Tag Archives: S&P 500

To 2021 and beyond…

My father was not a man of many words, but when he spoke, he generally made a lot of sense. Somebody could not be called anything more derogatory by my father than to be called a clown, a term he generally used often when watching politicians on the TV. He would have had absolutely no time for the current US president, a clown of the highest order in my father’s meaning of the word. Notwithstanding the loss of life from the Capitol Hill rioting, the pantomime that played out on the 6th of January was pure theatre and showed the vacuous inevitable end destination of Trump’s narcissism (and hopefully of Trumpism). Rednecks roaming around capitol building with confederate flags and wearing silly costumes feels like a fitting end. I thought it would be months, if not years, before the doubtless shenanigans that Trump has been up to over the past 4 years (and before that, of course) would be made public in all its glory and before a large proportion of the otherwise sensible 74 million Americans who voted for him would finally see him for the “very flawed human being”, in his ex-Chief of Staff John Kelly’s wonderfully diplomatic words, that he is. My father had another word for him. There are too many issues to be dealt with that are more important than the man child who will, after this week, be a (hopefully!) much-diminished and irrelevant force.

Most people are happy to see the back of 2020 and there is little that I can add to that sentiment. Like others, I have avoided any year end round ups as it all seems too raw. My family and I have been blessed to not been adversely impacted health-wise by Covid-19 during the year. The horrible global death toll from the virus reached the grim milestone of 2 million with some pessimistic projections of the final toll at double that figure, even if mass vaccinations result in the utopian herd immunity (optimistic projections for the developed world to reach such a state by this time next year with the rest of the world taking another 12 months). It seems likely that the public health situation will get worse before it gets better.

Reaching the milestone age of 21 symbolizes the entry into adulthood, an age of maturity, and not just in relation to the legal procurement of alcohol in some countries! Maturity and long-term thinking in addressing the challenges of the coming year, including likely bottlenecks in vaccine rollouts and the rebuilding of multilateral cooperation, should replace the narrow nationalist thinking of the Trump and Brexit eras. God willing, the biblical symbolism of 21 representing the “great wickedness of rebellion and sin” will not be backdrop for the post-Covid era!

In a widely optimistic thought along the lines of rebellion and sin but without the wickedness, the post-Covid era could be characterised by a radical shift in societal norms, akin to the 60’s, where youth culture demands that the challenges of our day, specifically climate change and income equality, are addressed urgently. Combining technology with a passion for action and upsetting lifestyle norms could instigate real change. A new countercultural movement, with its own hedonistic soundtrack, would also be nice after all the introspection of lockdowns! 2020 has taught us that rapid social change can take place and we can adapt to uncertainty if we are pushed.

So back to the realities of 2021! I read recently that those of us lucky enough to be able to continue working relatively unperturbed from home during Covid having been working on average an hour a day extra and that is consistent with my experience (and thus my lack of posts on this blog!). Overcoming the challenges of the current Covid operating environment, such as avoiding the development of splintered or siloed cultures, whilst maintaining a collective corporate spirit will likely be a much-discussed topic in 2021. As the social capital of pre-Covid working networks is eroded by time and Covid fatigue, moving to a new hybrid work/office model in our new distributed working environment, whilst minimising people and talent risk, will create both challenges and opportunities for leaders and managers of differing skillsets.

One of my biggest concerns for 2021 is the financial markets. The macabre sight of stock markets hitting highs as the pandemic worsened is surely one of paradoxes of 2020. The S&P500 is currently trading at a forward PE ratio of over 22 as the graphic below shows.

In November, the oft debated (see this post as an example) cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio for the S&P 500 hit 33, just above the level it was at in September 1929, the month before the crash that preceded the Great Depression! CAPE has only been higher twice in history than it is now, in the late 1920’s and the early 2000’s. Apple (AAPL) is currently valued at a forward PE of over 30 (based upon its 2022 earnings estimates), trading well above the sub $100 level I pitched as fair value earlier this year (in this post). Tesla is often cited as the poster child for crazy valuations. I like to look at the newly public Airbnb (ABNB) for my example, a firm that depends upon cross border travel for its core business, which has lost $1 billion on revenue of $3.6 billion over the last 12 months (revenue down from $4.8 billion in 2019) and is now valued at $100 billion or a multiple of over 27 times sales! The market seems to be solely focussed on the upward leg and ignoring the downward leg of the so-called K shaped (bifurcated) recovery, even though small business in the US generate 44% of US economic activity. The forward PE on the Russell 2000 is above 30. In classic bubble style, speculative assets like bitcoin reached all-time highs. The latest sign is that much shorted stocks are being targeted in short squeeze trades.

