a PS to today’s post

The Russell 2000, which is composed of medium-sized US-based firms serving mostly US customers is up by 4.5% over the past two years.  This compares with +16.5% for the S&P 500 and +25.5% for the NASDAQ, which are far more globally oriented.  (These are capital changes figures, which I plucked off Yahoo Finance.)

The latter two are 3.7x and 5.7x the return on the Russell 2000.  Attention grabbing, yes, but not the right way to sum up the situation.  More important is that these ratios happen because ex dividends the Russell has returned pretty close to zero.

starting out in 2020

The S&P 500 is trading at about 25x current earnings, with 10% eps growth in prospect, implying the market is trading at around 22.7x forward earnings.  During my working career, which covers 40+ years, high multiple/lower growth has virtually always been an unfavorable combination for market bulls.

Could the growth figure be too low, on the idea that forecasters give themselves some wiggle room at the beginning of the year?

For the 50% or so of earnings that come from the US, probably not.  This is partly due to the sheer length of the expansion since the recession of 2008-09 (pent up demand from the bad years has been satisfied, even in left-behind areas of the country–look at Walmart and dollar store sales).  It’s also a function of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Washington policies the have ended up retarding growth–tariff wars, suppression of labor force expansion, tax cuts for those least likely to consume, no infrastructure spending, no concern about education…  So I find it hard to imagine positive surprises for most US-focused firms.

Prospects are probably better for the non-US half.  How so?  In the EU early signs are emerging that structural change is occurring, forced by a long period of stagnation.  The region is also several years behind the US in recovering from the recession, so one would expect that the same uptick for ordinary citizens we’ve recently seen in the US.  Firms seeking to relocate from the US and the UK are another possible plus.  In addition, Mr. Trump’s life-long addiction to risky, superficially attractive but ultimately destructive, ventures (think:  Atlantic City casinos) may finally achieve the weaker dollar he desires–implying the domestic currency value of foreign earnings may turn out to be higher than the consensus expects.

 

The biggest saving grace for stocks may be the relative unattractiveness of fixed income, the main investment alternative.  The 10-year Treasury is yielding 1.81% as I’m writing this  That’s 10 basis points below the dividend yield on the S&P 500, which sports an earnings yield (1/PE) of 4.  I say “may” because, other than Japan, the world has little practical experience with the behavior of stocks while interest rates are ultra-low.  In Japan, where rates have flirted with zero for several decades, PE ratios have declined from an initial 50 or so into the low 20s. Yes, Japan is also the prime example of the economic destructiveness of anti-immigration, anti-trade, defend-the-status-quo policies Washington is now espousing. On the other hand, it’s still a samurai-mentality (yearning for the pre-Black Ship past) culture, the population is much older than in the US and the national government is a voracious buyer of equities.   So there are big differences.  Still, ithe analogy with Japan holds–that is, if the differences don’t matter so much in the short term–then PEs here would be bouncing along the bottom and should be stable unless the Fed Funds rate begins to rise.

That’s my best guess.

 

The consensus was of viewing last year for the S&P is that all the running was in American tech industries.   Another way of looking at the results is that the big winners were multinational firms traded in the US but with worldwide markets and very small domestic manufacturing and distribution footprints.   They are secular change beneficiaries located in a country whose national government is now adamantly opposing that change.  In other words, the winners were bets on the company but against the country.  Look at, for example,  AMZN (+15%) vs. MSFT (+60%) over the past year.

The biggest issue I see with the 2019 winners is that on a PE to growth basis they seem expensive to me.  Some, especially newer, smaller firms seem wildly so.  But I don’t see the situation changing until rates begin to rise.

 

Having said that, low rates are an antidote to government dysfunction, so I don’t see them going up any time soon.  So my practical bottom line ends up being one of the gallows humor conclusions that Wall Streeters seem to love:  the more unhinged Mr. Trump talks and acts–the threat of bombing Iranian cultural sites, which other governments have politely pointed out would be a war crime, is a good example–the better the tech sector will do.  As a citizen, I hope for a (new testament) road-to-Damascus event for him; as an investor, I know that would be a sell signal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

thinking about 2020

where we are

The S&P 500 is trading at around 25x current earnings, up from a PE of 20x a year ago.  Multiple expansion, not earnings growth, is the key factor behind the S&P rise last year.In fact, earnings per share growth, now at about +10%/year, has been decelerating since the one-time boost from the domestic corporate income tax cut cycled through income statements in 2018.  Typically earnings deceleration is a red flag.  Not so in 2019.

EPS growth in 2020 will probably be around +10% again.

About half the earnings of the S&P come from the US, a quarter from Europe and the rest from emerging economies.  The US will likely be the weakest of the three areas this year, as ongoing tariff wars take a further toll on agriculture and manufacturing, as population growth continues to wane given the administration’s hostility toward foreigners, and as multinationals continue to shift operations elsewhere to escape these policies.  On the other hand, Europe ex the UK should perk up a bit, emerging markets arguably can’t get much worse, and multinationals will likely invest more abroad.

