the stock market cycle–where are we now?

As I wrote yesterday, stock market price-earnings multiples tend to contract in bad times and expand during good.  This is not only due to well-understood macroeconomic causes–the effect of higher/lower interest rates and falling/rising corporate profits–but also from psychological/emotional motivations rooted in fear and greed.

(An aside:  Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) and Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes (1978) are only two of the many books chronicling the power of fear and greed in financial markets.  In fact, the efficient markets theory taught in business schools, which denies fear and greed have any effect on the price of financial instruments, was formulated while one of the bigger stock market bubbles in US history, the “Nifty Fifty” years, and a subsequent vicious crash in 1973-74, were taking place outside the ivory tower.)

Where are we now?

My take:

2008-09  PEs contract severely and remain compressed until 2013

2013  PEs rebound, but only to remove this compression and restore a more typical relationship between the interest yield on bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

today  The situation is a little more nuanced.  The bond/stock relationship in general remains much the way it has been for the past several years, with stocks looking, if anything, somewhat undervalued vs. bonds.  But it’s also now very clear that, unlike the situation since 2008, that interest rates are on an upward path, implying downward pressure on bond prices.

In past plain-vanilla situations like this, stocks have moved sideways while bonds declined, buoyed by an early business cycle surge in corporate profits.

Since last November’s presidential election, stocks have risen by 10%+.  This is unusual, in my view, because we’re not at the dawn of a new business cycle.  It comes from anticipation that the Trump administration will introduce profit-boosting fiscal stimulus and reforms.  The “Trump trade” has disappeared since the inauguration, however.  Our new chief executive has displayed all the reality show craziness of The Apprentice, but little of the business acumen claimed for the character Mr. Trump portrayed in the show–and which he asserts he exhibited in in his long (although bankruptcy-ridden) career in the family real estate business.

Interestingly, the stock market hasn’t weakened so far in response to this development.  Instead, two things have happened.  Overall market PE multiples have expanded.  Interest has also shifted away from business cycle sensitive stocks toward secular growth stocks and early stage “concept” firms like Tesla, where PEs have expanded significantly.  TSLA is up by 76% since the election and 57% so far this year–despite the administration’s efforts to promote fossil fuels.  So greed still rules fear.  But animal spirits are no longer focused on beneficiaries of action from Washington.  They’re more amorphous–and speculative, as I see it.

Personally, I don’t think we’re at or near a speculative peak.  Of course, as a growth stock investor, and given my own temperament, I’m not going to be the first to know.  It does seem to me, however, that the sideways movement we’ve seen in the S&P since March tells us we are at limits of where the market can go without concrete economic positives, whether they be surprising strength from abroad or the hoped-for end to dysfunction in Washington.

 

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.

yesterday’s S&P 500 stock price action

Yesterday may have marked an inflection point in the US stock market.  Today’s potential follow through, if it happens, will give us a better idea.

Domestically, Mr. Trump appears to be moving on from pressing his social program to tax reform–and, maybe, infrastructure spending, both of which are issues of potentially great positive economic significance.  At the same time, results of the first round of the French presidential election (which pollsters got right, for once) seem to suggest the threat that France might leave the euro, thereby reducing the fabric of the EU to tatters, is diminishing.

yesterday’s S&P 500

How did Wall Street react to this news?  The sector breakout of yesterday’s returns, according to Google Finance, are as follows:

Staples          +1.7%

Finance          +1.6%

Industrials          +1.4%

IT          +1.4%

Materials          +1.2%

Healthcare          +1.1%

S&P 500          +1.1%

Energy          +0.8%

Consumer discretionary          +0.7%

Utilities          +0.6%

Telecom          +0.3%.

winners

Staples led the pack, presumably because this sector has the greatest exposure to Europe–and a rising euro.  Financials advanced significantly also, on the idea that stronger economic growth will lead to rising interest rates, a situation that benefits banks.

Industrials and Materials perked up as well.  Again, these are sectors that benefit from accelerating economic growth.

losers

Energy marches to the beat of its own drummer. The rest are consistent with the story behind the winning sectors, either defensives or beneficiaries of moderate (that is, not rip-roaring) economic performance.

My guess is that this pattern may continue for a while yet.  Personally, I’m most comfortable participating through Financials and IT.

 

 

 

 

tallying up the cost of Brexit

How good is the UK, the part of the EU most American investors know best, as a way to participate in potential economic strength in Europe over the coming 12 months?

Probably not good at all.  Here’s why:

–since the Brexit vote last June, sterling has depreciated by 13+% against the US dollar and 8+% against the euro.  While the loss of national wealth in Japan through depreciation dwarfs what has happened in the UK, the blow to holders of sterling-based assets is still immense.

Depreciation lowers the UK standard of living and reduces the purchasing power of residents by raising the cost of imported goods.  While one might argue that the fall in sterling is in the past–and while the consumer will be in trouble benefits to export-oriented firms through lower costs are still to come–this may not be the case here.  More in point #3.

–there’s some evidence that UK residents, realizing last June that prices would soon begin to rise, did a lot of extra consuming before/while firms were marking up their wares.  If so, the UK economy could be in for a significant slowdown over the coming months, both because consumers are now poorer and because they’ve already used up a chunk of their budgets through anticipatory buying.

–much of the appeal of the UK as a destination for export-oriented manufacturing comes from its position as the large foreigner-friendly country in the EU, from which multinationals could reach into the rest of the union.  That’s no longer the case.  An article from yesterday’s Financial Times is titled ” Brussels starts to freeze Britain out of EU contracts.”  Its basis is an EU government memo, which, as the FT reads it, advises staff to:

–avoid considering the UK for any new business dealings where contracts may extend beyond the two year deadline for Brexit

–cancel existing contracts with UK parties that extend beyond the Brexit deadline

–urge UK-based companies to relocate to continental Europe, presumably if they want favorable consideration for new business.

