I must say that I have avoided playing this sector. The stocks IPO'd to extreme fanfare, and with such jubilation came steep valuations that fell outside of my investment discipline. I have warned investors to be cautious with these stocks, many of which sport P/E ratios of 40, 50, even 60 times forward earnings. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which recently agreed to merge with the CBOT in an $8 billion deal, has risen more than 1,000% since it's opening trade and now trades at nearly 20 times revenues.
Some readers might chalk up my negative comments as merely trying to rain on the parades of people who have actually made good money in these names. However, in all honestly, I merely want to let people know that these stocks, while they are all the rage right now, trade at levels that will be hard to justify if things start to go bad.
Is it reasonable to think the tide will shift in the other direction at some point? I think so, but the timing is impossible to know. Let's focus on what factors have driven the bull market in these stocks. The last four years have brought the exchanges increased demand, and subsequently, increased volume. In response, they have been able to introduce new products and raise their fees on existing ones. More business, along with pricing power, leads to surging profits. Hence, the stocks have outperformed dramatically.
But, will the music stop? Eventually I think it has to. Why? Because bull markets end. Exchanges are very cyclical, though many investors don't realize this because they were private entities during the last bear market. What happens when the bear rears his ugly head? Prices drop, volume evaporates, demand is reduced, price increases aren't possible, and all of the sudden, revenue and profits will decline. For companies already trading at 40 to 60 times earnings, with 20 percent plus growth rates projected, such a scenario would likely hurt investors in the exchanges immensely.
Do I know when the bull market will end? Of course not, nobody does. All I can tell you is that we have had a great run over the last four years, with the S&P 500 averaging mid double digit returns annually. If you feel comfortable owning these stocks and riding the momentum, that's completely your call. I just want people to understand what the risks are. That way, when the next bear market hits, they understand it will be time to take whatever profits are left off of the table and move on to something else. Until that happens, I will continue to sit on the sidelines, in awe.