inflation and stocks

wage inflation in the US?  …finally?

In my earlier post today, I didn’t mention that in the Employment Situation report from the Labor Department a week ago Friday, the annual rate of growth in wages rose from the 2.5% at which it had been stuck for a very long time, despite declining unemployment, to almost 3%.

an aside

Inflation in general is about prices in general increasing.  Deflation is when prices in general are actually falling.  Deflation is scarier than inflation both because it’s less common/harder to treat and because we have the object lesson of Japan, where a quarter-century of unchecked deflation has moved that country from penthouse to basement among world economic powers.

curing inflation

In developed countries, inflation is always about wages.

The garden variety, which seems to be what the Employment Situation may be signaling, is easy to cure.  …a little painful, but easy.

Raise interest rates.

The idea:  businesses want to expand.  To do that they need more workers.  But everyone is already employed somewhere.  So firms have to offer big wage boosts to poach workers from rivals.  Raising interest rates (eventually) stops that.  It increases the cost of expansion and also slows down demand.

Also nipping incipient inflation in the bud prevents consumer behavior from becoming all about defending oneself from it.

who wasn’t expecting this?

For years, economists have been anticipating a rise in inflation.  The first (false, then) alarms sounded maybe six years ago.

But, as they say, nothing is ever fully discounted until it happens.  In addition, Washington is arguably compounding the problem by enacting fiscal stimulus almost a decade too late–making it more likely that rates will go up sooner and more rapidly than if Washington had done nothing.  (Where did the deficit hawks disappear to?)

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.

figuring out price-earnings ratios (PEs)

One part of this is easy.

PE is industry jargon.  It’s a shorthand way of expressing the value of an individual stock, an industry group or a whole stock market, in terms of how many times one year’s earnings we’d be willing to pay to own whichever it is.

On the face of it, a low PE, say, 4x, would seem to be good; a high PE, say, 50x, bad.

But how do we know?  What factors enter into determining a PE?

 

A point that I’m maybe too fond of making is that, strictly speaking, there’s no demand for stocks.  There is demand for liquid investments, though (for most people in the US, it’s so they can save to send their children to college and to retire).  Bonds and cash are the other two big categories of liquid investments.  The apparent hair-splitting distinction is important, however, because each fixed income markets is much larger in size than stocks.  They’re also less risky.  The potential returns on these alternatives have a deep influence on what people are willing to pay for stocks.  In fact, academics turn the PE upside down (1/PE) to get what they call the earnings yield on stocks.  If you make the assumption that $1 in earnings in the hands of company management is more or less the equivalent as $1 in interest paid to you by the US Treasury, then the yield on Treasury bonds should (and virtually always does) have a powerful influence on what the earnings yield, and PE of stocks should be.  Why pay 20x for stocks if bonds are yielding 10%?

As I’m writing this, the 10-year Treasury bond is yielding 2.68%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of 37.  This compares with a PE of 26 on the S&P 500, based on current earnings.   So either stocks are cheap or bonds are overpriced.

Today’s situation is very unusual, given that the financial meltdown in 2007-08 compelled the Federal Reserve to push interest rates down to intensive-care lows.  The consensus judgment of financial professionals, which I think is correct, is that bonds are unusually expensive today, not that stocks are dirt cheap.  If the 10-year is on the way to a 3.5% yield as the Fed returns rates to normal over the next year or two, then the equivalent PE on the S&P would be 28.5x.

That’s about where US stocks are now priced vs. bonds, which suggests that stocks are fully valued if we factor in the likely course of the Fed.  This suggests that only new positive information will move the overall market higher.

Now the going gets harder.

The second important point is the the stock market is a futures market.  That is, it is always pricing in tomorrow’s prospects as well as current earnings.  Willingness to pay for future earnings ebbs and flows with the business cycle, however.  During recessions, investors play their cards very close to the chest and look at most a few months into the future when pricing stocks.  In normal times, the market begins to price in the following year’s earnings in June or July.  In a very buoyant market, investors may pay for earnings two or three years into the future.

 

A third consideration, related to the second, and applying to individual stocks, is the rate of earnings growth.  The importance of this factor changes from time to time.  But a useful general rule is that the PE based on this year’s earnings can reach as high as the long-term growth rate of the company.  In other words, if earnings per share are growing at a 50% annual clip–and will likely continue to do so for the next several years (or at least there’s no easily visible bar to growth like this)–then the PE can be as high as 50x.

 

Generally speaking, the US economy can probably grow at about 4%-5% a year in nominal terms (meaning, including inflation).  If so, publicly traded companies, which are arguably the cream of the crop, will grow earnings per share by about 8% – 10% annually.  All other things being equal, this latter figure should be the trend growth for stocks in general.Put a different way, a company that can sustain growth of 50% a year in an economic environment like this must have something extra special going for it.

This rule of thumb doesn’t work for many “value” stocks, since no growth/earnings declines would imply a zero multiple–which in most (academics would say “all”) cases is clearly wrong (Academics say every stock retains at least a kind of option value).

 

 

business line analysis and sum-of-the-parts

This is mostly a reply to reader Alex’s comment on a post from early 2017 about Disney (DIS).

