Posts tagged 2017 Market Outlook
It’s Jobs Friday, always a fun day for financial pundits as they craft ways to put a defining, click-friendly metaphor on the latest signal of health (or lack thereof) in the labor market. This month’s winning metaphor is that staple of kids’ birthday parties, the bouncy house. “US jobs growth bounces back” says the Financial Times. Adam Samson, the FT reporter whose byline is attached to that article, appears to be on the same cosmic wavelength as Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, whose lead headline today reads – wait for it – “U.S. Job Growth Bounces Back”. The style manuals of the FT and NYT – U.S. or US? Jobs plural or singular? Caps or no caps in the headline? – were on full display. Over at the Wall Street Journal they seem to have quietly retired the “Jobs Friday Live Blog” of times past, but the WSJ’s team of economists nonetheless has a massive “Everything You Need to Know” section on the April jobs report. Indeed, to the credit of those featured, that is one exhaustive parsing of the BLS release.
If Productivity Fell and Nobody Heard It, Did It Still Fall?
Not every macroeconomic headline gets the popular-kid treatment of the monthly BLS release, of course. Consider the financial headlines just yesterday, May the Fourth (insert nerdy Star Wars reference here). Yesterday was Productivity Thursday. Ha-ha, of course it wasn’t, because there was basically no coverage of the only economic data point that actually has the capability to deliver sustained growth. What did yesterday’s headlines focus on? Postmortem commentary on the FOMC’s meeting pointing to a June rate hike…the final pre-election debate between Macron and Le Pen over in France…the sausage makers on Capitol Hill hastily throwing together a gambit on the 18 percent of the US economy represented by health care. Important stories, all. Meanwhile, nonfarm labor productivity fell 0.6 percent for the first quarter, well below the consensus expectation of 0.1 percent and yet another lackluster contribution to a chronically underperforming long term trend.
Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before
Everyone talks about growth; the notion that the economy will be stronger in the future than it is today is literally the single animating notion behind the capitalist impulse to defer the benefits of a dollar today for the payoff of that dollar’s growth over a defined period of time. But talking about growth without focusing on productivity is like talking about why you just came down with a nasty cold without considering the fact that you recently went out for a walk in the snow barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt. That is what makes the absence of Productivity Thursday so conspicuous, and why the obsessive focus on monthly payroll gains appears so misplaced.
If anything, the leading number of Jobs Friday should be the labor force participation rate. That nudged down to 62.9 percent from last month’s 63 percent. It remains far below the peak of more than 67 percent reached at the end of the 1990s. Why is this number important? All together now…long term growth is a function of three variables: overall population growth, growth in the number of people working as a percentage of total population, and productivity (how much gets produced for every hour of effort invested).
For most of human history the only variable that mattered was population growth. If that were still true, we would have to content ourselves with annual GDP growth around 0.7 percent, which happens to be the most recent annual rate of population growth. We have little reason to believe that labor force participation is going to improve anytime soon: both demographics and job-replacing technology will see to that. Which leaves productivity, and which is why Productivity Thursday deserves its rightful place at the cool table in the cafeteria of macroeconomic data. Yes, those payroll numbers are useful. But with the unemployment rate at 4.4 percent one might wonder why participation remains stagnant and wage growth is still relatively subdued. Productivity Thursday could help shed some light here.
Another Friday, another “hard” piece of data that comes in shy of expectations. The Bureau of Economic Analysis released the first estimate of Q1 2017 real GDP growth, and the 0.7 percent quarter-on-quarter growth rate was a bit below economists’ consensus estimate of one percent. As a standalone data point this does not tell us very much. There will be two further revisions that could increase (or reduce) this first estimate. Q1 is notoriously subject to seasonal factors; for example, a warmer than average winter resulted in lower utility consumption by households, which in turn had a slowing effect on personal consumption expenditures. The first quarter of 2016 also produced sub-one percent growth, but that perked up to more robust levels as the year played out. As always, one data point doth not a trend make.
