starting out in 2020

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, ithe 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

thinking about 2020

where we are

The S&P 500 is trading at around 25x current earnings, up from a PE of 20x a year ago.  Multiple expansion, not earnings growth, is the key factor behind the S&P rise last year.In fact, earnings per share growth, now at about +10%/year, has been decelerating since the one-time boost from the domestic corporate income tax cut cycled through income statements in 2018.  Typically earnings deceleration is a red flag.  Not so in 2019.

EPS growth in 2020 will probably be around +10% again.

About half the earnings of the S&P come from the US, a quarter from Europe and the rest from emerging economies.  The US will likely be the weakest of the three areas this year, as ongoing tariff wars take a further toll on agriculture and manufacturing, as population growth continues to wane given the administration’s hostility toward foreigners, and as multinationals continue to shift operations elsewhere to escape these policies.  On the other hand, Europe ex the UK should perk up a bit, emerging markets arguably can’t get much worse, and multinationals will likely invest more abroad.

 

interest rates:  the biggest question 

What motivated investors to bid up the S&P by 30% last year despite pedestrian eps growth and Washington dysfunction?

Investors don’t buy stocks in a vacuum.  We’re constantly comparing stocks with bonds and cash as alternative liquid investments.  And in 2019 bonds and cash were distinctly unattractive.   The yield on cash is close to zero here (elsewhere in the world bank depositors have been charged for holding cash).  The 10-year Treasury started 2019 yielding 2.66%.  The yield dipped to 1.52% during the summer and has risen to 1.92% now.  In contrast, the earnings yield (1/PE, the academic point of comparison of stocks vs. bonds)) on the S&P was 5% last January and is 4% now.

The dividend yield on the S&P is now about 1.9%.  That’s higher than the 10-year yield, a situation that has occurred in our lifetimes only after a bear market has crushed stock valuations.  In my working career, this has happened mostly outside the US and has always been a clear buy signal for stocks.  Not now, though–in my view–unless we’re willing to believe that the current situation is permanent.

The situation is even stranger outside the US, where the yield on many government bonds is actually negative.

In short, wild distortions in sovereign bond markets, a product of unconventional central bank measures aimed at rescuing the world economy after the 2008-09 collapse, have migrated into stocks.

How long will this situation last and how will it unwind?

 

more on Monday

 

 

 

 

America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.

 

 

 

a rainy Friday in August in New York

August is the month when many senior portfolio managers are away from the office on vacation.  So big decisions on portfolio structure tend not to be made.

Friday is the day of the week when short-term traders’ thoughts turn to flattening their books so they won’t carry risk over the weekend.

It’s raining, which sparks thoughts in traders of sleeping in or leaving work early.

Add all that up, and the heavy betting should be that US stocks will likely move sideways in the morning and fade off toward the close.

That means this is a good day to stand on the sidelines and size up the tone of the market.

 

In pre-market trading, tech is up and bricks-and-mortar retailing (on the earnings miss by Foot Locker) is down.  …nothing new about this.  At some point there will doubtless be a fierce counter-trend rally.  But the negative earnings surprises are still provoking severe selloffs.  So I don’t think today is the day.

Pundits are speculating about the damaging effects on his political agenda of Mr. Trump’s apparent defense of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.  …but the Trump trade has been MIA since January, with the US a laggard among world stock markets during Mr. Trump’s time in office so far.  Yes, there may be residual hope for corporate tax reform from the administration, which this latest demonstration of the president’s ineptness as a executive could arguably undermine.  My guess is, however, that he is already well understood.

Two questions for today:

–will the market perform more strongly than the season and the weather are suggesting? This would be evidence that there’s still an untapped reservoir of bullishness waiting for somewhat better prices to express itself.

–should we be buying in the afternoon if it’s weaker than I expect?  My answer is No.  I think there is a lot of untapped bullishness, but we’re in a slowly rising channel whose present ceiling is less than 2500 on the S&P 500.   That’s not enough upside for me.  I’m also content to wait for any incipient bearishness to play itself out further.

It will be interesting to see how today plays out.

 

a professional portfolio manager performance check

I subscribe to the S&P Indexology blog.  Like most S&P communications efforts, I find this blog interesting, useful and reliable.

Anyway, two days ago Indexology published a check on the performance of equity managers who offer products to US customers.

In one respect, the findings were unsurprising.  For managers with US stock portfolio mandates, well over half underperformed their benchmarks over the one-year period ending in June.  Over five years, more than three-quarters failed to match or exceed the return of their index.