This NYT article, aptly named “Why Markets Boomed in a Year of Human Misery” offers one of the clearest explanations for the market euphoria, namely that the “Fed played a big part in engineering the stabilization of the markets in March and April, but the rally since then probably reflects these broader dynamics around savings”. The broader dynamics referred to are the NPIA statistics from March to November. The article highlights that fiscal action taken to support US households through Covid support has resulted in salaries and wages only being marginally down on the prior year, despite widespread lockdowns, whilst spending has fallen. This combination pushed the US savings rate through the roof, over $1.5 trillion higher that the March to November period in 2019.

The arguments about a bubble have been rehashed of late and here are some examples:

  • In November, Robert Shiller (of CAPE fame) co-authored an article which stated “many have been puzzled that the world’s stock markets haven’t collapsed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn it has wrought. But with interest rates low and likely to stay there, equities will continue to look attractive, particularly when compared to bonds.
  • The great Martin Wolf of the FT asked (in this article) “Will these structural, decades-long trends towards ultra-low real interest rates reverse? The answer has to be that real interest rates are more likely to rise than fall still further. If so, long-term bonds will be a terrible investment. But it also depends on why real interest rates rise. If they were to do so as a product of higher investment and faster growth, strong corporate earnings might offset the impact of the higher real interest rates on stock prices. If, however, savings rates were to fall, perhaps because of ageing, there would be no such offset, and stock prices might become significantly overvalued.
  • The ever-pessimistic John Hussman responded in this market commentary that “when people say that extreme stock market valuations are “justified” by interest rates, what they’re actually saying is that it’s “reasonable” for investors to price the stock market for long-term returns of nearly zero, because bonds are also priced for long-term returns of nearly zero. I know that’s not what you hear, but it’s precisely what’s being said.
  • And the equally sunny veteran market player Jeremy Grantham opened his latest investor letter  (the wonderfully titled “Waiting for the last dance”) thus: “The long, long bull market since 2009 has finally matured into a fully-fledged epic bubble. Featuring extreme overvaluation, explosive price increases, frenzied issuance, and hysterically speculative investor behavior, I believe this event will be recorded as one of the great bubbles of financial history, right along with the South Sea bubble, 1929, and 2000.”

Grantham points out that the necessary monetary and fiscal reaction to the pandemic has created heighten moral hazard – “The longer the moral hazard runs, and you have this implied guarantee, the more the market feels it can take more risk. So it takes more risk and builds yet more debt. We’ve counted too much on the permanence and the stability of low rates and low inflation. At the end of this great cycle of stability, all the market has to do is cough. If bond yields mean-revert even partially, they will be caught high and dry.” 

I particularly liked Graham’s summary of the past 20 odd years of monetary policy –All bubbles end with near universal acceptance that the current one will not end yet…because. Because in 1929 the economy had clicked into “a permanently high plateau”; because Greenspan’s Fed in 2000 was predicting an enduring improvement in productivity and was pledging its loyalty (or moral hazard) to the stock market; because Bernanke believed in 2006 that “U.S. house prices merely reflect a strong U.S. economy” as he perpetuated the moral hazard: if you win you’re on your own, but if you lose you can count on our support. Yellen, and now Powell, maintained this approach. All three of Powell’s predecessors claimed that the asset prices they helped inflate in turn aided the economy through the wealth effect.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in an asset price bubble currently, notwithstanding the fact that it is likely to continue for some time yet. Although not quite at the level of  Joe Kennedy hearing the shoeshine boy talk about his equity positions, I have been struck by the attitude of late of my more junior workmates when they optimistically talk about their equity and bitcoin investment gains. It’s more akin to a level of the mobsters’ spouses trading internet stock ideas in the Sopranos! The TINA trade on steroids or the TINA USP as in “there is no alternative, Uncle Sam’s paying!”.

There is little doubt that extraordinary action, both monetary and fiscal, was needed to counteract the impact of the pandemic. In the words of Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, “now is not the time for the economics of Chicken Licken”. It is the sheer scale and reliance on government intervention into markets that surely is unhealthy in the medium to longer term. Central banks now act as market makers, distorting market dynamics such that continued newly created money chases an ever-shrinking pool of investable assets. William White, formerly of the BIS, recently commented that monetary policy has been asymmetric whereby Central banks have put a floor under markets in crises but failed to put a cap on prices in bubbles.

Fiscal stimulus has exploded the world’s government debt stocks. Fitch estimate that global government debt increased by about $10 trillion in 2020 to $78 trillion, equivalent to 94% of world GDP. The previous $10 trillion tranche took seven years to build, from 2012 to 2019. The most immediate impact has been on emerging market debt with sovereign downgrades prevalent. Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist at the IMF, warned that “this is going to be a rocky road”. High debt levels can only be contained in the future by austerity or inflation, neither of which are pleasant and both of which would further compound high levels of inequality across the world. Covid has laid bare the destructive impact of inequality and anything that will increase inequality will inevitably impact social stability (eh, more populism anyone?). We have, of course been here before, living through it over the past 13 years, but this time the volume is up to 11.

