strategy: 2016 vs. 2015

This time last year, my picture of 2015 was that:

–world economies in the aggregate were bottoming,

–early in 2015 the Fed would kick off the long journey of raising short-term interest rates from emergency-low levels toward normal (meaning 2%+)

–the first half of the year would be flat to down as world markets adjusted to the new interest rate regime and confirmed that global economic activity was no longer deteriorating, but

–late in the year there was a chance for a stock market rally as investors began to factor into stock prices their chance of better news coming in 2016.

My biggest worry last December was that stocks normally don’t go sideways for a long period.  They either go up or down.  If the market works out that the up direction is impossible–which I thought would be the case in early 2015–then short-term traders will invariably try to push the market down to see how low it goes before meeting resistance.  What I found most surprising was that the S&P 500 tread water for over seven months before beginning its August-September swoon.

As events turned out, the Fed delayed raising rates until December and emerging markets were hit by a deeper fall in mining commodity prices than I’d anticipated.

One result of that is that stocks are flat for the year vs. my expectation of a positive, but sub-10% gain.

Another is that I think we’re basically in the same position today as I envisioned we were a year ago–and should anticipate a flattish first half for 2016 followed by an uptick sometime in the second.

While this view placed me in the relatively cautious camp last December it places me among the bulls today.


More tomorrow.






Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: summing things up

Today I’ll try to put numbers to my guesses about growth around the world next year.  I think the best way to do this is in two steps, first without trying to factor in what I think will be a negative influence from natural resources industries, and then making both economic and stock market adjustments for them in a second round of analysis.

the US

We’re likely to have trend growth in the US next year, meaning a total of +4% expansion, consisting of +2% real and + 2% inflation.  Because publicly traded companies are typically the best and the brightest, this will probably translate into +8% growth in earnings.

Let’s say that Fed interest rate rises have little net effect on growth and that the dollar has peaked (meaning that headwind is gone).  This may be a bit too optimistic.

I’m guessing that, unlike the past couple of years of aggressive share buybacks, we won’t companies retire more shares than to offset the issuance of new ones to employees through stock option plans. Therefore, 8% earnings growth will translate into +8% growth in earnings per share.

Given that half the earnings of the S&P 500 come from the US, this means the domestic contribution to S&P 500 earnings growth will be +4%.

the EU

The EU is maybe two years behind the US in recovery from recession.  But it has clearly turned the corner and will grow in 2016.  It also has the tailwind of substantial currency depreciation behind it, and the strength of Greater China and the US, major export customers.

Europe is also a substantial beneficiary of the fall in energy prices, although that plus is tempered a bit by the weakness of the euro against the dollar.

For all these reasons, the EU will likely enjoy above-trend growth next year.

Let’s say that the EU will expand by +2.5% real, with +1.5% inflation, for a total of +4%.  That probably also translates into +8% growth in profits for S&P subsidiaries located there, and a +8% advance in eps.

Given that 25% of the profits of the S&P 500 come from the EU, this means that region’s contribution to index earnings will be +2%.

emerging markets

Let’s separate emerging markets into Greater China and everyone else.  In broad strokes, the everyone else are natural resources producers, who are in recession and who will make a negative contribution to S&P 500 growth.  The question is how negative the situation will be.  -3%?

On the other hand, I think that mainland China and its direct sphere of economic influence will have a better 2016 than the consensus now expects.  Let’s say +6%.

If we figure that China and the rest are both roughly equal in size, this implies that emerging markets, which account for 25% of the profits of the S&P, will make a positive contribution to growth in earnings, but a negligible one.  Let’s say +0.5%.

the total

My back of the envelope analysis suggests that the growth in S&P 500 profits will come in at +6% – +7%.  next year.  Not a banner result, but still enough to nudge the index ahead.

the price earnings multiple

In what will be a period of rising interest rates, it seems that there can be no cogent argument for PE multiple expansion in 2016.  If anything, multiple contraction should be the order of the day.