This is business as usual.  Why this is so isn’t 100% clear to me.

One of my mentors used to say that ” the pain of underperformance lasts long after the glow of outperformance has faded.”   I think that’s right.  In other words, clients will punish a PM severely for underperformance, but reward him/her by a much smaller amount for outperformance.  In a world where risks and rewards aren’t symmetrical, it’s probably better not to take the buck-the-crowd positions necessary to outperform.  Instead, it’s better to accept mild underperformance, keep close to the pack of rival managers and spend a lot of time marketing your like-me/trust-me attributes.

(To be clear, this isn’t a strategy I wholeheartedly embraced.  I generally achieved significant outperformance in up markets, endeavored not to lose my shirt in down markets.  My long-term US results were a lot better than the index, but at the cost of short-term volatility that was greater than the market’s.  Pension consultants, heavily reliant on academic theories of finance, tended to demand a smoother ride, even if that meant consistently less money in the pockets of their clients.  Yes, a constant problem for me.  But it illustrates the systematic pressure put on managers to conform, to look like everyone else.)

 

The surprising news in the blog post comes in international markets.   Generally speaking, the markets overseas are simpler in structure, information flows much more slowly than in the US, and PMs tend to be ill-trained and poorly paid.  Rather than being the culmination of a long a successful career, being a PM abroad is often only an early stepstone to something better.  So pencil in outperformance.

On a one-year view, however, Indexology reports that the vast majority of managers of global, international and emerging markets portfolios all underperformed their benchmarks.  This is the first time this has happened since S&P has been checking!!

I don’t watch this arena closely enough to have a worthwhile opinion on how this happened.  The fact of underperformance itself is surprising–the fact that more than 75% of managers of international funds underperformed is stunning.  My guess is that no one saw the deceleration of Continential European economies coming.

For anyone with international equity exposure, which is probably just about everyone, current manager performance is well worth monitoring closely.

 

Yahoo, welcome to France!

Dailymotion

For the past half-year, Yahoo (YHOO) has been negotiating with France Telecom to buy a controlling interest in Dailymotion, an online-video website that FT acquired in 2011 for €127 million ($165 million).  According to the Wall Street Journalthe two parties reached an agreement last month in which YHOO would pay $225 million for 75% of Dailymotion, the 10th largest You Tube competitor.

This looked like a sweet deal for both sides.  FT would get all its cash back plus a profit and would retain a 25% interest in Dailymotion, while YHOO shouldered all the financial and operational burden of growing Dailymotion as fast as possible.  YHOO would take a big step forward in developing an online video arm.

redressement productif intervenes

Then Paris stepped in.  In a move reminiscent of its rejection of Pepsi’s bid to acquire yogurt-maker Danone, the parties were summoned to the offices of the French Minister of Industry (=redressement productif), Arnaud Montebourg on April 12th.  Le Monde says M. Montebourg yelled at FT, described Dailymotion as a national treasure that must remain in French hands and vetoed the deal.

Odd behavior for an official who is a central figure Paris’s campaign to convince foreigners to invest in French companies (“Say Oui to France, Say Oui to Innovation”).  On the other hand, this is France we’re talking about.

damage done

This government move has bad consequences both for France, and for Dailymotion:

–Dailymotion is now stuck being a part of a telephone utility, which doesn’t have the skills, connections or capital to help it grow.

–Dailymotion employees see that their dreams of making a large profit by cashing out in a sale, or of being key figures in a large internet entity have gone up in smoke.  The most talented are doubtless already cutting their losses and leaving France for tech jobs elsewhere.

–Paris has just shown foreigners that any capital they put into France is subject to the whims of the ruling elite and could easily be trapped there forever.   M. Montebourg’s public post-meeting gloating about his action only reinforces this idea.

–the move is another significant step down the path to economic irrelevance blazed by Japan.

France is not the only chauvinist…

…although it is the birthplace of the Nicholas Chauvin legend.

Every country restricts foreign investment to some degree.  Almost no one lets non-citizens control essential industries like defense, telecommunications or media, for example.  Developing economies, fearing that rich foreigners will spirit away local businesses on the cheap, often enact wider restrictions.  Continental European nations, where preserving the position of a small group of “haves” is a very high priority, do the same.  The US, fearing its growing economic power, won’t let China buy much of anything.

ironies

M. Montebourg seems to have no clue that he has highlighted the negative reality behind the “Say Oui to France-innovation” campaign.

