidly forever.  Therefore, they should never be sold, and no price was to high to pay to acquire them.  The result was that this group of names traded at as high as 110x earnings–in an environment where the 10-year Treasury yielded 6% and the average stock traded at 11x.

–this high was immediately followed by a vicious bear market in 1973-74 that saw stocks trade in mid-1974 at discounts to net cash on the balance sheet–and still go down every day, on the theory that money in the hands of management scoundrels wasn’t worth 100 cents on the dollar.

How is it that these guys didn’t notice?

discounting and today’s equity market

Discounting is the term Wall Street uses for the idea that investors factor into today’s prices, to a greater or lesser degree, their beliefs about the future (I wrote a detailed post about the process in October 2012).

 

Two of the major macroeconomic factors the market is wrestling with now are the timing and extent of the Fed’s future moves to raise interest rates from their current emergency lows, and the possibility that Greece will default on its debts and exit the euro.

 

My experience is that almost nothing is ever 100% discounted in advance.  There’s always some price movement when the event actually happens.  Having said that, the coming rise in interest rates in the US has been so anticipated–and talked about by the Fed–for such a long time that there may even be a positive market reaction to the first rise.  This would be on the idea that Wall Street would give a sigh of relief when there’s no more anticipatory tension to deal with.  More likely, there’ll be a mild negative movement, for a short period, but that’s all.

The Greek financial crisis has also been in the news for a long time.  But we don’t have the same extensive history of behavior during past economic cycles to draw on, the way we do with the Fed.  We do have Argentina as a case study in what happens to the defaulting country (personally, I expect the consequences of default for Greece would be pretty terrible for its citizens).  But the focus of investors’ concern is what damage might be done to the EU by Greece’s leaving.  In addition, lots of non-economic factors are involved in this situation.  There’s Greece’s central role in Europe’s beliefs about its own exceptionalism.  There’s the Greek portrayal of the EU’s requirement that Greece implement structural economic reform as a condition for debt relief as 21st-century Nazism.  There’s the status quo in Greece that has benefited from the country’s profligate borrowing.  There’s fear of the unknown that must be urging politicians to paper over Greece’s problems.

In addition, my sense is that the markets’ overriding emotion so far is denial–hope that the whole situation will go away.  Current thinking seems to be that the parties will arrange for some sort of default, along with capital controls to restrict the flow of euros out of Greece, that will allow Greece to stay in the EU.  Still, I find it very hard to calculate odds or even to anticipate what the worst that can happen might be, or the best.  This makes me think that very little of the possible negatives of “Grexit” are factored into today’s prices.

More tomorrow.

Shaping a portfolio for 2014 (i): a look back at 2013

my take this time last year 

A few minutes ago I looked back at what I wrote in the “Putting the Pieces Together” section of my Strategy last year.

I was pretty accurate on the macroeconomic front, with my guess about how S&P 500 earnings would turn out being  a tad high.  But that’s typical optimistic me.  The stocks in the index now appear to be earning at around a $102 per share annual rate, which is a mere 5% better than twelve months ago.

From that analysis, I concluded that 2013 would be a good year for stocks–but that gains would probably fall short of +10%.

What I didn’t factor in was multiple expansion–the dissipation of the all-pervasive fear of risk that had gripped Wall Street during the stock meltdown of 2008-09, and the return of a soupçon of greed to the investor psyche.  I assumed (read: hoped and prayed) that this would happen eventually.  But I saw no reason to predict the timing of this sea change.  Better just to remain fully invested and therefore be there when liftoff happened.

Calling what happened in 2013 a pinch less risk aversion is probably an understatement.  A 5% increase in earnings per share–with perhaps another +8% in store for 2014–has yielded just shy of +30% (including dividends) so far in 2013 for the S&P.

the plusses for 2013

The biggest story line by far for 2013 has been the just-mentioned return of the market discounting mechanism to more or less normal after four years of extreme risk aversion.  But it wasn’t the only one.

Others include:

–the continuing resilience of the US economy despite periodic scares from Washington policy,

–the EU economy finally navigating the worst of the Great Recession and beginning to show the first signs of renewed growth,

–the amazing upward surge of the Japanese stock market on the hope that severe currency devaluation would deliver sustained real economic growth for the first time in a quarter-century, and

–the gradual reacceleration of the Chinese economic engine as the new administration has taken a firm hand on the controls.

good news, bad news

All these factors are good news, in that they indicate the world economy is on far firmer footing today than it was a year ago.  The bad news (for investors) about this is that all of these plusses are already in plain sight and already fully (in my view) factored into today’s stock prices.

What’s left, then, to go for in 2014?

…not a similar gain to the +30% that 2013 has produced.  Instead, my best guess is that we’ll have the kind of sedate +7% -+8% advance for the S&P that I envisioned for 2013.

If so, outperformance will hinge critically on good sector and individual stock selection.

More tomorrow.