It seems to me that the EU leaked this memo to the FT to get the widest possible dissemination of its new not-so-friendly-to-the-UK policies.  It implies that the post-Brexit business slowdown in the UK will start immediately, not in two years.

One set of potential winners:  UK-based multinationals that do little or no business with the EU.  These, like ARM Holdings, are also potential takeover targets–although it’s questionable if the UK will permit further acquisitions by foreigners.

 

the case for Europe …and how to play

We can divide the mature stock markets of the world into three groups:  Japan, the US and Europe.

My long-held view is that Japan is a special situations market, where disastrous economic policy, hostility to foreign investors of all stripes a shrinking working population, make putting in the time to understand this intellectually fascinating culture not worth the effort for mainstream companies.

That leaves the US and UK/EU.

the case for Europe

Looking across the Atlantic, Europe appears to be a big mess.  It has, so far, not really recovered from the recession of 2008-09.  Grexit continues to be an issue, although relatively minor.  But there’s also Brexit, with the additional possibility that Scotland will vote to secede from the UK.  And there’s possibility that Marine Le Pen may become the next French president.  She advocates Frexit + repudiation of France’s euro-denominated debt.  In her stated social views, she’s the French version of Donald Trump.  On top of all this, the population of the EU is older, and is growing more slowly, than that of the US.  In a sense, the EU is the next Japan waiting for unfavorable demographics to take its toll.

What, then, could be the case for having exposure to Europe?

Three factors:

–the plus side of Donald Trump–tax reform, infrastructure, end to Congressional dysfunction–now appears to be at best a 2018 happening.  In a relative sense, then, Europe looks better than it did a few months ago

–the EU began its economic rescue operations several years later than the US did.  Because of this, one way of thinking about the EU is that it’s the US with, say, a three-year lag.  If that’s correct, we should expect growth there to be perking up–and it is–and to remain at a somewhat better than normal level for a while.

–the mass of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into the EU has produced near-term political and social problems.  However, many are young and well-educated.  So as they are assimilated, they will provide a boost to the workforce–and therefore to GDP growth.

how to play Europe

the UK

Brexit will be bad for the UK economy, I think.  Although much of the damage has already been done through depreciation of sterling, UK multinationals, especially those with exposure to the EU are, conceptually at least, the way to go.  Even here, though, it’s not yet clear how access to these markets will be restricted as the UK leaves the European Union.  So the UK probably isn’t the best way to participate.

the Continent

Since we’re talking about local GDP being unusually good, multinationals are likely to be underperformers.  EU-oriented firms will be the stars.  Small will likely outperform large.

the US and China

About a quarter of the profits of the S&P 500 are sourced in Europe.  So US-based, EU-oriented multinationals are also a way to play.

Another 10% or so of S&P earnings are China-related.  Because China’s largest trading partner is the EU, some of the glow from the EU will rub off on export-oriented Chinese firms.  Here I haven’t yet looked for names. But it may be possible to play the EU either through Chinese firms listed in the US or through US multinationals with China exposure.  I’d put this group at the tail end of any list, however.

 

the Trump rally and its aftermath (so far)

the Trump rally

From the surprise election of Donald Trump as president through late December 2016, the S&P 500 rose by 7.3%.  What was, to my mind, much more impressive, though less remarked on, was the 14% gain of the US$ vs the ¥ over that period and its 7% rise against the €.

the aftermath

Since the beginning of 2017, the S&P 500 has tacked on another +4.9%.  However, as the charts on my Keeping Score page show, Trump-related sectors (Materials, Industrials, Financials, Energy) have lagged badly.  The dollar has reversed course as well, losing about half its late-2016 gains against both the yen and euro.

How so?

Where to from here?

the S&P

The happy picture of late 2016 was that having one party control both Congress and the administration, and with a maverick president unwilling to tolerate government dysfunction, gridlock in Washington would end.  Tax reform and infrastructure spending would top the agenda.

The reality so far, however, is that discord within the Republican Party plus the President’s surprisingly limited grasp of the relevant economic and political issues have resulted in continuing inaction.  The latest pothole is Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns–that would reveal what he personally has to gain from the tax changes he is proposing.

On the other hand, disappointment about the potential for US profit advances generated by constructive fiscal policy has been offset by surprisingly strong growth indications from Continental Europe and, to a lesser extent, from China.

This is why equity investors in the US have shifted their interest away from Trump stocks and toward multinationals, world-leading tech stocks and beneficiaries of demographic change.

the dollar

The case for dollar strength has been based on the idea that new fiscal stimulus emanating from Washington would allow the Fed to raise interest rates at a faster clip this year than previously anticipated.  Washington’s continuing ineptness, however, is giving fixed income and currency investors second thoughts.  Hence, the dollar’s reversal of form.

tactics

Absent a reversal of form in Washington that permits substantial corporate tax reform, it’s hard for me to argue that the S&P is going up.  Yes, we probably get some support from a slower interest rate increase program by the Fed, as well as from continuing grass-roots political action that threatens recalcitrant legislators with replacement in the next election.  The dollar probably slides a bit, as well–a plus for the 50% or so of S&P earnings sourced abroad.  But sideways is both the most likely and the best I think ws can hope for.  Secular growth themes probably continue to predominate, with beneficiaries of fiscal stimulation lagging.

Having written that, I still think shale oil is interesting   …and the contrarian in me says that at some point there will be a valuation case for things like shipping and basic materials.  On the latter, I don’t think there’s any need to do more than nibble right now, though.