Is preparing for the future more important than enjoying the present?
There is a lot to enjoy today. Last week, Financial Times wrote:
“Wall Street ended an impressive week on a steady note – eking out a tiny gain to a fresh record close – as oil prices recouped some of the previous day’s steep losses and the latest U.S. Gross Domestic Product data reinforced expectations for a June rate rise.”
In fact, U.S. equities have been performing well for some time. The Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index achieved new highs 18 times during 2016 and, so far in 2017, we’ve scored 20 closing highs, including three last week.
While it’s important to enjoy current gains in U.S. stock markets, it’s equally important to prepare for the future. Bull markets don’t continue forever. They often experience corrections. A correction during a bull market is a 10 percent decline in the value of a stock, bond, or another investment. Often, corrections are temporary adjustments followed by additional market gains, but they can be a signal a bear market or recession is ahead.
One investment professional cited by CNBC believes a correction may occur soon. “Gundlach expects the 10-year Treasury yield to move higher, and a summer interest rate rise should ‘go along with a correction in the stock market.’”
Barron’s cautioned strong employment numbers also may signal a downturn is ahead:
“Think about it: Jobs are a classic lagging indicator, and bouts of high unemployment and economic distress are often accompanied by falling stocks. By the time the economy improves enough to enjoy full employment, share prices will reflect that rosier outlook. That’s not to say stocks can’t do well following periods of full employment…Unemployment was 2.5 percent in 1953, and yet the market delivered big gains over the next seven years. But stocks happened to be very cheap in 1953, with a cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio of just 11.6 times…That valuation is now pushing 29 times.”
There is no way to know when a correction or market downturn may occur, but if history proves out, one is likely at some point in the future.
How much is too much?
There has been no shortage of drama since the new administration took office – legislative setbacks, controversial hiring and firing, and fiery tweets on various topics. Regardless, U.S. investors and markets remained stalwart until last week when the CBOE Volatility Index (a.k.a. the fear gauge) jumped 46 percent higher and markets declined.
Financial Times explained:
“…a range of stock benchmarks made their biggest single-day fall since November, as the political controversy over Donald Trump ties with Russia undermined investors’ faith in the administration’s ability to enact its pro-growth policies. Markets subsequently steadied, but investors are primed for further volatility as the White House faces the distraction of a lengthy inquiry led by an independent special counsel.”
Markets recovered some ground late in the week as the influence of Washington, D.C. drama was offset by strong earnings news. On Friday, FactSet reported first quarter earnings results were in for 95 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index and 75 percent had beaten estimates. Altogether, corporate earnings were about 6.0 percent higher than expected.
Earnings performance was particularly strong for companies in the Information Technology, Healthcare, and Financials sectors, and relatively weak for companies in the Telecom Services, Real Estate, and Consumer Staples sectors.
Brace yourself. Next week may be bouncy. The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee will release minutes from its most recent meeting. In addition, we’ll receive the administration’s proposed budget, along with new economic data and consumer sentiment readings.
Does performance tell the whole story?
American stock markets have delivered some exceptional performance in recent years. Just look at the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index. Barron’s reported the S&P 500, including reinvested dividends, has returned 215 percent since April 30, 2009. The index is currently trading 50 percent above its 2007 high.
The rest of the world’s stocks, as measured by the MSCI EAFE Index, which includes stocks from developed countries in Europe, Australia, and the Far East, returned 97 percent in U.S. dollars during the same period. At the end of April, the MSCI EAFE Index was 20 percent below its 2007 high.
If you subscribe to the ‘buy low, sell high’ philosophy of investing then these performance numbers may have you thinking about portfolio reallocation. However, performance doesn’t tell the full story.
For example, there’s a significant difference between the types of companies included in the two indices. At the end of April, Information Technology stocks comprised 22.5 percent of the S&P 500 Index and just 5.7 percent of the MSCI EAFE Index. Financial stocks accounted for 14.1 percent of the S&P 500 and 21.4 percent of MSCI EAFE.
It’s important to dig beneath the surface and understand the drivers behind performance before making assumptions or changing portfolio allocations.
Even so, European stocks have the potential to deliver decent performance this year, according to Barron’s. “The case for a revival in European stocks, particularly the Continent’s many multinationals, rests in large part on expectations for improving global growth…This year Europe’s GDP is expected to increase by about 2 percent, after growing 1.7 percent in 2016 – better than the U.S.’s 1.6 percent.”
Last week, the S&P 500 Index moved slightly lower.
Is it complacency? Exuberance? Uncertainty? Exhaustion? Insight? Intuition?
Last week, all three major U.S. stock markets gained value and two reached new record highs. On the face of it, that’s great news for stock investors. However, if you look below the surface, the markets’ upward trend may have you scratching your head.
“That the S&P would hit a new high was all the more surprising given the lack of reaction to major headlines throughout the week. On the plus side of the ledger, Congress managed to avoid a shutdown, while on the downside, President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. ‘needs a good shutdown,’ and the Federal Reserve appeared more hawkish than prognosticators had been prognosticating. Nothing. Then there’s the prospect of a shocker in the French election over the weekend, though the pro-Europe candidate Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to beat the more-radical Marine Le Pen. Yet here we are. 'It’s like the market took Novocain and is numb to everything,’ says Thomas Lee, head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors.”
It may be investors give more weight to company performance during the first quarter than to other factors. So far, 83 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index have reported first quarter earnings (earnings measure a company’s profitability). Three-fourths of the companies reported earnings were higher than had been estimated, reported FactSet.
Strong earnings show companies have performed well. Price-Earning (P/E) ratios help investors gauge whether a company’s stock, or a stock index, is a good value. The P/E ratio indicates the dollar amount an investor may pay to receive one dollar of a company’s or an index’s earnings, according to Investopedia.
Last Friday, the trailing 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 Index was 21.9. That’s quite a lot higher than the five-year average of 17.4 or the 10-year average of 16.7.
At the same time, the forward 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 Index was 17.5. That’s also a lot higher than the five-year average of 15.2 or the 10-year average of 14.0.
So, why are highly valued markets moving higher? It’s a puzzle.
It was a good week to own stocks.
Not all financial news was good news last week, but that didn’t prevent U.S. stock markets from moving higher. Barron’s reported on the good news:
“This past week, welcome political news from Europe, a batch of stellar corporate-earnings reports, and a concrete tax proposal to cut corporate and some personal rates sharply gave the bull even more reasons to rally. By Friday’s close, the Dow Jones industrials and other market measures were standing near all-time highs.”
Overall, corporate earnings were quite strong during the first quarter of 2017, according to FactSet. With 58 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reporting in, earnings are showing double-digit growth for the first time since 2011.
That’s exhilarating news for investors.
Economists had less to celebrate. The Commerce Department’s first estimate indicated the U.S. economy got off to a slow start during 2017. Gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all goods and services produced, came in below expectations and grew at the slowest rate in three years. Bloomberg reported:
“The GDP slowdown owes partly to transitory forces such as warm weather and volatility in inventories, which supports forecasts for a rebound as high confidence among companies and consumers and a solid job market underpin growth. Even so, the weakness at car dealers could weigh on expansion, and further gains in business investment could depend on the extent of policy support such as tax cuts.”
Keep an eye on Congress and the Federal Reserve. Changing fiscal and monetary policies are expected to have a significant influence on markets and the economy.