feeling for a bottom

feeling for the bottom

panic in the air

During bad markets like the present, company fundamentals tend to go out the window as predictors of short-term stock market performance.  What takes their place is varying shades of fear and reading charts.

As for fear, I’ve found in watching my own usually-optimistic behavior, that no matter how far down the market has fallen it isn’t approaching a bottom until I start to get scared–that maybe my innate cheeriness has finally ruined my career and the family finances.  For what it’s worth, I started getting these (irrational) feelings for the first time on Wednesday.  It could be that my last-minute rush to get my thesis project finished and submitted to SVA contributed a feeling of panic.  If not, my Wednesday experience is good news.

charts

My version of William Pitt is to say that charts (not patriotism) are the last refuge of scoundrels.  Nevertheless, when rationality flies out the door, charts are what’s left.

In the US, despite the chatter of TV actors, the important index is not the Dow but the S&P 500.  The important things to look for, in my view, are past bottoms and places where the index has been flattish for an extended period of time.  That’s not a lot to go on but that’s most of what there is.

In this case, the relevant figures I see are 2400, which was the bottom for the mysterious market drop at the end of 2018 and 2100, where the S&P spent much of 2015-16.

Two idiosyncracies of the US market:

–the index often breaks below a big support level–scaring the wits out of traders who see themselves sliding into a yawning abyss, in my view–before reversing itself.  The break below signals the bottom

–almost always the index recovers for several weeks before returning to, and bouncing up from, the initial bottom.  This didn’t happen in 2018, though.

the economy

My guess is that the worst of the coronavirus will be behind the US by June.  If that’s correct, then at some time in May (?) the stock market will begin to discount better times.

The biggest economic negative has come from the White House, where the incompetence of Mr. Trump was on full display, raising echoes of the disaster he created in Puerto Rico earlier in his term.  Not far behind is the recent revelation that Republican senators dumped their stock portfolios after coronavirus briefings, while still toeing the party line that there was nothing to worry about.  (My view is that Trump has done an enormous amount of long-term economic damage to the US in his presidency so far–hurting most deeply those who have trusted and supported him–but that we have yet to see the negative consequences.)  Somehow, Washington appears to have started to function again, however.

On the other hand, state and local officials have negated some of Trump’s “hoax” campaign by acting quickly and decisively.

From a purely stock market view, it seems to me that investors have switched out of panic mode and are beginning to sift through the rubble to sort winners from losers.  If I’m correct, it’s important for us as investors to pay attention to what the market is saying now–and ask ourselves how well this matches with our sense of what is happening.

 

 

 

 

dealing with market volatility

Beginning rant:  finance academics equate volatility with risk.  This has some intuitive plausibility.  Volatility is also easy to measure and you don’t have to know much about actual financial markets.  Using volatility as the principal measure of risk leads to odd conclusions, however.

For example: Portfolio A is either +/- 1% each week but is up by 8% each year; Portfolio B almost never changes and is up by 3% every twelve months.

Portfolio A will double in nine years; Portfolio B takes 24 years to double–by which time Portfolio A will be almost 4x the value of B.

People untrained in academic finance would opt for A.  Academics argue (with straight faces) that the results of A should be discounted because that portfolio fluctuates in value so much more than B.  Some of them might say that A is worse than B because of greater volatility, even though that would be cold comfort to an investor aiming to send a child to college or to retire (the two principal reasons for long-term savings).

more interesting stuff

–on the most basic level, if I’m saving to buy a car this year or for a vacation, that money should be in a bank account or money market fund, not in the stock market.  Same thing with next year’s tuition money

–the stock market is the intersection of the objective financial characteristics of publicly-traded companies with the hopes and fears of investors.  Most often, prices change because of human emotion rather than altered profit prospects.   What’s happening in markets now is unusual in two ways:  an external event, COVID-19, is causing unexpected and hard-to-predict declines in profit prospects for many publicly-traded companies; and the bizarrely incompetent response of the administration to the public health threat–little action + suppression of information (btw, vintage Trump, as we witnessed in Atlantic City)–is raising deep fears about the guy driving the bus we’re all on

–most professionals I’ve known try to avoid trading during down markets, realizing that what’s emotionally satisfying today will likely appear to be incredibly stupid in a few months.  For almost everyone, sticking with the plan is the right thing to do

–personally, I’ve found down markets to be excellent times for upgrading a portfolio.  That’s because clunkers that have badly lagged during an up phase tend to outperform when the market’s going down–this is a variation on “you can’t fall off the floor.”  Strong previous performers, on the other hand, tend to do relatively poorly (see my next point).  So it makes sense to switch.  Note:  this is much harder to do in practice than it seems.

–when all else fails, i.e., after the market has been going down for a while, even professionals revert to the charts–something no one wants to admit to.  Two things I look for:

support and resistance:  meaning prices at which lots of people have previously bought and sold.  Disney (DIS), for example, went sideways for a number of years at around $110 before spiking on news of its new streaming service.  Arguably people who sold DIS over that time would be willing to buy it back at around that level.  Strong previous performers have farther to fall to reach these levels

selling climax:  meaning a point where investors succumb to fear and dump out stocks without regard to price just to stop losing money.  Sometimes the same kind of thing happens when speculators on margin are unable to meet margin calls and are sold out.  In either case, the sign is a sharp drop on high volume.  I see a little bit of that going on today

 

more on Monday

 

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

 

 

 

 

looking at today’s market

In an ideal world, portfolio investing is all about comparing the returns available among the three liquid asset classes–stocks, bonds and cash–and choosing the mix that best suits one’s needs and risk preferences.