On the other hand, the Fed’s intentions have been widely telegraphed for an extremely long time, so it’s equally hard to argue that the market hasn’t already factored into today’s prices a large portion of any negative effect.  In fact, it seems to me that the market PE already incorporates in it all the tightening the Fed is likely to do.  Nevertheless, there’s always someone who hasn’t gotten the memo, so there will be some negative effect, at least initially.

The most prudent assumption, I think, is that Fed tightening will make little difference to the PE.  The contrarian in me says the money-making stance to take is that the PE will rise once the market sees that Fed tightening will only occur very slowly.  But I’m not willing to take that risk.

a market of stocks

If I’m correct, 2016 will be a mildly positive year, where outperformance will come from astute stock selection rather than playing macro trends.

On Monday:  adjusting for natural resources, especially oil.






Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: emerging markets

your father’s emerging markets…

I started working in emerging markets in 1984.  At that time, the most important were Hong Kong and Singapore.  If one were feeling adventurous, Thailand, Malaysia and even Indonesia (shudder!) beckoned.  Taiwan and Korea were also on the list, but not easily accessible to foreigners.

At that time, there was a certain equivocation in the “emerging markets” term.  Yes, the stock markets were relatively rudimentary and overlooked by investors in the US and the EU.  But the economies of the big ones, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, were all advanced, with living standards for the average resident somewhere between those in Europe and the US.

With the notable exception of Indonesia, the 1980s-style emerging markets were all oil importers (Malaysia and Thailand have large reserves of natural gas, and export LNG, but that’s a different thing).

Back in the day, investing in Hong Kong was all about the then-colony, now SAR, with exposure to the mainland limited to the successors to the nineteenth-century opium traders and a few small manufacturers with operations on the mainland.

Mexico was the notable emerging market not in the Pacific.


…and today’s

China is now, of course, the emerging markets behemoth.  Direct access to foreign portfolio investors isn’t seamless.  Nor, in my view, is it desirable.  However, the investment significance of Hong Kong has radically shifted, from a focus on the physical place to the access its China-related listings allows to the mainland.

Perhaps more important for today’s economic situation, however, the emerging markets arena has expanded to include much more of Latin America (think: Brazil or Venezuela)–and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia and Eastern Europe as well.  Some thrill-seeking investors have tiptoed into the Middle East as well.

Two strong net effects:

–the emerging markets category contains many more emerging economies, with less stable politics, and

–today’s emerging markets are heavily weighted toward exporters of natural resources, especially oil.

for 2016:

China is several years into a transition from being an export-oriented manufacturer to being a domestic demand-oriented service economy.  The way I look at it, China is doing better than the consensus thinks–and will continue to do so in 2016.

The rest of the emerging markets arena is a mess.  Economically, that’s mostly because so many countries depend on mineral exports.  From a stock market point of view, it’s that plus the high weighting of natural resource issues (including banks that finance them) in the local indices.

My guesstimate is that Greater China will show 6% real GDP growth in 2016.  As a group, the rest will be in the minus column.  I have no idea what the net result will be.  I’m planning on it being mildly positive.

Until the oil price begins to recover–mid-year at the earliest, I think–I don’t see this as a time to hold an emerging markets index.  Individual stocks or a China fund/ETF is the way to go.  Other than China, developed markets, rather than emerging markets, are the place to be.









Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: the EU

the secular situation isn’t great

On average, the population of the EU is older than that of the US and younger than Japan’s.  It faces the same problem as the two other traditional economic powers of waning trend GDP growth, based on minimal expansion of the workforce.  If the workforce in the US is growing by 1%+ per year and Japan’s shrinking by -0.5%, the EU’s is  somewhere in the middle, rising by, say, 0.5%-.

It, too, is caught by anti-change forces bolstered by claims of “exceptionalism,” but of a complex sort.  France, Italy, Germany, the UK…each claim that it is exceptional–and that the others are not.  This hinders productivity growth.

