Winning via Halftime Adjustments

Halftime Scoreboard

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (July 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

In the game of sports and investing there are a lot of unanticipated dynamics that occur during the course of a game, season, or year. With the second quarter of 2014 now coming to a close, we have reached the half-way point of the year. Along the way, the coach (and investors) may need to make some strategic halftime adjustments. Reassessing or reflecting on the positioning of your investment portfolio once or twice per year in the context of your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance level is never a bad idea – especially when there are unforeseen events continually materializing during the game.

During the first half of the year, the financial markets have experienced numerous surprises:

  • Declining Interest Rates: Under the auspices of a massive 2013 gain in stock prices, expectations were for an accelerating economy and rising interest rates in 2014. Instead, the 10-Year Treasury Note has seen its yield counterintuitively plunge from 3.03% to 2.52%.
  • Geopolitical Tensions (Ukraine/Syria/Iraq): The stock market has ground higher this year in spite of geopolitical tensions in Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq. These skirmishes make for great TV, radio, and blog content, but the reality is these conflicts will likely be forgotten/ignored in favor of other fresher clashes in the coming months and quarters.
  • Unabated Tapering: It’s true the Federal Reserve signaled the reduction in its bond buying stimulus program last year, however the more surprising aspect has been the pace of the taper. From the beginning of the year, the $85 billion program has already been reduced to $35 billion and will likely be reduced to $0 by the fall.
  • Polar Vortex/GDP: Weather is very unpredictable, and regardless of your views on global warming, the unseasonably cold weather on the eastern half of the country had a severely negative impact on first half GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In fact, first quarter GDP was revised lower to a contraction of -2.9%. The good news is expectations are for an improved second half of the year according to Merrill Lynch.

While it would be wonderful to live in Utopia, unfortunately for investors, there is always uncertainty and risk. These elements come with the investing territory. Of course, you can always compensate for that unwanted uncertainty by accepting low interest-paying options (e.g., stuffing your money under a mattress, in a CD, savings account, Treasury bonds, etc.).

Despite the unexpected first half events, the market continues to grind higher. During the first half of the year, the S&P 500 index rose 6.1% (+1.9% in June); the Dow Jones Industrials edged higher by +1.5% (+0.7% in June); and the Nasdaq climbed +5.5% (+3.9% in June). But stocks weren’t the only winning investment team in town – bonds tasted victory during the first half also, notching gains of +2.8% (AGG – Aggregate Bond), almost double the Dow’s performance.

Investor Psyche Pendulum Swinging in Positive Direction

Emotion Pendulum Picture Final

As I have written in the past, investor psyches continually swing along an emotional pendulum (see also Sentiment Pendulum article) from a state of “Panic” to “Euphoria”. While the pendulum has clearly swung in a positive direction, away from the emotional states of “Panic & Fear,” we appear to now be between “Skepticism & Hope.” The timing of when we get to the latter stages of “Optimism & Euphoria” is dependent on the pace of the economic recovery, risk appetites of consumers/businesses, and the trajectory of risky assets like stocks. Just because the ride has been fun for the last five years, does not mean the ride is over. However, as the pendulum continues to swing to the left, long-term investors need to fight the tempting urge to increase risk appetite just as the allure of high stock returns appears more achievable.

During the second half of this economic cycle, before the next recession, investors need to be more cognizant of controlling risk (the probability of permanent losses) by paying closer attention to valuations, diversification, and rebalancing too heavily weighted equity portfolios.

Besides rising stock prices and the beginning of positive fund flows, investors’ increasing appetite for risk is evidenced by the yield chasing occurring in junk bonds, which has raised prices of the lowest quality bonds to lofty levels. The chart below shows this phenomenon happening with the yields narrowing between high yield (HY) bonds and investment grade (IG) corporate bonds.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Even though I pointed out a number of disconcerting surprises in the first half of the year, as you consider making halftime adjustments to your portfolios, do not forget some of the underlying positive currents that are leading to a winning halftime score.

Here are some of the constructive factors supporting stock prices, which have nearly tripled in value from the 2009 lows (S&P 500 – 666 to 1,960):

Record Corporate Profits: I constantly bump into skeptics who fail to realize the fundamental power of record profits driving stock prices higher (see chart below). As the late John Templeton stated, “In the long run, the stock market indexes fluctuate around the long-term upward trend of earnings per share.”