That being said, today’s release will do little to shed light on the mysterious “hard versus soft” debate that has been a staple on the menu of financial gabfests this year. The GDP number comes on the heels of two other underwhelming “hard” macro releases of recent Fridays past: headline inflation below the Fed’s two percent target, and March payroll gains falling short of 100,000. By contrast, a number of “soft” numbers reflecting sentiment among consumers and small business owners have being going gangbusters; by some estimates consumer confidence is higher than it has been any time since the tech bubble peak in 2000. The upbeat sentiment has served for many in the commentariat as an easy go-to explanation for the stock market’s bubbly performance in the year to date (our own take on the market is a more mundane assessment of momentum feeding on itself, more or less impervious to outside catalysts).
Hard, Hard Road
The sentimental bullishness may yet converge into the subdued hard numbers, but it’s not a given. Take retail sales, which posted a modest gain in February and then fell in March. Now, with consumer sentiment being so jazzed up, shouldn’t some of that effervescence be showing up in the actual spending numbers? You can’t blame the weather for this one: those balmy February days should have been mall and DIY store magnets. In fact, the poor showing of retail sales throughout the first quarter was as good a sign as any that GDP might come up short. Seventy percent of growth in output is driven by consumer spending. If consumers aren’t walking the walk, then all the happy talk in the world isn’t going to move the growth needle.
And Now for the Ugly
Behind all these month-to-month metrics we use to measure the economy’s health is the grim reality that long-term growth remains challenged by three major headwinds: declining population growth, a smaller percentage of the population at work in the labor force, and anemic levels of total factor productivity. Of those three headwinds, the only one that can plausibly deliver growth as we know it is productivity. It was the unique convergence of productivity advances with baby boom demographics that delivered the amazing, historically unprecedented growth rates of the 1950s and 1960s. The demographics are no longer in our favor, so to have any growth at all we will need to see some material evidence that all the technology innovations of the last 10 to 15 years can deliver a new, sustained dose of productivity gains. Until that happens, we should not expect to see the kind of go-go growth being promised by some who should know better (ahem, Treasury Department tax plan crafters). At some point, sooner rather than later, this reality will likely make itself known in the soft data as much as the hard.
Contrarian investors come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share a variation of this basic way of looking at the world: when the crowd looks one way, it pays to look the other. Today there is an undisputed crowd looking one way -- the Trump reflation-infrastructure trade that shows scant signs of fading, despite a bit of a pause in US equity share gains this week. And there are plenty of good reasons -- we believe -- for looking in other directions, the arguments for which we have set out on these pages in weeks past. But where? This week we consider the merits of one of the least popular asset classes in recent times: European equities.
Europe: The Macro Case
On the face of it, there would seem to be not much to recommend Europe from a top-down analysis of the variables at play. Last year’s Brexit vote hangs over the Continent; while the general consensus remains that Britain’s exit will hurt its own economy more than that of Europe’s, the devil will be in the details of how the parties agree to implement Article 50. Plus, of course, the upcoming elections in France and Germany, and the still-potential wild card of early elections in Italy - will shine a light on the fissures created by anti-establishment sentiment. All this while rattled national leaders and EC technocrats listen for the next approaching Scud missile in the form of a late-night tweet from the other side of the Atlantic.
Valid points, all. On the other hand, the economic health of the region is arguably stronger than it has been since the recession began nearly ten years ago. One of the first macro headlines of note this year was a 1.7 percent reading for consumer price inflation in Germany. Additionally, Eurozone producer prices climbed 1.6 percent year-on-year through the end of December last year. A meaningful part of the jump comes from energy prices; nonetheless, building inflationary pressures would seem to indicate that Europe has moved well and truly back from the deflation trap that seemed all but certain to engulf the region just two years ago. Two cheers, perhaps, for Mario Draghi and his knack for jawboning equity and debt markets.
Moreover, while the upcoming elections could indeed put added stress on the integrity of the common currency region, there is a plausible argument to make against that outcome. Consider the French election, where a victory by far-right populist Marine Le Pen would send shock waves to Brussels. Recently the world learned that the til-now front runner in that race, conservative Francois Fillon, is embroiled in a financial scandal involving fake parliamentary jobs for his wife and children. Apparently nepotism is still a cause for scandal over there - who knew?
