is the S&P expensive?

I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently that maintains stocks are generally expensive.  Sometimes the commentators even recommend selling, although in true Wall Street strategist style, they’re not very specific about how much to sell or how deep they think the downside risk is.

The standard argument is that if you compare the PE ratio of the S&P today with its past, the current number, just about 25x, is unusually high.

That’s correct.

What I haven’t see anyone do, however, is consider the price of stocks against the price of alternative liquid investments–cash and bonds.  That would tell you what to do with the money if you sell stocks.  It would also tell you that bonds are much more expensive than stocks.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury is currently 2.23%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of about 44x.  The return on cash is worse.  Cash, however, protects principal from capital loss, except in the most dire circumstances–ones where you’re thinking you should have bought canned goods and a cabin in the woods..

In addition, I think the most likely course for interest rates in the US is for them to rise.  When this has happened in the past, bond prices have fallen while stocks have gone basically sideways.  There’s no guarantee this will happen with stocks again.  But rising rates are always bad news for bonds.

What is surprising to me about current market movements is that stocks continue to be so strong during a time of typical seasonal weakness.





building a new company HQ–a sign of trouble ahead?

This is a long-standing Wall Street belief.  The basic idea is that as companies expand and mature, their leadership gradually turns from entrepreneurs into bureaucrats.  The ultimate warning bell that rough waters are ahead for corporate profits is the announcement that a firm will spend huge amounts of money on a grandiose new corporate headquarters.

An odd article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of this a couple of days ago.  The company coming into question in it is Amazon, which has just initiated a search for the site of a second corporate HQ.

What’s odd:

–why no comment on Apple’s new over-the-top $5 billion HQ building?

–the headquarters idea was followed by a discussion of research results from a finance professor from Dartmouth, Kenneth French, which show that publicly traded firms with the highest levels of capital spending tend to have underperforming stocks.

I’ve looked on the internet for Prof. French’s work, much of which has been done in collaboration with Eugene Fama.  I couldn’t find the paper in question, although I did come across an interesting, and humorous, one that argues the lack of predictive value of the capital asset pricing model (CAPM)–despite it’s being the staple of the finance theory taught to MBAs.  (The business school idea is apparently that reality is too complicated for non-PhD students to understand so let’s teach them something that’s simple, even though it’s wrong.)

my thoughts

–money for creating/customizing computer software, which is one of the largest uses of corporate funds in the US, is typically written off as an expense.  From a financial accounting point of view, it doesn’t show up as capital spending.

–same thing with brand creation through advertising and public relations.  I’m not sure how Prof. French deals with this issue.

Over the past quarter-century, there’s been a tendency for companies to decrease their capital intensity.  In the semiconductor industry, this was the child of necessity, since each generation of fabs seems to be hugely more expensive than its predecessor.  Hence the rise of third-party fabs like TSMC.

For hotel companies, it has been a deliberate choice to divest their physical locations, while taking back management contracts.  For light manufacturing, it has been outsourcing to the developing world, but retaining marketing and distribution.


What’s left as capital-intensive, then?  Mining, oil and gas, ship transport, autos, steel, cement, public utilities…  Not exactly the cream of the capital appreciation crop.


At the very beginning of my investment career, the common belief was that high minimum effective plant size and correspondingly large spending requirements formed an anti-competitive “moat” for the industries in question.  But technological change, from the 1970s steel mini-mill that cost a tenth the price of a blast furnace onward, has shown capital spending to be more Maginot Line than effective defense.

So it may well be that the underperformance pointed to by Prof. French has less to do with profligate management, as the WSJ suggests, than simply the nature of today’s capital-intensive businesses–namely, the ones that have no other option.







the amazing shrinking dollar

So far this year, the US$ has fallen by about 14% against the €, and around 8% against the ¥ and £.

A substantial portion of this movement is giveback of the sharp dollar appreciation which happened last year after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president.  That was sparked by belief that a non-establishment chief executive would be able to get things done in Washington.  Reform of the income tax system and repair of aging infrastructure were supposed to be high on the agenda, with the resulting fiscal stimulus allowing the Fed to raise interest rates much more aggressively than the consensus had imagined.  Hence, continuing dollar strength on a booming economy and increasing interest rate differentials.

To date, none of that has happened.   So it makes sense that currency traders would begin to reverse their bets on.  However, last year’s move up in the dollar has been more than completely erased and the clear consensus is now on continuing dollar weakness.