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Improving Consumer Confidence: The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index increased to 82.5 for June from May. The confidence score came in above the consensus forecast of 82.0. Confidence has increased significantly from the 2009 lows but as the chart below shows, there is plenty of room for this metric to advance – consistent with the emotion pendulum discussed previously.

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Dividends & Share Buybacks Near Record Levels: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Corporations have realized this investor desire and as a result companies are returning record levels of money (“capital”) to stock shareholders via increasing dividends and share buybacks (see chart below).

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Housing on the Mend: The housing market has improved in fits and starts, but the most recent data point of new home sales shows significant improvement. More specifically, May’s new home sales were up +18.6% from the previous month (see chart below), the highest level seen since 2008. Although this data is encouraging, there is still plenty of room for improvement, as current sales remain more than 50% below 2005 peak levels.

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Record Industrial Production: Adding support to the improving economic outlook are the industrial production figures, which also hit a record (see chart below). This data also adds credence to why the U.S. stock market has outperformed the European markets during the economic recovery from 2009.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Declining Federal Deficit: The federal deficit continues to narrow (i.e., tax revenues growing faster than government spending), so previous fiscally panicked screams have quieted down. We’re not out of the woods yet, but the trends are encouraging (see chart below):

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

There have been plenty of bombshells during the first half of 2014 (no pun intended), and there are bound to be plenty more during the second half of the year. By definition, nobody can be fully prepared for a surprise, or else it wouldn’t be called a “surprise”. For those skeptical investors sitting on the sidelines, the record breaking stock market performance has also been astonishing. Regardless of what happens over the next six months, periodically making adjustments to your financial plan is important, whether it’s during the pre-game, post-game, or halftime. And if you’re not interested or capable of making those adjustments yourself, find a professional advisor/coach to assist you.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds and AGG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

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July 5, 2014 at 5:01 am 4 comments

Sports & Investing: Why Strong Earnings Can Hurt Stock Prices

With the World Cup in full swing and rabid fans rooting for their home teams, one may notice the many similarities between investing in stocks and handicapping in sports betting. For example, investors (bettors) have opposing views on whether a particular stock (team) will go up or down (win or lose), and determine if the valuation (point spread) is reflective of the proper equilibrium (supply & demand).  And just like the stock market, virtually anybody off the street can place a sports bet – assuming one is of legal age and in a legal betting jurisdiction.

Soon investors will be poring over data as part of the critical, quarterly earnings ritual. With some unsteady GDP data as of late, all eyes will be focused on this earnings reporting season to reassure market observers the bull advance can maintain its momentum. However, even positive reports may lead to unexpected investor reactions.

So how and why can market prices go down on good news? There are many reasons that short-term price trends can diverge from short-run fundamentals. One major reason for the price-fundamental gap is this key factor: “expectations”. With such a large run-up in the equity markets (up approx. +195% from March 2009) come loftier expectations for both the economy and individual companies. For instance, just because corporate earnings unveiled from companies like Google (GOOG/GOOGL), J.P. Morgan (JPM), and Intel (INTC) exceed Wall Street analyst forecasts does not mean stock prices automatically go up. In many cases a stock price correction occurs due to a large group of investors who expected even stronger profit results (i.e., “good results, but not good enough”). In sports betting lingo, the sports team may have won the game this week, but they did not win by enough points (“cover the spread”).

Some other reasons stock prices move lower on good news:

  • Market Direction: Regardless of the underlying trends, if the market is moving lower, in many instances the market dip can overwhelm any positive, stock- specific factors.
  • Profit TakingMany times investors holding a long position will have price targets or levels, if achieved, that will trigger selling whether positive elements are in place or not.
  • Interest Rates: Certain valuation techniques (e.g. Discounted Cash Flow and Dividend Discount Model) integrate interest rates into the value calculation. Therefore, a climb in interest rates has the potential of lowering stock prices – even if the dynamics surrounding a particular security are excellent.
  • Quality of EarningsSometimes producing winning results is not enough (see also Tricks of the Trade article). On occasion, items such as one-time gains, aggressive revenue recognition, and lower than average tax rates assist a company in getting over a profit hurdle. Investors value quality in addition to quantity.
  • OutlookEven if current period results may be strong, on some occasions a company’s outlook regarding future prospects may be worse than expected. A dark or worsening outlook can pressure security prices.
  • Politics & TaxesThese factors may prove especially important to the market this year, since this is a mid-term election year. Political and tax policy changes today may have negative impacts on future profits, thereby impacting stock prices.
  • Other Exogenous ItemsNatural disasters and security attacks are examples of negative shocks that could damage price values, irrespective of fundamentals.

