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.

the structure of the S&P 500, and why it matters…

…to us as individual investors, for the portion of our assets we choose to manage actively.

As of the close of trade in New York last Friday, the Standard and Poors 500 was weighted, by sector, as follows:

IT      24.0%

Financials      14.8%

Healthcare      14.1%

Consumer discretionary     12.1%

Industrials     10.1%

Staples      8.1%

Energy      5.8%

Utilities         3.1%

Materials     3.0%

Real estate     2.9%

Telecom      2.0%.

The goal of active managers is to have better results than the index (I could say “an index fund,” but the two are the same, less the small fees an index fund purveyor charges).  We’ll only have different results if we have different holdings than the S&P.  And if our holdings aren’t different–either different names or different weightings (or both)–we can’t be better.  In order to be different our first job is to know what the index looks like.  The list above is a first cut.

Let’s rearrange it to show the sectors in order from the most sensitive to general economic activity to the least.  I’m going to divide the sectors into three groups, from those that do best in a red-hot world economy, those that will still do well with so-so growth, and those that have the most defensive characteristics–meaning they do their best relative to the index when economies are contracting.

 

most economically sensitive

Materials      3.0%

Industrials      10.1%

Energy     5.8%

————————————-total = 18.9%

economically sensitive

IT      24%

Consumer discretionary     12.1%

Financials      14.1%

Real estate         2.9%

————————————-total = 53.1%

defensive

Healthcare     14.1%

Staples     8.1%

Telecom      2.0%

Utilities     3.1%

————————————-total = 27.3%.

I’ve stuck Energy in the most sensitive segment.  Recently it’s been marching to its own drummer, as the big integrated oils restructure and as the crude oil price yo-yos up and down.  Ultimately, though, I think in today’s world oil is just another industrial commodity that’s not that different from steel or aluminum.  Put it somewhere else if you disagree.

This isn’t the only reordering we could make.  We could also arrange the index by market capitalization in order to either emphasize big stocks or small ones in our holdings.  But this is the most common one professionals, and their institutional customers, use.  Personally, I think it’s also the most useful way to think about the index.

 

To my mind, the most striking thing about the S&P 500 is that it is mostly geared to a rising economy.  If we think recession is brewing, tiny changes in holdings aren’t going to make much of a difference in relative performance.

Another–very important–point is that if you have a portfolio that’s, say, 10% Healthcare, and your benchmark is the S&P 500, you’re betting against Healthcare as a sector, not on it.