Stocks Take a Breather after Long Sprint
Like a sprinter running a long sprint, the stock market eventually needs to take a breather too, and that’s exactly what investors experienced this week as they witnessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average face its largest drop of 2013 (down -2.2%) – and also the largest weekly slump since 2012. Runners, like financial markets, sooner or later suffer fatigue, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing after a relatively unabated +27% upsurge over the last nine months. Does a -2% hit in one week feel pleasant? Certainly not, but before the next race, the markets need to catch their breath.
By now, investors should not be surprised that pitfalls and injuries are part of the investment racing game – something Olympian Mary Decker Slaney can attest to as a runner (see 1984 Olympic 3000m final against Zola Budd). As I have pointed out in previous articles (Most Hated Bull Market), the almost tripling in stock prices from the 2009 lows has not been a smooth, uninterrupted path-line, but rather investors have endured two corrections averaging -20% and two other drops approximating -10%. Instead of panicking by locking in damaging transaction costs, taxes, and losses, it is better to focus on earnings, cash flows, valuations, and the relative return available in alternative asset classes. With generationally low interest rates occurring over recent periods, the available subset of attractive investment opportunities has narrowed (see Confessions of a Bond Hater), leaving many investing racers to default to stocks.
Recent talk of potential Federal Reserve bond purchase “tapering” has led to a two-year low in bond prices and caused a mini spike in interest rates (10-year Treasury note currently yielding +2.83%). At the margin, this trend makes bonds more attractive (lower prices), but as you can see from the chart below, interest rates are still relatively close to historically low yields. For the time being, this still makes domestic equities an attractive asset class.
Price Follows Earnings
The simple but true axiom that stock prices follow earnings over the long-run is just as true today as it was a century ago. Interest rates and price-earnings ratios can also impact stock prices. To illustrate my argument, let’s talk baseball. Wind, rain, and muscle (interest rates, PE ratios, political risk, etc.) are factors impacting the direction of a thrown baseball (stock prices), but gravity is the key factor influencing the ultimate destination of the baseball. Long-term earnings growth is the equivalent factor to gravity when talking about stock prices.
To buttress my point that stock prices following long-term earnings, consider the fact that S&P 500 annualized operating earnings bottomed in 2009 at $39.61. Since that point, annualized earnings through the second quarter of 2013 (~94% of companies reported results) have reached $99.30, up +151%. S&P 500 stock prices bottomed at 666 in 2009, and today the index sits at 1655, +148%. OK, so earnings are up +151% and stock prices are up +148%. Coincidence? Perhaps not.
If we take a closer look at earnings, the deceleration of earnings growth is unmistakable (see Financial Times chart below), yet the S&P 500 index is still up +16% this year, excluding dividends. In reality, predicting multiple expansion or contraction is nearly impossible. For example, earnings in the S&P 500 grew an incredible +15% in 2011, yet stock prices were anemically flat for that year, showing no price appreciation (+0.0%). Since the end of 2011, earnings have risen a meager +3%, however stock prices have catapulted +32%. Is this multiple expansion sustainable? Given stock P/E ratios remain in a reasonable 15-16x range, according to forward and trailing earnings, there is some room for expansion, but the low hanging fruit has been picked and further double-digit price appreciation will require additional earnings growth.
But stocks should not be solely looked through a domestic lens…there is another 95% of the world’s population slowly embracing capitalism and democracy to fuel future dynamic earnings growth. At Sidoxia (www.Sidoxia.com), we are finding plenty of opportunities outside our U.S. borders, including alternative asset classes.
The investment race continues, and taking breathers is part of the competition, especially after long sprints. Rather than panic, enjoy the respite.
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.
Entry filed under: Financial Markets, Themes - Trends. Tags: 10-year Treasury, bonds, breather, correction, earnings growth, Federal Reserve, Mary Decker Slaney, PE ratio, pullback, S&P 500, Stocks, valuation, Zola Budd.