Certainly these previously mentioned issues do not cover the full gamut of explanations for temporary price-fundamental gaps. Moreover, many of these factors could be used in reverse to explain market price increases in the face of weaker than anticipated results.

If you’re traveling to Las Vegas to place a wager on the World Cup, betting on winning favorites like Germany and Argentina may not be enough. If expectations are not met and the hot team wins by less than the point spread, don’t be surprised to see a decline in the value of your bet.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, GOOG, and GOOGL, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in JPM and INTC. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 28, 2014 at 11:35 am 3 comments

The Only Thing to Fear is the Unknown Itself

Picture1

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but when it comes to the stock market, the only thing to fear is the “unknown.” As much as people like to say, “I saw that crisis coming,” or “I knew the bubble was going to burst,” the reality is these assertions are often embellished, overstated, and/or misplaced.

How many people saw these events coming?

  • 1987 – Black Monday
  • Iraqi War
  • Thai Baht Currency Crisis
  • Long-Term Capital Management Collapse & Bailout
  • 9/11 Terrorist Attack
  • Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy / Bear Stearns Bailout
  • Flash Crash
  • U.S. Debt Downgrade
  • Arab Spring
  • Sequestration Cuts
  • Cyprus Financial Crisis
  • Federal Reserve (QE1, QE2, QE3, Operation Twist, etc.)

Sure, there will always be a prescient few who may actually get it right and profit from their crystal balls, but to assume you are smart enough to predict these events with any consistent accuracy is likely reckless. Even for the smartest and brightest minds, uncertainty and doubt surrounding such mega-events leads to inaction or paralysis. If profiting in advance of these negative outcomes was so easy, you probably would be basking in the sun on your personal private island…and not reading this article.

Coming to grips with the existence of a never-ending series of future negative financial shocks is the price of doing business in the stock market, if you want to become a successful long-term investor. The fact of the matter is with 7 billion people living on a planet orbiting the sun at 67,000 mph, the law of large numbers tells us there will be many unpredictable events caused either by pure chance or poor human decisions. As the great financial crisis of 2008-2009 proved, there will always be populations of stupid or ignorant people who will purposely or inadvertently cause significant damage to economies around the world.

Fortunately, the power of democracy (see Spreading the Seeds of Democracy) and the benefits of capitalism have dramatically increased the standards of living for hundreds of millions of people. Despite horrific outcomes and unthinkable atrocities perpetrated throughout history, global GDP and living standards continue to positively march forward and upward. For example, consider in my limited lifespan, I have seen the introduction of VCRs, microwave ovens, mobile phones, and the internet, while experiencing amazing milestones like the eradication of smallpox, the sequencing of the human genome, and landing space exploration vehicles on Mars, among many other unimaginable achievements.

Despite amazing advancements, many investors are paralyzed into inaction out of fear of a harmful outcome. If I received a penny for every negative prediction I read or heard about over my 20+ years of investing, I would be happily retired. The stock market is never immune from adverse events, but chances are a geopolitical war in Ukraine/Iraq; accelerated Federal Reserve rate tightening; China real estate bubble; Argentinian debt default; or other current, worrisome headline is unlikely to be the cause of the next -20%+ bear market. History shows us that fear of the unknown is more rational than the fear of the known. If you can’t come to grips with fear itself, I fear your long-term results will lead to a scary retirement.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 21, 2014 at 1:13 pm 3 comments

Shiller CAPE Peaches Smell Like BS

Peach-Poop

If something sounds like BS, looks like BS, and smells like BS, there’s a good chance you’re probably eyeball-deep in BS. In the investment world, I encounter a lot of very intelligent analysis, but at the same time I also continually step into piles of investment BS. One of those piles of BS I repeatedly step into is the CAPE ratio (Cyclically Adjusted Price-to-Earnings) created by Robert Shiller. For those who are not familiar with Shiller, he is a Nobel Prize winner in economics who won the award in 2013 for his work on the “empirical analysis of asset prices.” Shiller vaulted into fame in large part due to the timing of his book, Irrational Exuberance, which was published during the 2000 technology market peak. He gained additional street-credibility in the mid-2000s when he spoke about the bubble developing in the real estate markets.

