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.





…finally, internet again

I’ve been travelling in the rural Northwest the past week and have had only intermittent internet access   …until now.

Stepping back from the day-to-day, has its advantages, though.  Having little up-to-the-minute data, I’ve been forced to look at the longer-range stock market picture. 
The first two or three months after the election, the dollar and stocks both rose as investors celebrated the presidential results.  The strongest groups were Energy, Materials and Industrials–the ones that would benefit both from an acceleration in economic growth and implementation of the professed Trump agenda of tax reform and infrastructure spending.

This period ended rght around the inaguration.  It was replaced by a market that embraced secular growth areas of Technology and Healthcare.  The dollar began to drift downward, as well.  This sector/currency shift was partly, I think, a rotation from leaders to laggards that happens in every market that’s not going sideways.  Part was also concern that delivering on the Trump agenda might not be as easy as investors had supposed over the previous months.

During 2Q17, the stock market began to understand how deep the problems are that the Republican party and the adminstration are having in getting anything done.  The main direct consequence of this loss of confidence has been a sharp fall in the dollar, I think, on the idea that failure of the administration and congress to engineer fisal stimulus would translate into a slower pace of interest rate increases by the Fed.  A weaker dollar benefits multinationals, so IT continued to be a winner, along with many members of the Staples group, which also has large foreign exposure.

This last movement has also played itself out in recent weeks, I think.  The market as a whole, and major tech stocks in particular, have begun to move sideways, expressing Wall Street’s belief (mine, too) that they’ve gone up enough for now.  As I see it, action has been based chiefly on relative valuation– rotations deeper into IT via smaller stocks and back into the Trump stock winners of late 2016.  
The kind of movement described in the last paragrah doesn’t typically last long.  At some point, the market will return to the question of whether structural reform in Washington is possible.  As I see it, the underlying notion investors now have is that important change can and will happen, although people may have substantially different pictures of how this will occur.  

It seems to me that as long as investors hold this belief, the US stock market will move sideways to up, driven by earnings gains.

continuing apparel retailing woes

I haven’t been watching publicly traded apparel retailers carefully for years.  For me, the issues/problems in picking winners in this area have been legion.  There’s the generational shift in spending power from Baby Boomers to Millennials, the move from bricks-and-mortar to online, the lingering effects of recession on spending power and spending habits.  And then, of course, there’s the normal movement of retailers in and out of fashion.

I’m not saying that retail isn’t worth following.  I just find it too hard to find solid ground to build an investment thesis on.  Maybe the pace of change is too rapid for me.  Maybe I don’t have a good enough feel for how Millennials regard apparel–or whether retiring Boomers are using their accumulated inventories of fashion clothing rather than adding to them.

Having said that, I’m still surprised–shocked, actually–at how the current quarter for apparel retailers is playing out.  It seems like every day a new retailer is reporting quarterly earnings that fall below management guidance, usually the latest in a string of sub-par quarters.  That itself isn’t so unusual.

But the stocks react by plummeting.

You’d think that the market would have caught on that Retailland is facing structural headwinds.  Or at least, that the retail area that made the careers of so many active managers over the past twenty or thirty years doesn’t exist any more.


Is it robot traders?  Is it an effect of continuing buying by index funds?  I don’t know.  But the continuing inability of investors to factor into stock prices the continuing slump of apparel retailers is certainly odd.

investing in tech

A reader asked me to write about how I approach investing in tech stocks, an area I like and one which I think I’ve acquired some competence in over the years.

IT as a component of the S&P 500

Let’s start with the structure of the S&P 500, which, as of yesterday’s market close, looked like this:

Information Technology          22.5% of the index

Financials          14.1%

Healthcare          14.0%

Consumer discretionary          12.5%

Industrials          10.2%

Staples          9.3%

Energy          6.3%

Utilities          3.2%

Real estate          2.9%

Materials          2.9%

Telecom          2.3%.

Source:  Standard and Poors

Yes, the numbers add up to 100.2% but that’s just rounding and doesn’t affect analysis.


An obvious conclusion from this list is that when we buy an S&P index fund, almost a quarter of what we get is already tech.

A second observation is that 22.5% is a big number.  But if we look back to the end of 2009, when the current bull market was in its earliest stage, IT represented 19.8% of the index.  In other words, by far the largest determinant of IT sector performance in the bull market has been the upward movement of stocks in general.  (For what it’s worth, by far the largest losing sector has been Energy, which comprised 11.6% of the S&P 500 back then.)

Still, there have been spectacular winners, both individual stocks and subsectors, in IT.  So taking the time and effort to study IT stocks can pay big dividends.

placing IT in a business cycle context

Let’s group stocks by the sensitivity of their profits to the ups and downs of the business cycle, starting with the most aggressive (meaning most sensitive) and ending with the most defensive.  This is my list:

most aggressive




Industrials  (this would be #3, except US industrials make mostly consumer            products)

less aggressive 

Consumer discretionary

Real Estate (this would be #4, except that a lot of the publicly traded vehicles are income-                            oriented REITs)





more defensive



I’m sure that the lists others would come up with would rank the sectors differently.  Try it yourself and see.

What I make of my list is that IT will likely outperform anything lower on the list during an economic upturn and underperform during a downturn.

Two reasons:

–most consumer IT purchases, like a new smartphone or a new PC/tablet, are discretionary and can easily be postponed when times are tough, and

–for many modern corporations, capital spending means software.  And, in my experience, no matter how they say they maintain steady investment in their business, companies rarely outspend their cash flow.  When bad times lessen cash flow, companies–despite their promises–cut capex (i.e., software) spending.  Consumers, on the other hand, are much less draconian in their cutbacks, at least in the US.


Tomorrow, secular trends.