It was a cold winter for stocks, but as we approached the spring season in March, the flowers have begun to bloom. More specifically, during the month of March, the Dow Jones Industrial index catapulted +7.1% and the S&P 500 index jumped +6.6%. While this roughly +80% annualized rate is unlikely to sustain itself, this flurry of strong performance could be the sign of warmer weather conditions in the economic forecast.
What started out as a cold and blustery January, with stocks posting one of the worst beginning months in history (S&P 500 down -5.1%), quickly thawed out in February and March. Fears over deteriorating economic conditions in the U.S., China along with plummeting oil prices proved fleeting. In fact, as Scott Grannis at Calafia Beach Pundit pointed out, there is no sign of recession in the U.S. as evidenced by a 43-year low in unemployment claims and a 4.9% unemployment rate (see chart below).
As I've stated for many years, focusing on the never-ending hurricane of pessimistic headlines is a wasteful use of time and destructive force on performance, if acted upon. Offsetting the downpour of negative news stories are the record low interest rates (now incomprehensibly negative in parts of the globe), which serve as a protective umbrella against the short-term stormy volatility. When investors face the soggy reality of earning a near-0% return on their bank savings and a sub-2% Treasury bond market for 10-year maturities, suddenly a 6-7% earnings yield on stocks certainly looks pretty sunny. There have been very few times in history when dividends earned on stocks have exceeded the payments received on a 10-year Treasury bond, but that is exactly the extreme environment we are living in today. No doubt, if the interest rate climate changes, and rates spike higher, stocks will face a more thunderous environment.
However, fortunately for stock market investors (and unfortunately for savers), this week Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reiterated her forceful view of maintaining interest rates at a low, stimulative level for an extended period of time.
If It Bleeds It Leads - At the Expense of Your Portfolio
Even in the face of European terrorist attacks in Brussels and a turbulent (but entertaining) political presidential election season, the four pillars of earnings, interest rates, valuations, and sentiment are still protecting stock investors from an economic flood (see also Don't Be a Fool, Follow the Stool). Scary news headlines may sell newspapers and attract advertising dollars, but the real money is made by following the four investing pillars.
Also contributing to a clearer outlook this spring is the steadying value of the U.S. dollar and stabilizing trend realized in oil prices.
For most of 2015, multinational corporations saw their profits squeezed due to a 20-25% spike in the dollar. For example, an auto manufacturer selling a car for $20,000 in the U.S. could suddenly see the price of the same car changed to $25,000 in Europe. Meanwhile, a different German competitor could price a similar car manufactured in their country at the lower $20,000. This all translates into diminished sales and profits for American companies. Mercifully, we are beginning to see these currency headwinds abate, and even begin to shift into a slight tailwind (see 5-year chart below).
From copper and corn to silver and soy beans, commodity prices have been in a downward death spiral over the last five years. And crude oil hasn't escaped the commodity collapse either… until recently. The supply glut, created by factors like the U.S. shale revolution and new added Iranian post-sanction reserves, led to price declines from a 2009 high of $147 per barrel to a 2016 low of $26. With China and U.S. dollar fears abating, oil prices have bounced about +45% from the 2016 lows to about $38 per barrel.
While the weather has been improving on our shores, not everyone appreciates the fact the U.S. has been the "best house in a bad global neighborhood." As the chart below shows (February 2016), international stock markets have gone into a bear market (down > -20%) since the 2011 and 2014 peaks, while the U.S. has performed about 100% better. Even in the U.S. market, small-midcap stocks (small & midsize companies) fell about -22% from their 2015 peak before recouping much of the losses.
Source: Financial Times
Whether large companies, as measured by the S&P 500 index, which fell about -15% from the peak, suffer a true, technical -20% "bear market" or continue the current seven-year bull market is debatable. Regardless, what we do know is investors survived another cold winter and spring has produced a weather forecast that is currently predicting warmer weather and sunnier economic skies.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in any 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.