What is the CAPE?

Besides being a scapegoat for every bear that has missed the tripling of stock prices in the last five years, the CAPE effectively is a simple 10-year average of the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 index. The logic is simple, like many theories in finance and economics, there often are inherent mean-reverting principles that are accepted as rules-of-thumb. It follows that if the current 10-year CAPE is above the 134-year CAPE average, then stocks are expensive and you should avoid them. On the other hand, if the current CAPE were below the long-term CAPE average, then stocks are cheap and you should buy. Here is a chart of the Shiller CAPE:

Shiller-CAPE

As you can see from the chart above, the current CAPE ratio of 26x is well above the 134-year average of 16x, which according to CAPE disciples makes the stock market very expensive. Or as a recent Business Insider article stated, the Shiller CAPE is “higher than at any point in the 20th century with the exception of the peaks of 1929 and 2000 – you know what happened after those.”

Problems Behind the Broken CAPE Tool

There are many problems with Shiller’s CAPE analysis, but let’s start with the basics by first asking, how useful has this tool actually been over the last, 10, 20, or 30 years? The short answer…not very. For example, if investors followed the implicit recommendation of the CAPE for the periods when Shiller’s model showed stocks as expensive (see above chart 1990 – 2014), they would have missed a more than quintupling (+469% ex-dividends) in the S&P 500 index. Over a shorter timeframe (2009 – 2014) the S&P 500 is up +114% ex-dividends (+190% since March 2009).

Even if you purchased at the worst time at the peak of the stock market in 2000 when the CAPE was 44 (S&P 500 – 1553), an investor would still have earned a total return of about +45% from 2000 – 2014, despite the CAPE still being 63% higher (more expensive) than the 134-year CAPE average of 16.

Peaches for $.25 Post-Bubble?

To illustrate a point, let’s assume you are a peach lover and due to a bubble in peach demand, prices spiked to an elevated level of $2.60 per pound for 9 years, but in year 10 the price plummeted to $.25 per pound today (see chart below). Assuming the 134-year average for peach prices was $1.60 per pound, would you still want to purchase your beloved peaches for the fire sale price of $.25 per pound? Common sense tells you $.25/lb. is a bargain, but if you asked the same question to Robert Shiller, he would say absolutely “NO”! The 10-year Peach CAPE ratio would be $2.37 ([9 yrs X $2.60] + [1 yr X $.25]) #1, but since the 10-year CAPE is greater than the LT-Average peach price of $1.60 per pound #2, Shiller would say peaches are too expensive, even though you could go to Kroger (KR) and buy a pound of peaches today for $0.25 #3.

Peach Chart

This complete neglect of current market prices in the calculation of CAPE makes absolutely no sense, but this same dynamic of ignoring current pricing reality is happening today in the stock market. Effectively what’s occurring is the higher P/E ratios experienced over the last 10 years are distorting the Shiller CAPE ratio, thereby masking the true current value of stocks. In other words the current CAPE of 26x vastly exaggerates the pricey-ness of the actual S&P 500 P/E ratio of 16x for 2014 and 14x for 2015.

There are plenty of other holes to poke into CAPE, but the last major component of Shiller’s ratio I want to address is interest rates. Even if you disregard my previous negative arguments against Shiller’s CAPE, should anyone be surprised that the ratio troughed in the early 1980s of 7x when long-term interest rates peaked. If I could earn 18% on a CD with little risk in 1981, not many people should be dumbfounded that demand for risky stocks was paltry. Today, the reverse environment is in place – interest rates are near record lows. It should therefore come as no surprise, that all else equal, a higher P/E (and CAPE) is deserved when interest rates are this low. Nevertheless, this discussion of P/E and CAPE rarely integrates the critical factor of interest rates.