The knee-jerk reaction to that news would plausibly be fear that Le Pen, running second in the polls, would vaunt to front-runner status. But wait! The Fillon scandal appears to have worked first and foremost to the benefit of Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate with a moderate center-left platform who has surged to front-runner status. A Macron win would shake up France’s ossified political system, but arguably in a productive way less likely to be a direct threat to Eurozone integrity. Add to that the likelihood of Angela Merkel winning her fourth term later in the year, and suddenly the Great European Crack-up of 2017 looks less probable.
Europe: the Micro Case
What about the bottom-up view? Well, the obvious place to start would be the valuation gap between US shares and their European counterparts. According to Thomson Reuters Datastream, the twelve month forward P/E multiple for the Euro Stoxx 600, a regional benchmark, is less than 15 times. The forward P/E for the S&P 500, on the other hand, is over 17 times. Now, there have been reasons a-plenty to attach higher valuations to US companies in recent years. Nonetheless, when whole asset classes go out of favor there are usually some very good names that get unfairly tarnished with the macro discount brush.
One area where some contrarians may have been seen fishing about recently is for shares of companies with a significant portion of their revenues derived from outside Europe, particularly in North America or China & Southeast Asia. Remember that for every Procter & Gamble there is a Unilever, for every Exxon Mobil a Royal Dutch Shell. And some of the world’s leading industrial materials concerns -- a sector particularly embraced by the Trump trade crowd -- hail from Europe, among them Germany’s Heidelberg Cement and France’s Lafarge. If you really have to play the infrastructure trade, why not play it with more attractively-valued shares?
The Currency Factor
For a dollar-denominated investor, Europe has been a disappointment for many, many years, and one of the main reasons for that has been the secular bull run of the US dollar. The consensus outlook for the dollar remains strong, mostly due to the imagined outcome of a sequence of interest rate hikes in the US while the Eurozone continues to feed its monetary stimulus program. Every percentage gain by the dollar against the euro is a percentage taken away from the price performance of EU shares in local currency terms. For most of the past eight years, that has been a daunting obstacle.
Again, though, if those EU inflation headlines continue into a trend it is likely to, at the least, put upward pressure on intermediate and long benchmark yields in the Eurozone, which in turn would provide some support to the euro. Back in the US, we continue to see the pace of rate increases by the Fed proceeding gradually and below-trend for some time to come (this squares with our view that the tidal wave of net new infrastructure spending is more a creation of hyperactive investor imaginations than actual likely policy in 2017). With the dollar hovering just a few points above euro parity, there is at least a reasonable case to make that the dollar’s bull run may settle back a bit from its recent pace -- indeed, we saw perhaps a preliminary sign of this with the greenback’s weak January trend.
None of this means that European equities are a fat-pitch obvious source of value. But in a world of expensively priced assets, sometimes it pays to get into the heads of the contrarians and see what they are thinking. We will continue to send reports from this corner of the market as we assess alternative opportunities over the coming weeks and months.
Our Annual Market Outlook will be published next week. Please find below the Outlook’s Executive Summary.
• 2016 may earn a place in the record books as one of the strangest years in capital markets history. Very little that was expected at the beginning of the year happened, and much that was not expected came to pass as the year wore on. Risk asset markets lost their footing early with some data tremors from China, but soon channeled their inner Taylor Swift to “shake it off.” Ms. Swift’s imperative became, in fact, the mantra for the rest of the year. Britain decides to leave the European Union? Shake it off! Donald Trump shocks the entire world of political punditry with his out-of-right-field Electoral College Victory? Shake it off, and then party like it’s 1929! Shaky Italian financial institutions were of no concern, geopolitical instability merited little more than a shrug of Mr. Market’s shoulders. On the Friday before the U.S. election, the S&P 500 languished 4.7 percent below the all-time high set back in August. Two weeks later the benchmark index set four consecutive records (and has notched up another five since then). Meanwhile, volatility went and crawled under a rock: the CBOE VIX index, the market’s so-called “fear gauge”, plummeted to multi-year lows in the latter weeks of the year.