In the real world, the markets are sometimes gripped instead by almost overwhelming waves of greed or fear that blot out rational thought about potential future returns.  Once in a while, these strong emotions presage (where did that word come from?) a significant change in market direction.  Most often, however, they’re more like white noise.

In the white noise case, which I think this is an instance of, my experience is that people can sustain a feeling of utter panic for only a short time.  Three weeks?  …a month?  The best way I’ve found to gauge how far along we are in the process of exhausting this emotion is to look at charts (that is, sinking pretty low).  What I want to see is previous levels where previously selloffs have ended, where significant new buying has emerged.

I typically use the S&P 500.  Because this selloff has, to my mind, been mostly about the NASDAQ, I’ve looked at that, too.  Two observations:  as I’m writing this late Tuesday morning both indices are right at the level where selling stopped in June;  both are about 5% above the February lows.

My conclusion:  if this is a “normal” correction, it may have a little further to go, but it’s mostly over.  Personally, I own a lot of what has suffered the most damage, so I’m not doing anything.  Otherwise, I’d be selling stocks that have held up relatively well and buying interesting names that have been sold off a lot.

 

What’s the argument for this being a downturn of the second sort–a marker of a substantial change in market direction?  As far as the stock market goes, there are two, as I see it:

–Wall Street loves to see accelerating earnings.  A yearly pattern of +10%, +12%, +15% is better than +15%, +30%, +15%.  That’s despite the fact that the earnings level in the second case will be much higher in year three than in the first.

Why is this?  I really don’t know.  Maybe it’s that in the first case I can dream that future years will be even better.  In the second case, it looks like the stock in question has run into a brick wall that will stop/limit earnings advance.

What’s in question here is how Wall Street will react to the fact that 2018 earnings are receiving a large one-time boost from the reduction in the Federal corporate tax rate.  So next year almost every stock’s pattern in will look like case #2.

A human being will presumably look at pre-tax earnings to remove the one-time distortion.  But will an algorithm?

 

–Washington is going deeply into debt to reduce taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations, thereby revving the economy up.  It also sounds like it wants the Fed to maintain an emergency room-low level of interest rates, which will intensify the effect.  At the same time, it is acting to raise the price of petroleum and industrial metals, as well as everything imported from China–which will slow the economy down (at least for ordinary people).  It’s possible that Washington figures that the two impulses will cancel each other out.  On the other hand, it’s at least as likely, in my view, that both impulses create inflation fears that trigger a substantial decline in the dollar.  The resulting inflation could get 1970s-style ugly.

 

My sense is that the algorithm worry is too simple to be what’s behind the market decline, the economic worry too complicated.  If this is the seasonal selling I believe it to be, time is a factor as well as stock market levels.  To get the books to close in an orderly way, accountants would like portfolio managers not to trade next week.

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.

Jim Paulsen: lower lows, but not by much

Jim Paulsen, equity strategist for Wells Capital Management, an arm of Wells Fargo, gave an interview on CNBC yesterday.  It’s well worth listening to.

His main points:

–the stock market decline we’ve seen since November is all about adjustment to lower future earnings growth prospects.  This is being caused by the resumption of “normal” growth as the bounceback from deep recession is completed.  Another aspect of the return to normal is the economic drag from gradual end to extraordinary monetary stimulus, at least in the US.

In Mr. Paulsen’s view, the S&P 500 can trade at 16x trailing earnings in this new environment, not the 19x it was at two months ago.

–we may have seen the lows for the year last Wednesday at midday (1812 on the S&P 500).  More likely, the market will revisit those lows in the near future.  It will break below 1800 on the S&P, creating a fear-filled selling climax.

–assuming, as he does, that the S&P will end the year flat, i.e. around the 2044 where it closed 2015, a buyer at yesterday’s close would have a 9% return (11% dividends) from holding the index by yearend.  A buyer at 1800 would have a compelling 14% (16%) return.  11% might be enough to attract buyers; 16% surely will be.

–2017 will be a stronger year for earnings growth than 2015, implying that the market will rise further as/when it begins to discount next year’s earnings growth.

–the current selloff will trigger a market leadership change.  The new stars will likely be industrials, small-caps and foreign stocks.

what comes after a double bottom?

A double bottom marks a significant reversal in market direction.   There are two possibilities:

–after a bear market, meaning a nine-month to year+-long market decline caused by a recession.  (This is not the situation we’re in now.)  The market typically bottoms six months or so in advance of what government statistics will eventually say was the low point for the economy.  It does so partly on valuation, partly because the first anecdotal signs that the worst is over are beginning to be seen.

The market then begins its typical sawtooth pattern of upward movement, forming what technicians call a channel.  This is an upward sloping corridor whose ceiling is formed by progressive market highs and whose floor is similarly formed by progressive lows.  Initially, the slope can be quite steep.  Day to day, the market makes progress by bouncing along between floor and ceiling.

–after a correction, meaning a decline of, say, 5% to 10% in market value that occurs over several weeks and which, in effect, adjust market values back from stretched to the upside to levels where potential buyers see the potential for reasonable gains over a twelve month period.  (This is our current situation, in my view.)

Generally speaking, the same upward channel forms.  But the slope may be very shallow.  In fact, until new, positive, economic information emerges, there may not be much of a slope at all, so that stocks move more sideways than up.  Nevertheless, in the case that the channel is almost completely horizontal, periodic successful testing of the bottom established at the end of the correction reinforces the idea that downside risk is limited.