This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (September 1, 2016).
The stock market hit all-time record highs again in August, but despite the +6.2% move in 2016 S&P 500 stock prices (and +225% since early 2009), investors continue to scratch their heads in confusion. Individuals continue to ask, "Huh, how can stocks be trading at or near record levels (+6% for the year) when Brexit remains a looming overhang, uncertainty surrounds the U.S. presidential election, global terrorist attacks are on the rise, negative interest rates are ruling the day, and central banks around the globe are artificially propping up financial markets (see also Fed Myths vs. Reality)?" Does this laundry list of concerns stress you out? If you said "yes", you are not alone.
As I've pointed out in the past, we live in a different world today. In the olden days, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, currency crises, car chases, bank failures, celebrity DUIs, and wars happened all the time. However, before the internet existed, people either never heard about these worries, or they just didn't care (or both). Today, we live in a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, society with 500+ cable channels, and supercomputers in the palm of our hands (i.e., smartphones) with more computing power than existed on the Apollo mission to the moon. In short, doom-and-gloom captures human attention and sells advertising, the status quo does not.
In the same vein, here's what doesn't sell or capture much attention:
- Record corporate profits are on the rise
- Stabilizing value of the dollar
- Stabilizing energy and commodity prices
- Record low interest rates
- Skeptical investing public
Fortunately, the stock market pays more attention to these important dynamics, rather than the F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) peddled by the pundits, bloggers, and TV talking heads. Certainly, any or all of the previously mentioned positive factors could change or deteriorate over time, but for the time being, the bulls are winning.
Let's take a closer look at the influencing components that are driving stock prices higher:
Record Corporate Profits
Profits are the mother's milk that feeds the stock market. During recessions, profits are starved and stock prices decline. On the flip side, economic expansions feed profits and cause share prices to rise. As you can see from the chart above, there was a meteoric rise in corporate income from 2009 - 2014 before a leveling off occurred from 2015 going into 2016. The major headwinds causing profits to flatten was a spike of 25% in the value of the U.S. dollar relative to the value of other global currencies, all within a relatively short time span of about nine months (see chart below).
Why is this large currency shift important? The answer is that approximately 40% of multinational profits derived by S&P 500 companies come from international markets. Therefore, when the value of the dollar rose 25%, the cost to purchase U.S. products and services by foreign buyers became 25% costlier. Selling dramatically higher cost goods abroad squeezed exports, which in turn led to a flattening of profits. Time will tell, but as I showed in the first chart, the slope of the profit line has resumed its upwards trajectory, which helps explain why stock prices have been advancing in recent months.
Besides a strong dollar, another negative factor that temporarily weakened earnings was the dramatic decline in oil prices (see chart below) Two years ago, WTI oil prices were above $100 per barrel. Today, prices are hovering around $45 per barrel. As you can imagine, this tremendous price decline has had a destructive impact on the profits of the energy sector in general.
The good news is that after watching prices plummet below $30 earlier this year, prices have since stabilized at higher levels. In other words, the profits headwind has been neutralized, and if global economic growth recovers further, the energy headwind could turn into an energy tailwind.
Record Low Interest Rates
Stocks were not popular during the early 1980s. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average traded at 2,600 in 1980 vs 18,400 today. The economy was much smaller back then, but another significant overhang to lower stock prices was higher interest rates (and inflation). Back in 1980, the Federal Funds target rate set by the Federal Reserve reached a whopping 20.0% versus today the same rate sits at < 0.5%.
Why is this data important? When you can earn a 16.99% yield in a one-year bank CD (see advertisement below), generally there is a much smaller appetite to invest in riskier, more volatile stocks. Another way to think about rates is to equate interest rates to the cost of owning stocks. When interest rates were high, the relative cost to own stocks was also high, so many investors liquidated stocks. It makes perfect sense that stocks in that high interest rate environment of 1980 would be a lot less attractive compared to a relatively safe CD that paid 17% over a 12-month period.
On the other hand, when interest rates are low, the relative cost of owning stocks is low, so it makes sense that stock prices are rising in this environment. Just like profits, interest rates are not static, and they too can change rapidly. But as long as rates remain near record lows, and profits remain healthy, stocks should remain an appealing asset class, especially given the scarcity of strong alternatives.
Skeptical Investing Public
The last piece of the puzzle to examine in order to help explain the head-scratching record stock prices is the pervasive skepticism present in the current stock market. How can Brexit, presidential election, terrorism, negative interest rates, and uncertain Federal Reserve policies be good for stock prices?
Investing in many respects can be like navigating through traffic. When everyone wants to drive on the freeway, it becomes congested and a bad option, therefore taking side-streets or detours is a better strategy. The same principle applies to the stock market. When everyone wants to invest in the stock market (like during the late 1990s) or buy housing (mid-2000s), prices are usually too inflated, and shrewd investors decide to choose a different route by selling.
The same holds true in reverse. When nobody is interested in investing (see also,18-year low in stock ownership and two trillion of stocks sold), then generally that is a strong sign that it is a good time to buy. Currently, skepticism is plentiful, for all the reasons cited above, which is a healthy investment indicator. Many individuals continue reading the ominous headlines and scratching their heads in confusion over today's record stock prices. In contrast, at Sidoxia, we have opportunistically benefited from investors' skepticism by discovering plenty of attractive opportunities for our clients. There's no confusion about that.