The most common, and in my opinion, most reliable method securities analysts use to project future earnings for multi-business companies is doing a separate analysis for each business line.  This effort is aided by an SEC requirement that such publicly traded companies disclose operating revenues and profits for each line of business it is in.

In the case of DIS, it’s involved in:  broadcast, including ESPN; movie production and distribution; theme parks and resorts; and sales of merchandise related to the other business lines.

There is plenty of comparative data–from trade associations, government bodies and the financials of publicly traded single-business firms–to help with the analysis.  And every company has, in theory at least, an investor relations department that answers questions put to it by investors. ( My experience since retiring as a money manager for institutional clients is that many backward-thinking well-established companies–DIS and Intel come to mind–can be distinctly unhelpful to their most important supporters, you and me.  (To be fair, I haven’t spoken with DIS’s IR people for several years, so they may be better now.))

Analysis consists in projecting revenues/ profits for each business line and using the results as the key to constructing a series of whole-company income statements–one each for this year, next year and the year after that.

The trickiest part is to decide how to value this earnings stream.  The ability to do this well either comes with experience or from having worked for a professional investor who’s willing to teach.

 

More tomorrow, or in a day or two if I don’t get my film editing homework done today.

 

 

 

~$70 a barrel crude (ii)

Two factors are moving the Energy sector higher.  The obvious one is the higher oil price during a normally seasonally weak time.  In addition, though, the market is actively looking for alternatives to IT.  It isn’t that the bright long-term future for this sector has dimmed.  It’s that near-term valuations for IT have risen to the point that Wall Street wants to see more concrete evidence of high growth–in the form of superior future earnings reports–before it’s willing to bid the stocks significantly higher.  With IT shunted to the sidelines for now, the market is not being a picky as it might be otherwise about alternatives such as Energy and Consumer discretionary.

The fancy term for what’s going on now is “counter-trend rally.”  It can go on for months.

 

As to the oils,

–a higher crude oil price is clearly a positive for the exploration and proudction companies that produce the stuff.  In particular, all but the least adept shale oil drillers must now be making money.  This is where investment activity will be centered, I think.

 

–refiners and marketers, who have benefitted from lower costs are now facing higher prices.  So they’re net losers.  Long/short investors will be reversing their positions to now be short refiners and long e&p.

 

–the biggest multinational integrateds are a puzzle.  On the one hand, they traditionally make most of their money from finding and producing crude.  On the other, they’ve spent very heavily over the past decade on mega-projects that depend for their viability on $100+ oil.  This has been a horrible mistake.  Shale oil output will likely keep crude well short of $100 for a very long time.

Yes, the big multinationals have all taken significant writeoffs on these ill-starred projects.  But, in theory at least, writeoffs aren’t supposed to create future profits.  They can only eliminate capital costs that there’s no chance of recovering.  As these projects come online, they’ll likely produce strong positive cash flow (recovery of upfront costs already on the balance sheet) but little profit.

The question in my mind is how the market will value this cash flow.  As I see it–value investors might argue otherwise–most stock market participants buy earnings, not cash generation.  Small companies in this situation would likely be acquired by larger rivals.  But the firms I’m talking about–ExxonMobil, Shell, BP…–are probably too big for that.  Will they turn themselves into quasi-bonds by paying out most of this cash in dividends?  I have no idea.

Two thoughts:

—–why fool around with the multinationals when the shale oil companies are clear winners?

—–as/when the integrateds start to show relative strength, we have to begin to consider that the party may be over.  So watch them.

~$70 a barrel crude oil

prices equity investors watch

Investors who are not oil specialists typically use (at most) two crude oil prices as benchmarks:

Brent, a light crude from under the North Sea.  Today it is selling at just about $70 a barrel.  “Light” means just what it says.  Brent is rich in smaller, less-heavy molecules that are easily turned into high-value products like gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.  It contains few large, denser molecules that require specialized refinery equipment to be turned into anything except low-value boiler fuel or asphalt.  Because it can be used in older refinery equipment that’s still hanging around in bunches in the EU, it typically trades at a premium

West Texas intermediate, which is somewhat heavier and produced, as the name suggests, onshore in the US.  It is going for just under $64 a barrel this morning.

 

What’s remarkable about this is that we’re currently nearing the yearly low point for crude oil demand.  The driving season–April through September–is long since over.  And for crude bought, say three weeks from now, it’s not clear it can be refined into heating oil and delivered to retail customers before the winter heating season is over.

Yet WTI is up from its 2017 low of $45 a barrel last July and from $57 a barrel in early December.  The corresponding figures for Brent are $45 and $65. (Note that there was no premium for Brent in July.  I really don’t know why–some combination of traders’ despair and weak end user demand in Europe.)

 

why the current price strength?

Several factors, most important first:

–OPEC oil producers continue to restrain output to create a floor under the price

–they’re being successful at their objective, as the gradual reduction of up-to-the-eyeballs world inventories–and the current price, of course–show

–the $US is weakening somewhat.

 

 

My Lighting class is calling, so I’ll finish this tomorrow.  The bottom line for me, though:  I think relative strength in oil exploration and production companies will continue.