Stocks Winning vs. Weak Competitors

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

 

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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).

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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:

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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.

Entry filed under: Behavioral Finance, economy, Financial Markets, Financial Planning, Fixed Income (Bonds), Stocks, Trading. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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