The campaign’s website, which I thought was well done, features prominently an explanatory video driven by the same Dailymotion Montebourg has just eviscerated.

The French love to disparage American intellect and culture.  According to one recent description, we have been mentally ensnared by our greatest creation, Disneyland, and are now unable find our way back to the real world.  They don’t seem to get it that venerating yogurt and online videos suggests you’re a lot more confused than we are.   Or that being lost in memories of the glory of the Ancien Régime is not such a hot thing, either.

recent world currency movements: stock market implications

dramatic changes

Although currency movements sometimes can often be overlooked by a stock market investor immersed in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day trading action, there have been a couple of whopping big moves in major currencies over the past half-year.

Since late July 2012, the euro has risen by 12.5% against the dollar.  Over the same time span, the yen has fallen by about 16.5% against the greenback.  A quick bit of multiplication tells us this also means that the euro has risen by about 30% against the Japanese currency.

To my mind, there’s no really satisfactory general economic theory about how currencies work.  But to give a sense of perspective, inflation in Japan has been, say, -1% on an annual basis over the second half of 2012.  We’ve had +1.5% in the US.  Euroland has experienced a 2.5% rise in the price level.  Inflation differentials imply that the yen should be rising against the dollar at a 2.5% annual rate and against the euro by 3.5%.  The euro, in turn, should have weakened by 1% against the dollar and 3.5% against the yen.  The actual outcome has been far different.

Of course, there are reasons for the spectacular assent of the euro and the plunge of the yen.  Until around mid-year, many observers thought Euroland was coming apart at the seams and rushed to get their money out before the demise.  I’m sure there was more than a touch of flight capital mixed in the outflows.  Thanks to Mario Monti’s and Angela Merkel’s actions indicating the political will to save the euro, capital flows have reversed in spectacular fashion.

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it a central plank of his campaign for office that he intends to force the Bank of Japan to print lots of money.  Why?   …to weaken the yen and to create inflation.  The move could easily end in eventual economic disaster, but for now its main effect has been to drive the Japanese currency down a lot versus its trading partners’.

stock market implications

Generally speaking, a rising currency acts to slow down the domestic economy.  A falling currency gives the economy a temporary boost.

Currency changes can also rearrange the relative growth rates of different sectors.  The best-positioned companies will be those that have their sales in the strongest currencies and their costs (e.g., labor, raw materials, manufacturing) in the weakest.

Japan

The decline of the yen has given Japanese export-oriented firms a gigantic relative cost advantage against European competitors, and a significant, though smaller, one against US rivals–or those located in any country that ties its currency to the US$.  Anyone who sells products in Japan that are imported, or made with imported raw materials, has been crushed.

We’ve seen this movie before, however, on a couple of occasions.  It’s ugly.  Domestic firms lose.  Exporters will make substantial profit gains in the local currency.  But from a stock market view, that plus–with the possible exception of the autos–will be offset for foreigners by currency losses they have/will endure on their holdings.  Stocks in even the most advantaged sectors will deliver little better than breakeven to a $ investor, and will certainly rack up large losses to anyone interested in € returns, in my view.

Euroland

The EU has already had a return-from-the-dead rally, where stocks of all stripes in the economically challenged areas of southern Europe have done well.  The message of the stronger currency is that importers, or purely domestic firms in defensive industries will fare the best from here.    Although I think the preferred place to be from a long-term perspective is owning high quality export-oriented industrials, the rise of the euro has blunted their near-term attractiveness.  One exception:  multinationals based in the UK, because sterling hasn’t participated in the euro’s rocketship ride.

Ideally, you’d want a firm that imports Japanese goods into the EU.

the US

Americans are less accustomed to thinking about currency effects that investors in other areas, where their effects are more pervasive.  With the dollar being in the middle between an appreciating euro and a depreciating yen, currency effects will be two-sided. Firms with large Japanese businesses, like luxury goods companies, will be losers.  Firms with large European assets and profits, like many staples companies, will be winners.  Tourism from the EU will be up, from Japan, down.  One odd effect, which I don’t see any obvious American publicly listed beneficiary–the decline in the yen is causing the cost of living for ordinary Japanese to rise sharply, since that country imports so many dollar-price raw materials.  To offset that effect, Japan is beginning to weaken protective barriers that have kept much cheaper finished goods (like food) from entering the Japanese market.  Doubly bad for Japanese farmers, though.