While I have spent a decent amount of time trashing the CAPE-BS ratio, I want to give my pal Bob Shiller a fair shake. I can do this by looking into a mirror and admitting there are periods when the CAPE ratio can actually work. Although the CAPE is effectively useless during long, multi-year upward and downward trending markets (think bubbles & depressions), the CAPE makes perfect sense in sideway, trendless markets (see chart below).

Cycle Chart

The investing public is always looking for a Holy Grail financial indicator that will magically guide them to riches in both up and down markets. Despite the popularity of Shiller’s CAPE ratio, regrettably no one perfect indicator exists. So before you jump on the bandwagon and chase the hot indicator du jour, make sure to look down and make sure you haven’t stepped in any Shiller CAPE-BS.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in KR, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 14, 2014 at 2:08 pm 22 comments

Get Out of Stocks!*

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69

Get out of stocks!* Why the asterisk mark (*)? The short answer is there is a certain population of people who are looking at alluring record equity prices, but are better off not touching stocks – I like to call these individuals the “sideliners”. The sideliners are a group of investors who may have owned stocks during the 2006-2008 timeframe, but due to the subsequent recession, capitulated out of stocks into gold, cash, and/or bonds.

The risk for the sideliners getting back into stocks now is straightforward. Sideliners have a history of being too emotional (see Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain), which leads to disastrous financial decisions. So, even if stocks outperform in the coming months and years, the sideliners will most likely be slow in getting back in, and wrongfully knee-jerk sell at the hint of an accelerated taper, rate-hike, or geopolitical sneeze. Rather than chase a stock market at all-time record highs, the sideliners would be better served by clipping coupons, saving, and/or finish that bunker digging project.

The fact is, if you can’t stomach a -20% decline in the stock market, you shouldn’t be investing in stocks. In a recent presentation, Barry Ritholtz, editor of The Big Picture and CIO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, beautifully displayed the 20 times over the last 85 years that the stocks have declined -20% or more (see chart below). This equates to a large decline every four or so years.

20 Percent Corrections 1928 - 2008

Strategist Dr. Ed Yardeni hammers home a similar point over a shorter duration (2008-2014) by also highlighting the inherent volatility of stocks (see chart below).

Corrections 2008-2014

Stated differently, if you can’t handle the heat in the stock kitchen, it’s probably best to keep out.

It’s a Balancing Act

For the rest of us, the vast majority of investors, the question should not be whether to get out of stocks, it should revolve around what percentage of your portfolio allocation should remain in stocks. Despite record low yields and record high bond prices (see Bubblicious Bonds and Weak Competition, it is perfectly rational for a Baby-Boomer or retiree to periodically ring their stock-profit cash register, and reallocate more dollars toward bonds. Even if you forget about the 30%+ stock return achieved last year and the ~6% return this year, becoming more conservative in (or near) retirement with a larger bond allocation still makes sense.  For some of our clients, buying and holding individual bonds until maturity reduces the risky outcome associated with a potential of interest rates spiking.

With all of that said, our current stance at Sidoxia doesn’t mean stocks don’t offer good value today (see Buy in May). For those readers who have followed Investing Caffeine for a while, they will understand I have been relatively sanguine about the prospects of equities for some time, even through a host of scary periods. Whether it was my attack of bears Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, or John Mauldin in 2009-2010, or optimistic articles written during the summer crash of 2011 when the S&P 500 index declined -22% (see Stocks Get No Respect or Rubber Band Stretching), our positioning did not waver. However, as stock values have virtually tripled in value from the 2009 lows, more recently I have consistently stated the game has gotten a lot tougher with the low-hanging fruit having already been picked (earnings have recovered from the recession and P/E multiples have expanded). In other words, the trajectory of the last five years is unsustainable.