Dollar weakness has caused stock market investors to shift their portfolios away from domestic-oriented firms toward multinationals and exporters.  This is the standard tactic.  It also makes sense:  a firm with costs in dollars and revenues in euros is in an ideal position at present.

It’s interesting to note, though, that over the weekend China lifted some restrictions imposed last year that limited the ability of its citizens to sell renminbi to buy dollars.

To my mind, this is the first sign that dollar weakness may have gone too far.

It’s too soon, in my view, to react to this possibility.  In particular, the appointment of a new head of the Federal Reserve could play a key role in the currency’s future path, given persistent Republican calls to curtail its independence.  Gary Cohn, the establishment choice, is rumored to have fallen out of favor with Mr. Trump after protesting the latter’s support of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Still, it’s not too early to plot out a potential strategy to benefit from a dollar reversal.



why September is usually a bad month for US stocks

It has to do with taxes on mutual funds and ETFs, whose tax years normally end in October.

That wasn’t always true.  Up until the late 1980s, the tax year for mutual funds typically ended on December 31st.  That, however, gave the funds no time to close their books and send out the required taxable distributions (basically, all of the income plus realized gains) to shareholders before the end of the calendar year.  Often, preliminary distributions were made in December and supplementary ones in January.  This was expensive   …and the late distributions meant that part of the money owed to the IRS was pushed into the next tax year.

So the rules were changed in the Eighties.  Mutual funds were strongly encouraged to end their tax years in October, and virtually every existing fund made the change.  New ones followed suit.  That gave funds two months to get their accounts in order and send out distributions to shareholders before their customers’ tax year ends.

getting ready to distribute

How do funds–and now ETFs–prepare for yearend distributions?

Although it doesn’t make much economic sense, shareholders like to receive distributions.  They appear to view them as like dividends on stocks, a sign of good management.  They don’t, on the other hand, like distributions that are eitherminiscule or are larger than, say, 5% of the assets.

When September rolls around, management firms begin to look closely at the level of net gains/losses realized so far in the year (the best firms monitor this all the time).  In my experience, the early September figure is rarely at the desired target of 3% or so.  If the number is too high, funds will scour the portfolio to find stocks with losses to sell.  If the number is too low, funds will look for stocks with large gains that can be realized.

In either case, this means selling.

Some years, the selling begins right after Labor Day.  In others, it’s the middle of the month.  The one constant, however, is that the selling dries up in mid-October.  That’s because the funds’ accountants will ask that, if possible,  managers not trade in the last week or so of the year.  They point out that their job is simpler–and their fees smaller–if they do not have to carry unsettled trades into the new tax year.  Although the manager’s job is to make money for clients, not make the accountants happy, my experience is that there’s at least some institutional pressure to abide by their wishes.

Most often, the September-October selling pressure sets the market up for a bounceback rally in November-December.




new posting schedule

I’m going back to school!

Last week I started a full-time MFA program.  Given how long it has been since I’ve been in a classroom as a student, I anticipate I’ll need some of the ten hours or so a week I’m spending on Practical Stock Investing.  So I’m going to cut back to two posts a week–Monday and Thursday–and see how that goes.

Employment Situation, August 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its monthly Employment Situation for August on schedule at 8:30 edt this morning.

For the first time in a while, the results were mildly disappointing, in that:

–new positions added came in at +156,000 jobs, lower than in the recent past–although more than enough to absorb new entrants into the workforce

–the past two months’ results were revised downward by a total of -41,000 jobs

–wage gains continued to show no signs of the acceleration that economic theory, and past experience, predict will happen in a tight labor market.   Wage growth remains at a +2.5% pace for the past year.


It will be interesting to see what Wall Street makes of the numbers.  Pre-market S&P 500 futures were trading a +5.75 points just before the release and seem to be showing almost no change as I’m writing this at about 8:40.

To my mind, that’s the right response.

However, the ho-hum attitude could easily be due to the fact that it’s the last Friday in August and all thoughts have already turned to Labor Day.  There’s also a distinct Fall feel in the air, which may be another distraction.  The Amazon-Whole Foods combination has focused a lot of stock market attention on forces of structural change that have been in motion for a decade or so but are only now coming fully into the public, and press, consciousness.  That puts them squarely (even if that’s mixing metaphors) in the wheelhouse of algorithmic traders.  Then, of course, there’s Houston and Harvey.

By the way, continuing to ramble, the way the market closes today–both overall and with individual stocks–may give some hints as to how Wall Street will react as powerful traders return to work from the Hamptons next week.