Like competitors who’ve completed a difficult section in an endurance race, U.S. stock investors took a breather last week.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which has gotten off to its best start since 1987, ended the week with a slight loss, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq Composite finished slightly higher, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
News the U.S. government shutdown would end, albeit temporarily, appeared to be of little interest to investors. Barron’s suggested the markets’ muted response to the government reopening was in balance with its response to the shutdown – there wasn’t much of one. In fact, the S&P 500 has gained 10 percent since the federal government closed.
Despite apparent disinterest, the shutdown could negatively affect sentiment, according to Sam Fleming and Brooke Fox of Financial Times. They reported:
“The record-breaking US government shutdown is triggering ripple effects across the US economy and risks denting confidence among companies that have already been fretting about trade disputes and stock market turbulence. Shutdowns have historically had only fleeting economic effects, but Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, warned last week that a dispute that outlasts past impasses could begin to change the picture for the worse.”
Last week, stock investors weren’t all that impressed by earnings, either. Earnings indicate how profitable companies were in the previous quarter. At the end of last week, 22 percent of companies in the S&P 500 had reported earnings and, overall, they were 3 percent above estimates, according to John Butters at FactSet.
However, indications the Federal Reserve may decide to keep more Treasuries on its balance sheet than originally anticipated gave U.S. stocks a boost late in the week, reported Nick Timiraos of The Wall Street Journal. The Fed began shrinking its balance sheet in 2017 by letting Treasury and mortgage bonds mature. We’ll know more after this week’s Fed meeting.
We’re off to a good start.
Investors who remained steady during December’s wild ride are probably pleased with their decision as stocks have gotten off to a strong start in 2019. Unfortunately, those who reduced their exposure to the asset class may be feeling the sting of missed opportunity.
Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained about 3 percent. The Index is up 5.9 percent year-to-date, which is its best start in more than a decade, according to Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) and NASDAQ Composite also moved higher last week.
Barron’s reported investors were encouraged by positive news about trade talks between the United States and China, as well as stronger-than-expected fourth quarter earnings. Eleven percent of S&P 500 companies have reported so far and, altogether, their earnings have beaten expectations by 3.2 percent, according to FactSet. (Quarterly earnings indicate how profitable a company was during the period being reported.)
The FTSE All-World Index also moved higher last week. It is up almost 8.5 percent for the year.
Richard Henderson, Emma Dunkley, and Robin Wigglesworth of Financial Times offered the opinion investors could have been overly pessimistic during December, and their change in attitude might be attributed to a more dovish tone at the U.S. Federal Reserve, as well as evidence the U.S. economy remains strong.
While investor confidence appears to be strengthening, consumer confidence wavered. The University of Michigan Survey of Consumers showed consumer confidence was lower in January 2019 than it was in January 2018. The Survey’s Chief Economist Richard Curtin wrote, “The loss was due to a host of issues including the partial government shutdown, the impact of tariffs, instabilities in financial markets, the global slowdown, and the lack of clarity about monetary policies.”
People love rules of thumb.
Sometimes, mental shortcuts are helpful. Other times they are not. When it comes to investing, seasonal shortcuts are not uncommon. In fact, January boasts two:
The January Effect explains why U.S. smaller company stocks tend to outperform the market in January. The original theory held that tax-loss harvesting pushed stock prices lower in December, making shares more attractive to investors in January. An article published in International Journal of Financial Research explained the effect could also owe something to the optimism that accompanies a new year, as well as year-end cash windfalls.
In his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel described the January Effect this way, “…the effect is not dependable in each year. In other words, the January ‘loose change’ costs too much to pick up, and in some years it turns out to be a mirage.”
The January Barometer suggests the performance of stocks during the first month of the year offers insight to the direction of stocks for the year as a whole.
Last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) was up 2.5 percent. If the Index finishes this month higher, then the January Barometer suggests it should finish the year in positive territory.
Of course, you need look no further than 2018 to see the January Barometer is not completely accurate. In January 2018, the S&P 500 gained 5.6 percent, and it finished the year in negative territory.
According to Fidelity, the theory is flawed because, while stocks move higher for the year a significant percentage of the time after gaining value in January, they also move higher for the year a significant percentage of the time after losing value in January.
This is why mental shortcuts are often poor investment guides.
There is one rule of thumb investors may want to consider adopting: A well-allocated and diversified portfolio that aligns with long-term financial aspirations to help meet goals along with periodic reviews with their financial professional.
Investors will think of the last quarter of 2018 for years to come, but they won’t remember it fondly. The Economist described it like this,
“After a rotten October and limp November, the S&P 500 tumbled in value by 15 percent between November 30th and December 24th. Despite an astonishing bounce of 5 percent the day after Christmas, the index finished the year 6 percent below where it started...”
Last quarter’s volatility and the slide in share prices owed much to uncertainty about economic growth. Investors were concerned about a variety of issues, including:
As anxiety rose during the fourth quarter of 2018, some investors rushed to the perceived safety of bonds. High demand pushed the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds lower. It dropped from 2.99 percent to 2.69 percent during December, according to Yahoo! Finance.
While increasing bond exposure may have been a prudent portfolio adjustment for investors who were taking more risk than they could bear, those who moved out of stocks on fear missed out. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted their biggest one-day point gains on record on December 26, reported Emily McCormick for Yahoo! Finance.
At this point, some investors feel overwhelmed and worried about their ability to reach personal financial goals. If you’re one of them, please give us a call. Sometimes, reviewing life and financial goals, and the reasoning behind portfolio choices, may be reassuring. We look forward to hearing from you.