Two other issues that will keep us occupied in 2021 are climate change and cyber risks. 2020 has recently been declared one of the hottest on record. Despite the estimated 7% fall in CO2 emissions in 2020 due to Covid lockdowns, we are still, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted this week, “headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”. David Attenborough’s new TV programme “A Perfect Planet” illustrates the impact that the current temperature rises just above 1 degree are having right now on the delicate balance of nature. The COP26 summit in November this year must be an event where real leadership is shown if this fragile planet of ours has any hope for the long term. The other issue which will likely get more attention in 2021 is the successful cyber intrusions using Solarwinds that the Russians pulled off in 2020. An anonymous senior US official recently stated that “the current way we are doing cybersecurity is broken and for anyone to say otherwise is mistaken”.

So, 2021 promises to be another significant year, one of more change but, at least it will be without the clown (hopefully). I, for one, will eagerly wait for any signs of that new countercultural movement to take hold, whilst listening out for that hedonistic soundtrack!

A happy and healthy new year to all.

Still Dancing

The latest market wobble this week comes under the guise of the endless Trump soap opera and the first widespread use of the impeachment word. I doubt it will be the last time we hear that word! The bookies are now offering even odds of impeachment. My guess is that Trump’s biggest stumble will come over some business conflict of interest and/or a re-emergence of proof of his caveman behaviour towards woman. The prospect of a President Pence is unlikely to deeply upset (the non-crazy) republicans or the market. The issue is likely “when not if” and the impact will depend upon whether the republicans still control Congress.

Despite the week’s wobble, the S&P500 is still up over 6% this year. May is always a good month to assess market valuation and revisit the on-going debate on whether historical metrics or forward looking metrics are valid in this low interest rate/elevated profit margin world. Examples of recent posts on this topic include this post one highlighted McKinsey’s work on the changing nature of earnings and this post looked at the impact of technology on profit profiles.

The hedge fund guru Paul Tudor Jones recently stated that a chart of the market’s value relative to US GDP, sometimes called the Buffet indicator as below, should be “terrifying” to central bankers and an indicator that investors are unrealistically valuing future growth in the economy.

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Other historical indicators such as the S&P500 trailing 12 month PE or the PE10 (aka Shiller CAPE) suggest the market is 60% to 75% overvalued (this old post outlines some of the on-going arguments around CAPE).

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So, it was fascinating to see a value investor as respected as Jeremy Grantham of GMO recently issue a piece called “This time seems very very different” stating that “the single largest input to higher margins, though, is likely to be the existence of much lower real interest rates since 1997 combined with higher leverage” and that “pre-1997 real rates averaged 200 bps higher than now and leverage was 25% lower”. Graham argues that low interest rates, relative to historical levels, are here for some time to come due to structural reasons including income inequality and aging populations resulting in more aged savers and less younger spenders. Increased monopoly, political, and brand power in modern business models have, according to Graham, reduced the normal competitive pressures and created a new stickiness in profits that has sustained higher margins.

The ever-cautious John Hussman is disgusted that such a person as Jeremy Grantham would dare join the “this time it’s different” crowd. In a rebuttal piece, Hussman discounts interest rates as the reason for elevated profits (he points out that debt of U.S. corporations as a ratio to revenues is more than double its historical median) and firmly puts the reason down to declining labour compensation as a share of output prices, as illustrated by the Hussman graph below.

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Hussman argues that labour costs and profit margins are in the process of being normalised as the labour market tightens. Bloomberg had an interesting article recently on wage growth and whether the Phillips Curve is still valid. Hussman states that “valuations are now so obscenely elevated that even an outcome that fluctuates modestly about some new, higher average [profit margin] would easily take the S&P 500 35-40% lower over the completion of the current market cycle”. Hussman favoured valuation metric of the ratio of nonfinancial market capitalization to corporate gross value-added (including estimated foreign revenues), shown below, predicts a rocky road ahead.

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The bulls point to a growing economy and ongoing earnings growth, as illustrated by the S&P figures below on operating EPS projections, particularly in the technology, industrials, energy, healthcare and consumer sectors.

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Taking operating earnings as a valid valuation metric, the S&P figures show that EPS estimates for 2017 and 2018 (with a small haircut increasing in time to discount the consistent over optimism of analyst forward estimates) support the bull argument that current valuations will be justified by earnings growth over the coming quarters, as shown below.