Fortunately for us, at Sidoxia we’re not hostage to the upward or downward direction of a narrow universe of large cap U.S. domestic stock market indices. We can scour the globe across geographies and capital structure. What does that mean? That means we are investing client assets (and my personal assets) into innovative companies covering various growth themes (robotics, alternative energy, mobile devices, nanotechnology, oil sands, electric cars, medical devices, e-commerce, 3-D printing, smart grid, obesity, globalization, and others) along with various other asset classes and capital structures, including real estate, MLPs, municipal bonds, commodities, emerging markets, high-yield, preferred securities, convertible bonds, private equity, floating rate bonds, and TIPs as well. Therefore, if various markets are imploding, we have the nimble ability to mitigate or avoid that volatility by identifying appropriate individual companies and alternative asset classes.

Irrespective of my shaky short-term forecasting abilities, I am confident people will continue to ask me my opinion about the direction of the stock market. My best advice remains to get out of stocks*…for the “sideliners”. However, the asterisk still signifies there are plenty of opportunities for attractive returns to be had for the rest of us investors, as long as you can stomach the inevitable volatility.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 7, 2014 at 9:40 pm 3 comments

Stocks Winning vs. Weak Competitors

 

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This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (June 2, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Winning at any sport is lot easier if you can compete without an opponent. Imagine an NBA basketball MVP LeBron James driving to the basket against no defender, or versus a weakling opponent like a 44-year-old investment manager. Under these circumstances, it would be pretty easy for James and his team, the Miami Heat, to victoriously dominate without even a trace of sweat.

Effectively, stocks have enjoyed similar domination in recent years, while steamrolling over the bond competition. To put the stock market’s winning streak into perspective, the S&P 500 index set a new all-time record high in May, with the S&P 500 advancing +2.1% to 1924 for the month, bringing the 2013-2014 total return to about +38%. Not too shabby results over 17 months, if you consider bank deposits and CDs are paying a paltry 0.0-1.0% annually, and investors are gobbling up bonds yielding a measly 2.5% (see chart below).

62

The point, once again, is that even if you are a skeptic or bear on the outlook for stocks, the stock market still offers the most attractive opportunities relative to other asset classes and investment options, including bonds. It’s true, the low hanging fruit in stocks has been picked, and portfolios can become too equity-heavy, but even retirees should have some exposure to equities.

As I wrote last month in Buy in May and Dance Away, why would investors voluntarily lock in inadequate yields at generational lows when the earnings yield on stocks are so much more appealing. The approximate P/E (Price-Earnings) ratio for the S&P 500 currently averages approximately +6.2% with a rising dividend yield of about +1.8% – not much lower than many bonds. Over the last five years, those investors willing to part ways with yield-less cash have voted aggressively with their wallets. Those with confidence in the equity markets have benefited massively from the approximate +200% gains garnered from the March 2009 S&P 500 index lows.

For the many who have painfully missed the mother of all stock rallies, the fallback response has been, “Well, sure the market has tripled, but it’s only because of unprecedented printing of money at the QE (Quantitative Easing) printing presses!” This argument has become increasingly difficult to defend ever since the Federal Reserve announced the initiation of the reduction in bond buying (a.k.a., “tapering”) six months ago (December 18th). Over that time period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased over 800 points and the S&P 500 index has risen a healthy 8.0%.

As much as everyone would like to blame (give credit to) the Fed for the bull market, the fact is the Federal Reserve doesn’t control the world’s interest rates. Sure, the Fed has an influence on global interest rates, but countries like Japan may have something to do with their own 0.57% 10-year government bond yield. For example, the economic/political policies and demographics in play might be impacting Japan’s stock market (Nikkei), which has plummeted about -62% over the last 25 years (about 39,000 to 15,000). Almost as shocking as the lowly rates in Japan and the U.S. and Japan, are the astonishingly low interest rates in Europe. As the chart below shows, France and Germany have sub-2% 10-year government bond yields (1.76% and 1.36%, respectively) and even economic basket case countries like Italy and Spain have seen their yields pierce below the 3% level.

63Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Suffice it to say, yield is not only difficult to find on our shores, but it is also challenging to find winning bond returns globally.

Well if low interest rates and the Federal Reserve aren’t the only reasons for a skyrocketing stock market, then how come this juggernaut performance has such long legs? The largest reason in my mind boils down to two words…record profits. Readers of mine know I follow the basic tenet that stock prices follow earnings over the long-term. Interest rates and Fed Policy will provide headwinds and tailwinds over different timeframes, but ultimately the almighty direction of profits determines long-run stock performance. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to appreciate this correlation. Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit) has beautifully documented this relationship in the chart below.