All in all, not a pretty sight for investors.

cyclically, though…

…the EU has several positive factors going for it at the moment:

–the value of the € against the dollar has fallen from $1.40 in mid-2014 to $1.08 now.  That’s almost a 25% drop.  Yes, the devaluation has caused a massive decrease in €-area wealth.  But that’s the past.  The currency decline is also acting as a significant boost to economic activity, in the same way a sharp drop in interest rates would.  This positive effect is most pronounced for export-oriented or import-competing activities.

–after several years of GDP-growth pummeling austerity measures, the EU has belatedly adopted the same quantitative easing the US successfully used to restore economic growth.  As a result, the EU is in a sense like the US with a three-year lag–meaning growth can have a monetary tailwind aiding it for the next few years.

–the EU gets most of its hydrocarbon energy from abroad.  Russia, for example, is a mammoth supplier of natural gas to the union–all priced on a heating value equivalent with oil (translation:  it’s very expensive).  As a result, the EU is a prime beneficiary of the drop in the oil price over the past year or so.  The decline in the € has offset that a bit, but oil still costs 40% less today in euros than in early 2014.

–the Grexit crisis is over.

–emigration from the Middle East, especially Syria, is a big plus.  An influx of millions of young, motivated, reasonably trained workers is precisely what a sclerotic EU workforce needs to underpin GDP growth.  Chauvinistic politicians will doubtless dampen the effect somewhat, but this is still a significant long-term positive.


All in all, I think the EU has the potential for surprisingly strong economic performance in 2016.




Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: the US

The US is the most straightforward of the investment regions of the world.

We’ve arguably made the best recovery from the deep recession caused by the financial meltdown of 2007-08 (China is the other possible candidate).  Real GDP in 2016 will be close to 15% higher than the previous pre-recession peak.  We’re also unique among major nations in the world in being about to make the first baby steps to bring interest rates up from their present emergency-room lows.

That’s the good news.

GDP growth

The other side of the coin is that the trend growth rate for the US economy is now much lower, at about +2% per year, than it was at the end of the last century.  That’s mostly a function of the aging of the population, something the Fed had begun to talk about, but few had noticed, in the 1990s.

We’ve now entered year seven from the economic low point in late 2009.  So I think it’s hard to make the argument that there’s lots of recession-induced pent up demand still waiting to be unleashed.  As a result, it’s also difficult to make the case that overall economic growth in the US in 2016 will be higher than 2% real, meaning maybe 4% nominal.

S&P 500 earnings growth

Publicly traded companies tend to be the best and brightest of those operating in the US.  Their profit growth should be somewhat higher than the norm, say, +7%.

Two factors suggest that the overall tally won’t be higher than that:

–the S&P 500 provides little exposure to autos or construction, two of the faster growing components of the economy, and

–it’s hard to figure what will happen in the energy sector, which, despite its recent poor performance, still accounts for 7.1% of the S&P 500 index.

in a perfect world, growth could be higher, but…

Growth could be substantially higher than that, were the two major political parties not so economically dysfunctional.  Partisan bickering an patronage politics probably subtract 1% from the country’s growth potential.   Arguably, Washington has always been like this and it’s just more noticeable today because of the aging of the population and the fact that inflation is near zero.

look for beneficiaries of structural change

Underneath this relatively calm surface, however, there’s lots of structural change taking place.

–Millennials have replaced Baby Boomers as the largest segment of the population.

–The internet is continuing to create new businesses and disrupt old ones.

–Both Boomers and Millennials are migrating in large numbers–the former toward warmth and away from high taxes, the latter toward large urban areas.

It seems to me that these are the kinds of areas where outperformance will be found next year.  That would imply another year of growth stocks outdoing their value counterparts.

interest rates

The effect of higher interest rates?

The most important point, I think, is that rising rates are unlikely to affect the patterns of out- and underperformance by much (personally, I don’t think there’ll be any effect).

The facts that the pace of rising rates is likely to be glacial and that the advent of the process has been as well-advertised as Star Wars …and over a longer period…suggest than any negative effect on stocks is likely to be mild.