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The IMF Global Financial Stability report from April contains some interesting stuff on risks facing the corporate sector. They highlight that financial risk taking (defined as purchases of financial assets, M&A and shareholder pay-outs) has averaged $940 billion a year over the past three years for S&P 500 firms representing more than half of free corporate cash flow, with the health care and information technology sectors being the biggest culprits. The IMF point to elevated leverage levels, as seen in the graph below, reflective of a mature credit cycle which could end badly if interest rates rise above the historical low levels of recent times.

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The report highlights that debt levels are uneven with particularly exposed sectors being energy, real estate and utilities, as can be seen below.

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The IMF looked beyond the S&P500 to a broader set of nearly 4,000 US firms to show a similar rise in leverage and capability to service debt, as illustrated below.

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Another graph I found interesting from the IMF report was the one below on the level of historical capital expenditure relative to total assets, as below. A possible explanation is the growth in technology driven business models which don’t require large plant & property investments. The IMF report does point out that tax cuts or offshore tax holidays will, based upon past examples, likely result in more financial risk taking actions rather than increased investment.

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I also found a paper referenced in the report on pensions (“Pension Fund Asset Allocation and Liability Discount Rates” by Aleksandar Andonov, Rob Bauer and Martijn Cremers) interesting as I had suspected that low interest rates have encouraged baby boomers to be over-invested in equities relative to historical fixed income allocations. The paper defines risky assets as investments in public equity, alternative assets, and high-yield bonds. The authors state that “a 10% increase in the percentage of retired members of U.S. public pension funds is associated with a 5.93% increase in their allocation to risky assets” and for all other funds “a 10% increase in the percentage of retired members is associated with a 1.67% lower allocation to risky assets”.  The graph below shows public pension higher allocation to risky assets up to 2012. It would be fascinating to see if this trend has continued to today.

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They further conclude that “this increased risk-taking enables more mature U.S. public funds to use higher discount rates, as a 10% increase in their percentage of retired members is associated with a 75 basis point increase in their discount rate” and that “our regulatory incentives hypothesis argues that the GASB guidelines give U.S. public funds an incentive to increase their allocation to risky assets with higher expected returns in order to justify a higher discount rate and report a lower value of liabilities”. The graph below illustrates the stark difference between the US and Europe.

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So, in conclusion, unless Mr Trump does something really stupid (currently around 50:50 in my opinion) like start a war, current valuations can be justified within a +/- 10% range by bulls assuming the possibility of fiscal stimulus and/or tax cuts is still on the table. However, there are cracks in the system and as interest rates start to increase over the medium term, I suspect vulnerabilities will be exposed in the current bull argument. I am happy to take some profits here and have reduced by equity exposure to around 35% of my portfolio to see how things go over the summer (sell in May and go away if you like). The ability of Trump to deliver tax cuts and/or fiscal stimulus has to be question given his erratic behaviour.

Anecdotally my impression is that aging investors are more exposed to equities than historically or than prudent risk management would dictate, even in this interest rate environment, and this is a contributing factor behind current sunny valuations. Any serious or sudden wobble in equity markets may be magnified by a stampede of such investors trying to protect their savings and the mammoth gains of the 8 year old bull market. For the moment through, to misquote Chuck Price, as long as the music is playing investors are still dancing.

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

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And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

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It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…

Patience on earnings

With the S&P500 up 100 points since last week’s low of 1882, the worry about global growth and earnings has been given a breather in the last few days trading. Last weeks low was about 12% below the May high (today’s close is at -8.6%). Last week, the vampire squid themselves lowered their S&P500 EPS forecast for 2015 and 2016 to $109 and $120 respectively, or approximately 18.2 and 16.6 times today’s close with the snappy by-line that “flats the new up”.

The forward PE, according this FACTSET report, as at last Thursday’s close (1924) was at 15.1, down from 16.8 in early May (as per this post).

click to enlargeForward 12 month PE S&P500 October2015

Year on year revenue growth for the S&P500 is still hard to find with Q3 expected to mark the third quarter in a row of declines, with energy and materials being a particular drag. Interestingly, telecom is a bright spot with at over 5% revenue growth and 10% earnings growth (both excluding AT&T).

Yardeni’s October report also shows the downward estimates of earnings and profit margins, as per below.

click to enlargeS&P500 EPS Profit Margin 2015 estimates

As usual, opinion is split on where the market goes next. SocGen contend that “US profits growth has never been this weak outside of a recession“. David Bianco of Deutsche Bank believes “earnings season is going to be very sobering“. While on the other side Citi strategist Tobias Levkovich opined that there is “a 96 percent probability the markets are up a year from now“.

Q3 earnings and company’s forecasts are critical to determining the future direction of the S&P500, alongside macro trends, the Fed and the politics behind the debt ceiling. Whilst we wait, this volatility presents an opportune time to look over your portfolio and run the ruler over some ideas.