Monday, July 28, 2014

This B-U-L-L Market Is Getting L-O-U-D

Throughout the history of the U.S. stock market, there have been many bull and bear markets. Studying these market cycles can teach investors a great deal about how the market behaves and the underlying reasons behind it.  If you can identify the driving forces of a bull or bear market, you can make more intelligent decisions to either protect yourself against a looming bear market or take advantage of a bull market.

In the 20-year history of our firm, we’ve seen several of these market cycles and have studied countless others.  While no bull or bear market looks exactly the same, the past provides us with useful insights about the future.  In the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Today, we are going to see how the current bull market “rhymes” with years prior and what information we can gather from its historical patterns.

Anatomy of a Bull Market

The anatomy of almost all bull markets can be broadly defined by four primary characteristics that make up the acronym B-U-L-L, which you can read more about here.

1. Breadth
2. Unrelenting
3. Leadership Rotation
4. Loud

The “Loud” part of the equation is of particular interest in today’s market.    Bull markets attract a lot of attention from media and Wall Street.  Everywhere you turn, it seems like you hear about the stock market.  The local newspaper, CNBC, Wall Street, and even outings with family and friends can turn into investment discussions.

That’s typical of bull markets.  They grab you and force you to pay attention.  For all of those investors who have been out of the market since 2009, the run-up in stocks over the past five years has shown them just how wrong they have been.

Bull markets attract their fair share of commentators on both sides of the fence.  Some say the bull market will keep going, while others continually predict it’s demise.  The longer the bull market goes, the louder the shouting on both sides become.  Amongst all of the noise, it’s difficult to discern between what is truly relevant information and what is just that - noise.  

A lot of the chatter lately has been speculation about when the current bull market will end.  If you look back on nearly every bull market we have ever had in the United States, you will find that the vast majority of them don’t die of old age, they are killed.  There are two primary killers of bull markets:

(1) Recessions

Pullbacks and corrections can occur at any time, but it is really difficult to have a real bear market unless there is an economic recession that negatively impacts company fundamentals.  Remember, prices will always follow valuation in the long-term.  So if long-term values are increasing, the long-term trajectory of the stock market should also be increasing.

The majority of the data we see coming out of the economy have been very positive.  We thought the Q1 economic data were mostly weather-related, which turned out to be correct.  Employment numbers have improved significantly.  The economy has now added at least 200,000 jobs for the past five consecutive months.

As the economy starts to heat up, we should see increased activity from consumers and better sales growth for U.S. corporations.  Unless there is an unforeseen major geopolitical issue or natural disaster that disturbs the global economy, neither our Macroeconomic Team or the economists we follow foresee any recessions on the horizon.

That leads us to the second major killer of bull markets...    

(2) The Federal Reserve  

In the absence of any major economic shocks, the Fed is the primary suspect in the death of most Bull Markets.  

When interest rates are low, investors look outside the safety of U.S. Treasuries and into more traditionally risky assets such as stocks.  As the stock market increases from the inflow of funds, people begin to experience the “wealth effect” from watch their account values go up.  As consumers feel more wealthy, they increase their spending, which puts upward pressure on capacity.  To meet the rising demand, businesses hire more people and invest in new factories and technology to push up supply. When the Fed raises interest rates, the opposite tends to occur.

Even when the Fed raises rates, however, the stock market has historically been very slow to respond. Looking back to previous bull markets, it has taken several months of interest rate increases before the stock market has had any meaningful reaction.  This is not to say that this time will be the same - but it does contradict the widely held belief that the stock market will be hurt by the Fed raising short-term rates in the coming year or two.  Using history as our guide, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

Furthermore, the small body of evidence we have about Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen suggests that she isn’t going to be quick to raise interest rates. Yellen believes wholeheartedly in the Fed’s dual mandate of both maintaining price level control (inflation) and in promoting employment.  As long as the economy continues to have above average unemployment, it is very likely that Yellen will push the Fed to keep rates low.  And as long as rates stay low, there is nowhere for investors to go but stocks.