• Based on these developments, we see the market today as “priced for perfection.” It’s the opposite of Murphy’s Law – if something can go right, it will. Much of the momentum pushing the market higher in the last two months of 2016 came, in our opinion, from the release of animal spirits – a giddy running with the bulls after the confines of a relatively narrow trading corridor for much of the previous two years. The notional rationale for the bull run was the putative return of fiscal policy as an economic stimulant after the total dominance by monetary policy for the past six years. Corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending were the lead acts in the fiscal playbill – the first expected to add a sizable jolt to corporate earnings per share, the latter to somehow find its way to improving real GDP growth. Unsurprisingly, the main beneficiaries thus far of the so-called “reflation-infrastructure trade” (or, in vulgate prose, the “Trump bump”) have been financial institutions, along with energy, industrial materials and related sectors.
• Our main concern with the “priced for perfection” market is that many of the actual catalysts are anything but certain to happen. We are still one week away from the new administration’s first day, and there remain far more questions than answers in terms of what the new economic agenda will be, how it will be implemented, and what will get lost or watered down along the way. Corporate tax reform, in our view, does make sense if done properly – lower the statutory rate and widen the base by getting rid of the Rube Goldberg contraption of loophole goodies. Unfortunately, companies love those loopholes, via which the average S&P 500 company pays an effective tax rate closer to the mid-teens than to the statutory rate. As for infrastructure spend: most of it would likely come through tax incentives to private developers rather than new public works projects, and it is not obvious that, even if there were a handful of shovel-ready projects that would offer attractive enough returns for private developers to act on, there would be a direct connecting of the dots to GDP growth. In short, we believe the market is currently overbought.
• Overbought, though, does not necessarily imply the onset of a sharp and protracted reversal. Our 2017 base case does not envision a bear market, mostly because we do not see compelling evidence of any kind of looming economic downturn. In fact, if one strips out the noise of the last two months and the ongoing kerfuffle around the incoming administration, very little appears to have changed in regard to the underlying economic picture. GDP growth turned up in the third quarter to a quarter-on-quarter 3.5 percent and is expected to come in somewhere north of two percent when the Q4 number comes out later this month (which would be a strong increase from the 0.9 percent growth rate of 2015’s fourth quarter). Headline inflation is also expected to finally catch up to the Fed’s target of two percent, while jobs data has us very close to full employment. Wages continue to outpace inflation, which could in turn provide further upward momentum to consumer spending, the dominant component of GDP. These are favorable macro fundamentals and, we think, should hold the bears at bay for some time yet. More likely, we think, could be another year of corridor trading, with stocks still facing valuation headwinds on the upside while not offering a convincing rationale for investors to sell off wholesale.
• Corporate earnings will have a substantial role to play in determining how much upside there actually is in a market where conventional valuation measures like price-earnings and price-sales are at decade-plus highs. The price-sales ratio, as we noted in a recent weekly commentary, is a rounding error away from 2.0 times, which in turn is not too far from the all-time high of 2.36 times set at the peak of the late-1990s technology bubble. Corporate sales will likely continue to face the resistance of a strong U.S. dollar – though the greenback’s torrid pace has waned a little in the past couple weeks. At the bottom line of earnings per share, investors will be looking for double digit EPS growth to justify any kind of similar pace of price appreciation. But global demand, though arguably improved from where it was a couple years ago, remains below trend. At the same time, relatively weak business investment levels in recent quarters may limit operating leverage improvements that would shore up profit margins. On a fundamental level, at least, it is hard to make a convincing case for another year of double-digit growth in domestic stocks.
• In Europe, economic conditions steadily, if slowly, improved over the course of 2016. Real GDP growth in Germany for the year was the highest in five years. Deflation appears to have been avoided, and ECB stimulus measures will stay in effect until (at least) the end of this year. But the political situation in Europe is fragile and could be the source of further instability. Start with Italy, where a failed referendum late last year led to the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. While the current caretaker government may last until the current parliamentary term ends in a little over a year, we can expect continued agitation from anti-establishment outsiders – notably the Five Star Movement – to keep earlier elections in play as a potential destabilizing variable this year. France and Germany are already going to the polls, and while the conventional wisdom still holds that (a) Angela Merkel will win her fourth term, and (b) Marine Le Pen will fail to garner enough support to win the second round and ascend to Versailles, conventional political wisdom has had a somewhat poor track record of late. At some point, whether this year or not, the patented EU approach of patching up problems and kicking the can down the road will reach the end of that road.
