Tag Archives: trailing 12 month PE

Enervating Market

Wow, what a December this has been in the equity markets! Not a buyer in sight as we (effectively given the Christmas break) end the year at the S&P500 close today of 2,417. This really is a market to stay well away from. I suspect Q1 2019 will again be volatile until we get into earnings season and get a taste of the sector 2019 EPS projections (a minor relief rally from institutional funds allocating capital followed by more programme selling is my guess).

This recent post postulated that with small single digit EPS growth for 2019 and 2020, a slowing but non-recession scenario, a range of 2,500 to 2,300 on the S&P500. Well, we’re bang in that range now!! And the consensus is for more downside with the probability of a recession beginning next year raising by the day. Not even dovish statements today from John Williams of the New York Fed could tempt the buyers out of hibernation. The prospect of the demise of the Fed put has freaked the market out this week. My crude calculations estimate that a slow drop in operating EPS over 2019 of 6%, likely in a mild recession scenario, could result in the S&P500 testing 2,000.

I have been bearish on this market for several years (here, here and here are just recent examples) and although the majority of my assets have been in cash throughout 2018, the graph below from BoA Merrill Lynch, sends a shiver down my spine. As with most people, my equity positions have been hammered. According to BoA ML, the last time there was positive cash and negative equity, credit, and government returns in the same year was 1969. To plagiarize the old investing adage, it would take some monkey to call a bottom on this equity market any time soon.

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The outlook for 2019 is highly uncertain at the current point in time, nobody really knows how it will pan out and I’ll leave the musing over that topic to future posts. As this post in January highlighted, I do think quantitative tightening and the great unwinding of Central Bank easing experimentation is having some nasty unintended consequences.

At this time, I do find it insightful to look at recent movements in a historical context. If you look at the number of months with moves greater than or equal to +/-1% in the S&P500, the comparison between the decades is as below. The number of such moves are surprisingly consistent across the decades.

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If we assume that the 1970s and the 2000’s were extraordinary decades with the oil and financial crises respectively, then there could be more up months than down months due in the remainder of this decade for it to look more like the 1980s or the 1990s. A pretty flimsy analysis admittedly!

Continuing the theme of trying to end the year on a positive note, if we look at the historical months with moves of +/-5%, as below, it could be argued that the recent volatility is healthy as extended periods of reduced volatility prior to the dotcom bubble and the financial crisis didn’t end well!!

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That’s a happier note to end on (albeit rather pangloss).

A very happy and healthy Christmas to all who have spent any time reading my musings this year.

Bye-bye buy the dip

As my previous post illustrated, I got caught up with the notion that the fall in the equity market of late was an opportunity to buy into some names in the expectation that we’d go higher into year end. It’s clear that the classic “buy the dip” strategy that has worked so well in recent years, well, doesn’t work anymore. The graph below, from a report by equity strategist Michael Wilson of Morgan Stanley, has been widely cited to illustrate the failure of the strategy in 2018.

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Wilson commented that “such market behaviour is rare and in the past has coincided with official bear markets (20 percent declines), recessions, or both.” There is much discussion amongst commentators about whether we are entering, or indeed have entered, a bear market. I like the simplicity of the argument by Peter Oppenheimer, another equity strategist this time at Goldman Sachs. Oppenheimer argues that a decline in corporate profits in 2019 implies a recession in the US and as a recession is unlikely in 2019, he expects corporate profits to continue to grow, albeit at a much-reduced pace.

As pointed out by Wilson, we will not know the answer about where corporate profits are going until firms report Q4 and guide for 2019. He did also say that equity analysts are always slow off the mark as they wait for firms to reluctantly report on bad news. The after the fact downgrades on NVDA are testament to that! With some commentators calling the bottom around 2,550 to 2,600 on the S&P500, it looks unlikely that there will be any major upside in the market until there is more clarity on Fed policy and the trade issues with China.

If the market moving up depends upon Fed Chairman Powell indicating a policy change to “one and wait” or for a breakthrough at the G20 on trade, then I think we’ll go down further or, at best, sideways. If there is some modest indicator that the pace of interest rate rises in 2019 will be data dependent from Powell and the G20 meeting results in a short-term cease-fire between the US and China, then markets could find a bottom and stabilize. Whatever about the likelihood of the Fed rescuing the market (unlikely in my opinion), I fear that any meaningful relaxation in US-China tensions is against the play-book of the Orange One in the White House. The rhetoric from side-kick Pence at the weekend with language indicating China was leading other Asian countries into debt bondage does not bode well for next week’s G20 summit.