 

interest rates:  the biggest question 

What motivated investors to bid up the S&P by 30% last year despite pedestrian eps growth and Washington dysfunction?

Investors don’t buy stocks in a vacuum.  We’re constantly comparing stocks with bonds and cash as alternative liquid investments.  And in 2019 bonds and cash were distinctly unattractive.   The yield on cash is close to zero here (elsewhere in the world bank depositors have been charged for holding cash).  The 10-year Treasury started 2019 yielding 2.66%.  The yield dipped to 1.52% during the summer and has risen to 1.92% now.  In contrast, the earnings yield (1/PE, the academic point of comparison of stocks vs. bonds)) on the S&P was 5% last January and is 4% now.

The dividend yield on the S&P is now about 1.9%.  That’s higher than the 10-year yield, a situation that has occurred in our lifetimes only after a bear market has crushed stock valuations.  In my working career, this has happened mostly outside the US and has always been a clear buy signal for stocks.  Not now, though–in my view–unless we’re willing to believe that the current situation is permanent.

The situation is even stranger outside the US, where the yield on many government bonds is actually negative.

In short, wild distortions in sovereign bond markets, a product of unconventional central bank measures aimed at rescuing the world economy after the 2008-09 collapse, have migrated into stocks.

How long will this situation last and how will it unwind?

 

more on Monday

 

 

 

 

end of the year

Virtually all professional investors have long since taken their hands off the money and left their offices–either in triumph or despair.  The anecdotal evidence I’m gathering suggests there’s more of the latter than usual.  Since I have a growth temperament, this strikes me as weird.  But apparently the consensus view was that the sharp decline of stocks in December 2018 was a harbinger of further bad times to come.  Again, this strikes me as odd, but then professional money managers tend to live in gated communities with other well-off people rather than in the real world, so the information they get is highly filtered (another oddity–the gated community part, I mean).

In any event, it’s only the accountants rushing to close the books who remain in front of their computers during the last two weeks of December.

Who’s left to trade?

–retail investors doing tax planning by selling their losers

–the odd manager planning to “window dress” his portfolio by giving his large holding a(n illegal) nudge up on the final day of trading (this happens mostly in smaller foreign markets)

–people like me who are looking for interesting names being beaten down by the combination of few buyers + the need to realize tax losses.

three closing thoughts:

–4Q19 was a lot better than I thought it would be, given that there was no September-mid-October swoon driven by mutual fund/ETF yearend selling

–pundits who crow about stock strength in 2019 typically forget to mention how deep the decline in December 2018 was

–the most notable stars of recent trading have been the banks.  This is a group that’s hurt by falling rates and coins money when rates are rising.  This phenomenon plus the end to the bond buying panic of the summer suggest to me that securities markets have begun to believe that rates have passed their cyclical lows.  What remains to be figured out is when and how fast rates will rise from here.  But for equity investors stocks whose main characteristic is the dream of future profits will have a hard time in 2020.

 

Happy New Year!!!

 

Trumponomics—good for the economy?

Supporters of Donald Trump tend to excuse his white nationalism, his erratic policymaking, the paucity of his factual knowledge, the whiff of sadism in his treatment of immigrants, the apparent promotion of family business interests…by saying that at least he’s good for the economy.  They typically cite low unemployment, GDP growth and the stock market as proof.

Is that correct?

Yes, unemployment is low.  Yes, the economy is growing at trend–after receiving a boost from fiscal stimulation (the corporate tax cut) last year.  And the stock market did rally on the announcement of Trump’s election victory.  (We can quibble about stock market performance:  though significantly higher today, the US was pretty much the worst market in the world in 2017, when virtually everybody was up–and more than us; since the 20% boost in US corporate after-tax income it’s up another 10%–much better performance than markets where the tax rate has remained unchanged).

But I think this rationalization, offered typically by wealthy beneficiaries of income tax changes, simply deflects attention away from administration policies that can potentially do severe long-term damage to US prospects.  Here are a few:

–tariff wars.  Tariffs can be an important way to give industries of the future breathing room to develop, by insulating them from more sophisticated foreign competition.  The administration, however, is protecting low value-added manual labor jobs against competition from more efficient firms in China.  These tariffs have the perverse effect of retarding manufacturing development here while forcing China to turn to higher value-added work.  The latter is a perennial stumbling block for developing countries, so the excuse of Trump tariffs to force the move to higher value-added industry is a rare gift to Beijing.

In addition, the US has been a prime destination for multinationals’ advanced manufacturing because of the large local market and the experienced workforce.  The possibility of tariffs–and their apparently unpredictable implementation–has stopped this flow.