When Is The End?

While we would consider ourselves to continue to be optimistic about the future of stocks, we certainly are not raging bulls.  We know that all bull markets must come to an end at some point, we just don’t believe that will happen in the near-term.  

While no one can know for sure when the bull market will end, there are often signs that start show up ahead of time.  One of the things we look for are the “one percent days.”  If stocks start moving up rapidly with a series of these large increases, that is likely a sign that Mr. and Mrs. America are starting to get tired of sitting in cash.  As they pour into the market, the buyers dry up and leave nothing but sellers.  On the flip side, a long string of negative one percent days typically indicates that the market is going through more than just a batch of profit taking.

We get a lot of questions about what we would do if we sense weakness in the market.  When we see potential trouble on the horizon, we don’t just immediately move to cash or try to time the market. We find it in our clients’ long-term interests to “take air out of the ball.”  

If things were to get rowdy, we would strategically reduce more volatile positions (“A” stocks) and look to add more “Royal Blue (RB)” stocks to stabilize our portfolio.  This does two things: (1) it reduces the volatility of our portfolio and (2) provides solid earnings growth and dividends to get our clients through the worst of the storm.  In bad markets, the RB stocks become defensive strongholds.  They are so big and strong that they can absorb huge amounts of shock without damaging the intrinsic value of their businesses.

Current Outlook

At this moment, we don’t see much sign of weakness. Despite the geo-political issues in Russia, the market has continued to move higher.  If shooting planes out of the sky doesn’t spark even a small pullback, that’s a pretty strong indicator that the market can continue to drive north.

Valuations for some companies are getting frothy, but the overall market is about fairly valued and well within its normal statistical range.  With interest rates so low, even higher valuation multiples than we are currently seeing would not be out of the question. While that’s a possibility, we don’t anticipate getting any additional return from valuation multiple expansion.  

In our opinion, stocks are likely to return what they generate in net earnings and dividend growth over the next 6-12 months.  If Q2 earnings are any indication, growth is starting to accelerate along with the economy.  As long as the companies continue to be the stars that they have been, this bull market still has strength to keep charging on.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What About Bonds?, Part II: Inflation and Interest Rates

This is the second installment in a series of blogs aimed at providing answers to our most frequently asked questions regarding bonds, interest rates, and inflation.  The format is Q&A. Nathan Winklepleck, co-editor of the Blog, is moderating the discussion by sharing these inquiries with Joe Zabratanski, Senior Fixed Income Manager, and Greg Donaldson, Chief Investment Officer.  

Nathan: There is a lot of jargon in the fixed income world. I think it would be beneficial to our readers if we began by defining "inflation" and "interest rates" and explaining what each one means in this context.

Joe: Great idea.  I’ve found over the years that the term “interest rate” can mean many different things to many different people, so before we get started, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page. An “interest rate” is simply the rate charged by a lender to a borrower for the use of money or an asset. The term applies to many investments including the interest rate on U.S. savings bonds, bank certificates of deposit, savings accounts, home mortgages, and car loans.  From an investor standpoint, interest rates are the rate of return we are paid in exchange for lending money to a business or government. The interest rate in this context can vary significantly depending on the maturity date (length of time until we get our money back) and the risk of default (the possibility that the borrower will be unable to repay our money). Today’s discussion will focus on  interest rates as they relate to U.S. Treasury bonds.

We can define “inflation” as the rising price level for goods and services. If the groceries in your shopping cart cost $100 in Year #1 and inflation for that year is 2%, those same items will cost $102 the next year. Over time, your original $100 will purchase fewer and fewer groceries. You can think of inflation as the general decline in the real purchasing power of money.

Nathan: In the last installment we discussed the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. You described it as a teeter-totter effect: as interest rates fluctuate up and down, bond prices move in the opposite direction.  What is the relationship between interest rates and the level of inflation?