On China, I really like Ray Dalio’s explanation of the fundamental difference between the Chinese and US system (here is just one example of his latest thoughts), being a top down versus a bottom up approach. As Dalio explained it, the Chinese place an importance on family and paternal direction as opposed to the US adoration of the individual above all else. Unfortunately, I doubt that the current US leadership has the intellect to nuance a workable resolution between these two philosophies.

Following on from the analysis in this post on peak quarterly earnings, the current market narrative is that the EPS estimates for 2019 and 2020 will come down over the coming months. Currently S&P is showing a 11% projected increase for 2019 operating EPS for the S&P500 (13% on a reported EPS basis). The current market jitters indicate the market view those figures as unrealistic. Oppenheimer indicated that Goldman Sachs is currently thinking about a 6% and a 4% growth in EPS for 2019 and 2020 respectively is more realistic. Wilson indicted Morgan Stanley are projecting EPS growth for 2019 in the low single digits.

Given that estimates usually increase over time in the good years and decease in the bad years, I am going to assume a 3% and 1% increase in operating EPS for 2019 and 2020 respectively in this no recession but slowing growth scenario. Given that forward multiples would also decline in such a slowing environment (I have assumed to a modest 14), I estimate year-end targets for the S&P500 for 2019 and 2020 of 2,500 and 2,300 respectively, a decline of 6% and 13% respectively over the S&P500 today! The graph below shows the scenario as described.

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Economies generally don’t have slow gentle soft landings, it’s nearly always turbulent. Just look at the chart above to see how improbable the gentle scenario is compared to history. We need a major boast, such as a comprehensive resolution of the US-China trade issue, to maintain the bull market. Otherwise, I suspect the great EPS growth party is over.

Interestingly, Morgan Stanley also highlighted the headwind of quantitative tightening, as per the graph below, on the current market fall. I last discussed this issue in this post in January.

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No more buy the dip for a while yet I fear…….

 

Peak Earnings?

With the S&P500 down 9% off its high this month after last week, the question everybody is asking is whether this is a buying opportunity or the beginning of a new phase in the market. I have no idea. Nobody really does. I suspect this week will be bumpy but will rally off Fridays’ lows as there is some cheap names who have been hit hard. I have been modestly dipping my toe in on some names but am waiting before making any big moves. I hope to post on a few of the stocks regularly mentioned in this blog in the coming weeks.

The underlying concerns about the global economy and trade, the impact of US rate increases and quantitative tightening, Italy, to name but a few, have been and continue to be real issues to consider. The fact that the market has turned on a penny and is now all worried about the issues it shrugged off a few weeks ago is, well just how markets are!

What I do know is that this bull market has all been about earnings and margin growth, nothing else matters. So, I took the latest operating EPS and sales estimates for 2019 from S&P, extrapolated them into 2020, assuming a modest slowing of the EPS growth. These operating margin figures and assumed sales figures form the basis of Scenario 1. Stressed operating margin and sales formed the basis for Scenarios 2 and 3, with Scenario 2 falling back to the 2013-17 average operating margin of 9.5% and Scenario 3 falling more severely to the 2008-18 average of 8.75%. The graph below shows the operating margin assumptions in a historical context for each scenario.

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Assuming a price for the S&P500 as per Friday’s close of 2,659, the EPS figures with respective trailing and future 12-month PEs are as per the graphs below.

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So, if the current operating estimates for 2019 stand up and continue into 2020 as per Scenario 1, then I would say the current dip is a buying opportunity with a forward 2019 and 2020 PE of 15 and 14 respectively. If, however, you feel that we have reached peak earnings and a modest enough EPS retrenchment over 2019 and 2020 is likely as per Scenario 2, then the current S&P500 level looks vulnerable to further downside as the implied forward PEs of 17.5 and 18.7 for 2019 and 2020 look rich in a downward trending EPS environment. If, as per Scenario 3, the EPS retrenchment is more severe, then we are in for a very bumpy ride with another 15% to 25% downside possible.

To state the obvious, the current market focus is all about the earnings outlook for 2019 and 2020. The mid-terms over the next few weeks will be another factor to consider. It will be interesting to see if the market focus moves away from the economic prospects over the next few years and more towards 2018 bonuses and end of year window dressing as this quarter progresses!

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.