the state of play in US stocks

down by 12% 

From its intra-day high on January 28th, the S&P 500 dropped to an intraday low of 12% below that last Friday before recovering a bit near the close.

What’s going on?

As I see it, at any given time, liquid investments (i.e., stocks, fixed income, cash) are in a rough kind of equilibrium.  If the price of one of the three changes, sooner or later the price of the others will, too.

What I think the stock market is now (belatedly/finally) factoring into prices is the idea that the Fed is firmly committed to raising interest rates away from the intensive-care lows of the past decade.  That is, rates will continue to rise until they’re back to “normal” –in other words, until yields on fixed income not only provide compensation for inflation but a real return as well.  If we take the Fed target of 2% inflation as a guideline and think the 10-year Treasury should have a 2% real return, then the 10-yr yield needs to rise to 4%  — or 115 basis points from where it is this morning.  Cash needs to be yielding 150 basis points more than it does now.

One important result of this process is that as fixed income investments become more attractive (by rising in yield/falling in price), the stock market becomes less capable of sustaining the sky-high price-earnings ratio it achieved when it was the only game in town.  PEs contract.

Stocks are not totally defenseless during a period like this.  Typically, the Fed only raises rates when the economy is very healthy and therefore corporate earnings growth is especially strong.  If there is a typical path for stocks during a cyclical valuation shift for bonds, it’s that there’s an initial equity dip, followed by several months of going sideways, as strong reported earnings more or less neutralize the negative effect on PEs of competition from rising fixed income yields.

living in interesting times

Several factors make the situation more complicated than usual:

–the most similar period to the current one, I think, happened in the first half of the 1990s–more than 20 years ago.  So there are many working investment professionals who have never gone through a period like this before

–layoffs of senior investment staff during the recession, both in brokerage houses and investment managers, has eroded the collective wisdom of Wall Street

–trading algorithms, which seem not to discount future events (today’s situation has been strongly signaled by the Fed for at least a year) but to react after the fact to news releases and current trading patterns, are a much more important factor in daily trading now than in the past

–Washington continues to follow a bizarre economic program.  It refused to enact large-scale fiscal stimulus when it was needed as the economy was crumbling in 2008-9, but is doing so now, when the economy is very strong and we’re at full employment.   It’s hard to imagine the long-term consequences of, in effect, throwing gasoline on a roaring fire as being totally positive.  However, the action frees/forces the Fed to raise rates at a faster clip than it might otherwise have

an oddity

For the past year, the dollar has fallen by about 15%–at a time when by traditional economic measures it should be rising instead.  This represents a staggering loss of national wealth, as well as a reason that US stocks have been significant laggards in world terms over the past 12 months.  I’m assuming this trend doesn’t reverse itself, at least until the end of the summer.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.

my conclusion

A 4% long bond yield is arguably the equivalent of a 25x PE on stocks.  If so, and if foreign worries about Washington continue to be expressed principally through the currency, the fact that the current PE on the S&P 500 is 24.5x suggests that a large part of the realignment in value between stocks and bonds has already taken place.

If I’m right, we should spend the next few months concentrating on finding individual stocks with surprisingly strong earnings growth and on taking advantage of any  individual stock mispricing that algorithms may cause.

bonds …a threat to stocks?

I read an odd article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, an opinion piece that in the US bonds are a current threat to stocks.  Although not explicitly stated, the idea seems to be that the US is in the grip of cult-like devotion to stocks.  One day, however, after a series of Fed monetary policy tightening steps, the blinders we’re wearing will drop off.  We’ll suddenly see that higher yields have made bonds an attractive alternative to equities   …and there’ll be a severe correction in the stock market as we all reallocate our portfolios.

What I find odd about this picture:

–the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is just about 2%, which compares with the yield of 2.3% on a 10-year Treasury bond.  So Treasuries aren’t significantly more attractive than stocks today, especially since we know that rates are headed up–meaning bond prices are headed down.  Actually, bonds have been seriously overvalued against stocks for years, although they are less so today than in years past

–from 2009 onward, individual investors have steadily reallocated away from stocks to the perceived safety of bonds, thereby missing out on the bull market in stocks.  If anything there’s cult-like devotion to bonds, not stocks

–past periods of Fed interest rate hikes have been marked by falling bond prices and stock prices moving sideways.  So stocks have been the better bet while rates are moving upward.  Maybe this time will be different, but those last five words are among the scariest an investor can utter.

 

Still, there’s the kernel of an important idea in the article.

At some point, through some combination of stock market rises and bond market falls, bonds will no longer be heavily overvalued vs. stocks and become serious competition for investor savings.

Where is that point?  What is the yield level where holders of stocks will seriously consider reallocating to bonds?

I’m not sure.

Two thoughts, though:

–I think the typical total return on holding stocks will continue be around 8% annually.  For me, the return on bonds has got to be at least 4% before they have any appeal.  So the Fed has a lot of interest-rate boosting work to do before I’d feel any urge to reallocate

–movement in yield for the 10-year Treasury from 2.3% to 4.0% means that the price of today’s bonds will go down.  So, while there is a clear argument for holding cash during a period of interest rate hikes, I don’t see any for holding bonds–and particularly none for holding bonds on the idea that stocks might fall in price as rates rise

Of course, I’m an inveterate holder of stocks.  And this is an interesting question to ask yourself.  What yield on bonds would make them attractive to you?