It has been a very good year, so far.
Through the end of last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index posted 24 record highs and delivered returns in the high single digits. The MSCI World ex USA Index was up more than 11 percent, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gained more than 17 percent.
After reading those numbers, many people would assume bond markets are down for the year. After all, stock and bond markets tend to move in different directions. Zacks explained,
“Stock and bond prices usually move in opposite directions. When the stock market is not doing well and becomes risky for investors, investors withdraw their money and put it into bonds, which they consider safer. This increased demand raises bond prices. When stocks rally and the risk seems justified, investors may move out of bonds and into stocks, driving stock prices up further.”
That hasn’t been the case recently. Bonds have been delivering attractive returns, too. The Bloomberg Barclay’s U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is up 2.9 percent year-to-date, while its Global Aggregate Bond Index is up 4.7 percent, and its Emerging Markets Aggregate Bond Index is up 5.5 percent.
So, why are stock and bond markets both showing attractive gains for the year?
There are a number of possibilities. Zacks described one of the most straightforward. “When stocks are doing well but investors remain skeptical about how long they will do well, stock and bond prices can rise together. This is because investors continue to put money in stocks but also put money into bonds just in case the stock market drops.”
There is nothing wrong with a little skepticism.
All eyes on inflation!
Inflation is the way economists measure changes in the prices of goods and services. The United States has enjoyed relatively low inflation for a significant period of time. Last week, the consumer price index indicated inflation had moved lower in May.
Inflation is our focus because it is at the core of two very different opinions that currently are influencing markets and investors. A commentary on the Kitco Blog explained:
“One of the most important economic debates today is whether the economy will experience reflation or deflation (or low inflation) in the upcoming months. Has the recent reflation been only a temporary jump? Or has it marked the beginning of a new trend? Is the global economy accelerating or are we heading into the next recession?”
Another key factor is employment. Traditional economic theory holds when unemployment falls (i.e., when more people are employed) inflation will rise because demand for workers will push wages higher. That hasn’t happened yet in the United States even though unemployment has fallen significantly.
In fact, inflation remains stubbornly below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target, reported The Economist. Regardless, the Federal Reserve believes higher inflation is ahead, so it raised the Fed funds rate last week and indicated it was preparing to shrink its balance sheet if the economy continues to grow as expected.
There is a group that disagrees with the Fed. They believe inflation will remain low regardless of employment levels. Barron’s wrote:
“In the theoretical world, low unemployment threatens to unleash a torrent of inflation, which needs to be staved off by tighter monetary policies. Back in the real world, disruption, innovation, and competition relentlessly drive down prices while wage growth is hard to come by.”
The difference of opinion was apparent in stock and bond markets last week. In the bond market, yields on 10-year Treasuries moved lower after the Federal Reserve raised rates. In the U.S. stock market, the top-performing sectors were Industrials, which tend to do well when investors are optimistic about growth, and Utilities, which tend to do well when investors are worried about the future.
Stock market historians may dub 2017 the Xanax year. Traditional historians will probably choose a different moniker.
Stock markets in many advanced economies have been unusually calm during 2017, reported Schwab’s Jeffrey Kleintop in a May 15, 2017 commentary. The CBOE Volatility Index, a.k.a. the Fear Gauge, which measures how volatile investors believe the S&P 500 Index will be over the next few months, has fallen below 10 on just 15 days since the index was introduced in 1990. Six of the 15 occurred during 2017. The average daily closing value for the VIX was 19.7 from 1990 through 2016. For 2017, the average has been 11.8.
Investors’ calm is remarkable because 2017 has not been a particularly calm year. We’ve experienced significant geopolitical events. For example, the U.S. launched a military strike on Syria, and dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan. There have been terrorist attacks in Europe, along with discord in the Middle East. The European Union has been unraveling. The U.S. government has shown unusual levels of disarray, and the U.S. President’s passion for Tweets has stirred the pot.
Just last week, the future of Brexit was thrown into question when Britain’s snap elections produced a hung Parliament (no political party has a majority). How did investors react? Barron’s reported the European markets shrugged off Thursday’s election results and moved higher on Friday, offsetting some losses from earlier in the week.
In the United States, Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony didn’t have much effect on stock markets last week, according to Barron’s. However, comments from Goldman Sachs cautioned the trade in big technology stocks, which have accounted for about 40 percent of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s gains this year, was too crowded. The ensuing clamor resulted in the NASDAQ losing 1.6 percent for the week and the S&P 500 finishing slightly lower.
Geopolitical events do not appear to have the impact they may once have had. The Fear Gauge finished Friday at 10.7.
The bull market in U.S. stocks is getting really old!
In fact, this bull has been charging, standing, or sitting for more than eight years. In April, it became the second longest bull market in American history, according to CNN Money.
There are some good reasons the stock market in the United States has continued to trend higher. For one, companies have become more profitable. During the first quarter of 2017, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reported earnings increased by 14 percent, year-over-year. That was the highest earnings growth rate since 2011, according to FactSet.
In addition, the economy in the United States has been chugging along at a steady pace. CIO Charles Lieberman wrote in Bloomberg View:
“…U.S. economic growth is continuing at a moderate pace, an economic recovery is finally underway in Europe, inflation is under control, corporate profits are rising, and there is some prospect for tax reform and deregulation, even if whatever gets implemented is less than what is really needed. These conditions imply continued growth in corporate profits.”
Last week’s employment report boosted both stock and bond markets. Financial Times opined the report was weak enough to ease pressure on bond rates and strong enough to boost share prices higher.
No one can say with certainty how long a bull market will last. Typically, bull markets are interrupted by corrections – declines in value of 10 percent or more. Historically, bulls have turned into bears, eventually. That’s why it’s important to employ investment strategies that manage risk and preserve capital even when markets are moving higher.