What is Wrong with the US Stock Market?
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It is the transition that is troublesome.” Isaac Asimov
A client and friend asked why the current US stock market was having a hard time finding a path and if I saw this lack of a path as a threat to the global financial stability.
I started my reply with “In short…”, only to realize I had promised in my last newsletter, to share reasons to be bearish in my next newsletter and Eureka! Without further adieu: “6 reasons why US stock markets are having difficulty forming an uptrend.”
Reason 1: Transition from the Industrial Revolution to Information Age
We are at a juncture where multiple trends are ending and are in transition to the next. The biggest one of these is the end of the Industrial Revolution, which started in the late 1800s in England and probably lasted until the end of the 20th century. I use caution here as trends and cycles are difficult if not impossible to define while in them. Most of the political and economic concepts we live in or with, were either born or have grown strength as a result of this mega step in human history. The world’s governmental and economic systems are built to support this industrial life style based on production, transportation and consumption of goods, while supported by the banking system whose function is to turn profits into investments for businesses and lending for consumers.
And then, there came the technological revolution and globalization. In this new world, information and ideas may have become more important than having access to capital, as money is easily and readily available to invest in marketable ideas. Labor markets are global and therefore more competitive. National borders are less meaningful, as resources move faster than ever. Education systems, at least here in the US, fail to prepare the youth for the skills needed in this new economy. Automation is taking over human participation in production. Productivity growth no longer equals income growth. Since 1970’s incomes haven’t been able to keep up with productivity growth and the gap has been widening (except in the last few years because of falling productivity). With the use of computerized trading systems and financial engineering, risks and returns have grown exponentially. The level of welfare and the income distribution policies are a discussion for a heated debate, as haves can reach resources globally, while have nots end up competing against poorer parts of the world who are willing to work for much less.
As a result of this mega shift, there are 5.5 million job openings in the U.S. that can’t be filled, which was 3.5 million only two years ago. The capital markets and investors are trying to adapt to this new wave of technologies, business models and get a better sense of the present and projected valuations, while seeking balance in risk/return relationships. This tug of war between the past and the future is forcing the global economic machine and its capital markets to give errors in the forms of global financial crisis, massive computerized trading errors, discrepancies in valuations and increased volatility. Are these new challenges? No. But their magnitude brings us to an uncharted territory and at times, the capital markets act like a deer in the headlights. This long period with a sideway trend we have been in since November, could be one example.
Reason 2: Global Economic Slowdown
Are we in a global economic recession? No. According to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there have been 13 global downturns since 1960, last one being in 2011, with average length of 22 months. It looks like every 4-7 years, we go through a global recession and it wouldn’t be outside of historical averages if we experience a slowdown in the next 3 years. According to IMF calculations, global economic growth rate was 3.4% in 2014, estimated to be 3.5% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2016. So there is no global downturn currently or in the projected near future. However, it is not robust growth by any means and so it’s vulnerable to shocks. The strongest headwind for growth is the debt hangover. Governments and consumers are trying to pay down their debt as opposed to investing and spending, a minus effect on growth.
In most cases, when the US joins the international community and contributes to negative growth, markets react with a sharp decline. However, when the US is in growth mode while the rest of the world slows down, US stock markets typically go sideways. Given the problems in the EU zone and Japan, the slowdown in the Emerging Markets and US growth rate at around 2.5%, the sideway trend can at least partially be explained by the state of the global economy as a whole.
Reason 3: The Federal Reserve (FED)
We are in a central bank driven, multiple expansion based bull market. (Multiple expansion is paying a higher price for given earnings). Once the FED starts the tightening phase, we will be in a different zone and the US stock market’s reaction will depend on the speed of the rate increase.
Usually market tightening cycles start during an uptrend. Going back to all tightening cycles since 1946, the S&P continues the uptrend for another 4 months after the tightening begins (average of 5 cases). In the case of a fast tightening cycle though (7 cases) a sharp decline immediately starts with the tightening, lasts for 3 months to fully recover in 6
months (Source: NDR). So the speed of the hike is more relevant than the hike itself. Will the FED push rates up at a fast or slower pace? Most likely at a slower pace because the economy is growing at an annual rate of 2.3%, and the inflation rate that FED considers is at 1.8%. Slow growth, no inflation and lackluster income growth doesn’t give FED enough room to push the paddle to the metal. Even so, the markets are trying to adjust to the fact that probably the tightening cycle is only a few months away and as Isaac Asimov noted: “Transition is troublesome.”
Reason 4: Strong Dollar
It is usually a good sign when a currency strengthens. It shows that a country’s stability, the value given to its promises and its credibility are rising. It is however a headwind in the short term for the exporters as it makes the exported goods more expensive. About half of all revenues generated by the S&P 500 companies come from overseas. A strong dollar shrinks those revenues and makes it harder to increase market share. It is however also making imports cheaper, lowers input prices and so mutes the inflation. Since the US doesn’t have an inflation problem, the dollar strength isn’t helping. In time, a better and more efficient allocation of resources can and will usually fix this problem (which is good to have), but it does hurt growth while adjusting to it.
Reason 5: Low Energy Prices
Similar to a strengthening dollar, lower energy prices can be a good thing only if those savings were allocated efficiently elsewhere. The reason why it is a negative for now is that the energy companies are the largest contributors to capital expenditures (capex). Low oil prices mean low revenues for energy companies and low revenues mean low capex. Since one’s expense is another’s income, lower spending subtracts from growth. Also, their profit decline lowers their stock prices, adding more pressure to the market indexes.
Reason 6: Stretched Valuations
Valuation is how much one pays to a security for expected returns (capital gains and income) at the risk level of that return to materialize.
Currently, the stock valuations are a bit stretched. Not so much that major indexes are in a bubble territory, but they certainly are not fairly or underpriced. One area that is in bubble territory is the dividend paying stocks. Those seeking yield have been discouraged by the bond market and have found refuge in dividend payers, which made that space a bit crowded.
The market is more vulnerable to shocks with stretched valuations. There is still upside potential…but the volatility in prices is harder to handle for many investors.
The bottom line is that the bull market doesn’t end because it gets tired or it expires. It usually ends because of a recession, bubble type extreme valuations or extreme investor optimism. Currently, we are experiencing none of the above.
I have shared with you the reasons to be bullish and bearish in two market updates. Hope you have enjoyed – see you next time.
The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.
The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.