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Supporting this concept, profits help support numerous value-enhancing shareholder activities we have seen on the rise over the last five years, which include rising dividends, share buybacks, and M&A (Mergers & Acquisitions) activity. Eventually the business cycle will run its course, and during the next recession, profits and stock prices will be expected to decline. A final contributing factor to the duration of this bull market is the abysmally slow pace of this economic recovery, which if measured in job creation terms has been the slowest since World War II. Said differently, the slower a recovery develops, the longer the recovery will last. Bill McBride at Calculated Risk captured this theme in the following chart:

65

Despite the massive gains and new records set, skeptics abound as evidenced by the nearly -$10 billion of withdrawn money out of U.S. stock funds over the last month (most recent data).

I’ve been labeled a perma-bull by some, but over my 20+ years of investing experience I understand the importance of defensive positioning along with the benefits of shorting expensive, leveraged stocks during bear markets, like the ones in 2000-2001 and 2008-2009. When will I reverse my views and become bearish (negative) on stocks? Here are a few factors I’m tracking:

  • Inverted Yield Curve: This was a good precursor to the 2008-2009 crash, but there are no signs of this occurring yet.
  • Overheated Fund Inflows: When everyone piles into stocks, I get nervous. In the last four weeks of domestic ICI fund flow data, we have seen the opposite…about -$9.5 billion outflows from stock funds.
  • Peak Employment: When things can’t get much better is the time to become more worried. There is still plenty of room for improvement, especially if you consider the stunningly low employment participation rate.
  • Fed Tightening / Rising Bond Yields: The Fed has made it clear, it will be a while before this will occur.
  • When Housing Approaches Record Levels: Although Case-Shiller data has shown housing prices bouncing from the bottom, it’s clear that new home sales have stalled and have plenty of head room to go higher.
  • Financial Crisis: Chances of experiencing another financial crisis of a generation is slim, but many people have fresh nightmares from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. It’s not every day that a 158 year-old institution (Lehman Brothers) or 85 year-old investment bank (Bear Stearns) disappear, but if the dominoes start falling again, then I guess it’s OK to become anxious again.
  • Better Opportunities: The beauty about my practice at Sidoxia is that we can invest anywhere. So if we find more attractive opportunities in emerging market debt, convertible bonds, floating rate notes, private equity, or other asset classes, we have no allegiances and will sell stocks.

Every recession and bear market is different, and although the skies may be blue in the stock market now, clouds and gray skies are never too far away. Even with record prices, many fears remain, including the following:

  • Ukraine: There is always geopolitical instability somewhere on the globe. In the past investors were worried about Egypt, Iran, and Syria, but for now, some uncertainty has been created around Ukraine.
  • Weak GDP: Gross Domestic Product was revised lower to -1% during the first quarter, in large part due to an abnormally cold winter in many parts of the country. However, many economists are already talking about the possibility of a 3%+ rebound in the second quarter as weather improves.
  • Low Volatility: The so-called “Fear Gauge” is near record low levels (VIX index), implying a reckless complacency among investors. While this is a measure I track, it is more confined to speculative traders compared to retail investors. In other words, my grandma isn’t buying put option insurance on the Nasdaq 100 index to protect her portfolio against the ramifications of the Thailand government military coup.
  • Inflation/Deflation: Regardless of whether stocks are near a record top or bottom, financial media outlets in need of a topic can always fall back on the fear of inflation or deflation. Currently inflation remains in check. The Fed’s primary measure of inflation, the Core PCE, recently inched up +0.2% month-to-month, in line with forecasts.
  • Fed Policy: When are investors not worried about the Federal Reserve’s next step? Like inflation, we’ll be hearing about this concern until we permanently enter our grave.