–retaliatory tariffs.  Tariffs don’t go unanswered. China responded to US levies by shifting purchases of soybeans to Brazil and other countries.   As/when tariff wars end, the soybean market will most likely not revert to the status quo ante; once in the door, other, arguably more dependable, suppliers will doubtless retain market share.  By the way, when the administration withdrew from the TPP, it also made US soybeans more expensive in another Pacific market, Japan.

–restrictions on immigration.  The solution for tech companies who are unable to hire foreign scientists to work in the US because they can’t get visas is to move R&D operations to, say, Canada.  Also, the administration’s white supremacism has made foreigners question whether they will be safe in the US as tourists or students, hurting both industries.  Chinese citizens may also feel it’s unpatriotic to travel here.  A bigger worry:  will this force US-based multinationals to begin to regard themselves as no longer American?

–zero/negative interest rates.  This is a weird situation in financial markets, which, to my equity-oriented mind, is bound to end badly. Ultra-low rates are also trouble for risk-averse savers, including traditional pension plans.  In the US, downward pressure on rates comes both from foreign bond arbitrage and administration demands that the Fed offset tariff damage to growth with looser money policy.

 

Meanwhile, what’s not being addressed:  infrastructure, health care including drug prices, education, retraining displaced workers (where we’re worst in the OECD)

 

 

 

public utilities and California wildfires

public utilities

The idea behind public utilities is that society is far worse off if a municipality has, say, ten companies vying to provide essential services like power and water to citizens, tearing up streets to install infrastructure and then maybe going out of business because they can’t get enough customers.  Better to give one (or some other small number) a monopoly on providing service, with government supervising and regulating what the utility can charge.

The general idea of this government price-setting is to permit a maximum annual profit return, say 5% per year, on the utility company’s net investment in plant and equipment (net meaning after accumulated depreciation).  The precise language and formula used to translate this into unit prices will vary from place to place.

The ideal situation for a public utility is one where the population of the service area is expanding and new capacity is continually needed.  If so, regulators are happy to authorize a generous return on plant, to make it easier for the utility to raise money for expansion in bond and stock markets.

mature service areas

Once the service area matures, which is the case in most of the US, the situation changes significantly.  Customers are no longer clamoring to get more electric power or water.  They have them already.  What they want now is lower rates.  At the same time, premium returns are no longer needed to raise new money in the capital markets.  The result is that public service commissions begin to reduce the allowable return on plant–downward pressure that there’s no obvious reason to stop.

In turn, utility company managements typically respond in two ways:  invest cash flow in higher-potential return non-utility areas, and/or reduce operating costs.  In fact, doing the second can generate extra money to do the first.

How does a utility reduce costs?

One way is to merge with a utility in another area, to cut administrative expenses–the combined entity only needs one chairman, for example, one president, one personnel department…

Also, if each utility has a hundred employees on call to respond to emergencies, arguably the combined utility only needs one hundred, not two.    In the New York area, where I live, let’s say a hundred maintenance people come from Ohio during a blackout and another hundred from Pennsylvania to join a hundred local maintenance workers in New York.  Heroic-sounding, and for the workers in question heroic in fact.  But a generation ago each utility would each have employed three hundred maintenance workers locally, most of whom have since been laid off in cost-cutting drives.

Of course, this also means fewer workers available to do routine maintenance, like making sure power lines won’t get tangles up in trees.

the California example

I don’t know all the details, but the bare bones of the situation are what I’ve described above:

–the political imperative shifts from making it easier for the utility to raise new funds (i.e., allowing a generous return on plant) to keeping voters’ utility bills from increasing (i.e., lowering the permitted return).

–the utility tries to maintain profits by spending less, including on repair and maintenance

The utility sees no use in complaining about the lower return; the utility commission sees no advantage in pointing out that maintenance spending is declining (since a major cause is the commission lowering the allowable return).   So both sides ignore the worry that repair and maintenance will eventually be reduced to a level where there’s a significant risk of power failure–or in California’s case, of fires.  When a costly failure does occur, neither side has any incentive to reveal the political bargain that has brought it on.

utilities as an investment

In the old days, it was almost enough to look at the dividend yield of a given utility, on the assumption that all but the highest would be relatively stable.  So utilities were viewed more or less as bond proxies.  Because of the character of mature utilities, no longer.

In addition, in today’s world a lot more is happening in this once-staid industry, virtually all of it, as I see things, to the disadvantage of the traditional utility.  Renewables like wind and solar are now in the picture and made competitive with traditional power through government subsidies.  Utilities are being broken up into separate transmission and generation companies, with transmission firms compelled to allow independent power generators to use their lines to deliver output to customers.

While the California experience may be a once-in-a-lifetime extreme, to my mind utilities are no longer the boring, but safe bond proxies they were a generation or more ago.

Quite the opposite.