In the sport of stocks and investing, winning is never easy. However, with the global trend of declining interest rates and the scarcity of yields from bonds and other safe investments (cash/money market/CDs), it should come as no surprise to anyone that the winning streak in stocks is tied to the lack of competing investment alternatives. Based on the current dynamics in the market, if LeBron James is a stock, and I’m forced to guard him as a 10-year Treasury bond, I think I’ll just throw in the towel and go to Wall Street. At least that way my long-term portfolio has a chance of winning by placing a portion of my bets on stocks over bonds.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 2, 2014 at 11:06 am Leave a comment

Searching for the Market Boogeyman

Ghost

With the stock market reaching all-time record highs (S&P 500: 1900), you would think there would be a lot of cheers, high-fiving, and back slapping. Instead, investors are ignoring the sunny, blue skies and taking off their rose-colored glasses. Rather than securely sleeping like a baby (or relaxing during a three-day weekend) with their investment accounts, people are biting their fingernails with clenched teeth, while searching for a market boogeyman in their closets or under their beds.

If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is pick up the paper, turn on the TV, or walk over to the office water cooler. An avalanche of scary headlines that are spooking investors include geopolitical concerns in Ukraine & Thailand, slowing housing statistics, bearish hedge fund managers (i.e., Tepper Einhorn, Cooperman), declining interest rates, and collapsing internet stocks. In other words, investors are looking for things to worry about, despite record corporate profits and stock prices. Peter Lynch, the manager of the Magellan Fund that posted +2,700% in gains from 1977-1990, put short-term stock price volatility into perspective:

“You shouldn’t worry about it. You should worry what are stocks going to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.”

 

Rather than focusing on immediate stock market volatility and other factors out of your control, why not prioritize your time on things you can control. What investors can control is their asset allocation and spending levels (budget), subject to their personal time horizons and risk tolerances. Circumstances always change, but if people spent half the time on investing that they devoted to planning holiday vacations, purchasing a car, or choosing a school for their child, then retirement would be a lot less stressful. After realizing 99% of all the short-term news is nonsensical noise, the next important realization is stocks are volatile securities, which frequently go down -10 to -20%. As much as amateurs and professionals say or think they can profitably predict these corrections, they very rarely can. If your stomach can’t handle the roller-coaster swings, then you shouldn’t be investing in the stock market.

Bear-markets generally coincide with recessions, and since World War II, Americans experience about two economic contractions every decade. And as I pointed out earlier in A Series of Unfortunate Events, even during the current massive bull market, a recession has not been required to suffer significant short-term losses (e.g., Flash Crash, Greece, Arab Spring, Obamacare, Cyprus, etc.). Seasoned veterans understand these volatile periods provide incredible investment opportunities. As Warren Buffett states, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” Fear and panic may be behind us, but skepticism is still firmly in place. Buying during current skepticism is still not a bad thing, as long as greed hasn’t permeated the masses, which remains the case today.

Overly emotional people that make investment decisions with their gut do more damage to their savings accounts than conservative, emotional investors who understand their emotional shortcomings. On the other hand, the problem with investing too conservatively, for those that have longer-term time horizons (10+ years), is multi-pronged. For starters, overly conservative investments made while interest rate levels hover near historical lows lead to inflationary pressures gobbling up savings accounts. Secondly, the low total returns associated with excessively conservative investments will result in a later retirement (e.g., part-time Wal-Mart greeter in your 80s), or lower quality standard of living (e.g., macaroni & cheese dinners vs. filet mignon).

Most people say they understand the trade-offs of risk and return. Over the long-run, low-risk investments result in lower returns than high risk investments (i.e., bonds vs. stocks). If you look at the following chart and ask anyone what their preferred path would be over the long-run, almost everyone would select the steep, upward-sloping equity return line.

Source: Betterment.com / Stocks for the Long Run

Source: Betterment.com / Stocks for the Long Run

Yet, stock ownership and attitudes towards stocks remain at relatively low and skeptical levels (see Gallup survey in Markets Soar and Investors Snore). It’s true that attitudes are changing at a glacial pace and bond outflows accelerated in 2013, but more recently stock inflows remain sporadic and scared money is returning to bonds. Even though it has been over five years, the emotional scars from 2008-2009 apparently still need some time to heal.

Investing in stocks can be very scary and hazardous to your health. For those millions of investors who realize they do not hold the emotional fortitude to withstand the ups and downs, leave the worrying responsibilities to the experienced advisors and investment managers like me. That way you can focus on your job and retirement, while the pros can remain responsible for hunting and slaying the boogeyman.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm 1 comment

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