• China has been somewhat off the radar screen for a while, after all the drama around its currency devaluations in August 2015 and January 2016. Headline growth numbers mostly came in as expected last year, and the latent threat posed by a debt-GDP ratio still over 230 percent goes mostly unnoticed in the daily discourse. But the problems have not disappeared. Arguably the most revealing indicator of all not being entirely well in the world’s second largest economy is the steady pressure of capital outflows, resulting in a decline in foreign exchange reserves from over $4 trillion in 2015 to just over $3 trillion now. The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has worked diligently to support the domestic currency through reserve sales (most of which consist of U.S. Treasury securities), but monthly outflows show little sign of abating. Meanwhile, the global economic fortunes of China along with other key emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere hinge on the unknown outcome of potential protectionist policy coming out of Washington. It may be another volatile year for this asset class, where higher than average risks may not yield acceptably commensurate risk-adjusted returns.
• Along with the crazy spikes in financial and resource stocks late last year, soaring bond yields were the other notable talisman of the “reflation-infrastructure” trade. Both the 2-year Treasury note, a ready proxy for monetary policy expectations, and the intermediate 10-year note are comfortably at their twelve month highs, and the 2-year yield is higher than it has been at any time since 2009. Of course, one of the iconic images for 2016’s quirky scrapbook is the all-time low set by the 10-year yield in July (all-time low meaning “since the American Republic started issuing its own debt in the late 18th century” low). We do not expect to be revisiting that multi-century accomplishment anytime soon, and think it likelier than not that the secular bond bull that began in 1982 is close to its final days. Fixed income portfolios will likely be challenged in 2017. That being said, though, and notwithstanding expectations of multiple Fed moves this year, we do not see bond yields moving towards historical averages any time soon (the average yield on the 10-year bond over the past thirty years, for example, is 5.1 percent). As we noted above, economic conditions still appear not remarkably different from how they looked one year ago. The secular stagnation theme that many observers summarily discarded in the immediate aftermath of the Trump victory has not, in our view, lost its usefulness as a way to explain the lackluster pace of organic economic growth. However challenging, fixed income will continue to be a necessary component of diversified portfolios for risk management and income purposes.
• In summary, while we have profound concerns about how markets will evolve over the coming years – concerns we elaborate in more detail elsewhere in our Annual Outlook – our base case for 2017 attaches a relatively low likelihood to either a robust bull market or the onset of a multi-period bear market. High valuations will continue to rein in upside growth, according to this view, while the macroeconomic climate continues to slowly improve and corporate earnings should at least stay modestly positive, providing support against sustained drawdowns. However, we do regard our base case view as subject to a potentially more volatile dose of X-factors than normal, and the actualization of one or more of these unknown variables could profoundly impact our assumptions and cause us to reevaluate our expectations. We don’t expect a massive trade war to send the world back into nation-state fortresses of closed economies, for example. But merely having to articulate that this is a not-totally-out-there possibility raises the mercury on our X-factor measuring stick. Things that have simply not mattered much to markets in recent years – geopolitics being an excellent example – may force themselves back onto investors’ radar screens with real consequences. Our recommendation is simply this: plan for the likely, but imagine the unimaginable.
It’s a new calendar year, but markets continue to party like it’s late-2016. Remember Murphy’s Law? “If something can go wrong, it will” goes the old nostrum. U.S. equity markets, in the pale early dawn of 2017, exhibit what we could call the inverse of Murphy’s Law. “If something can go right, it will!” goes the happy talk.
Happy Talk Meets Sales & Profits
We’re about to get an indicative taste of how far these rose-tinted glasses will take us through the next twelve months. Earnings season is upon us. Analysts expect that earnings per share for last year’s fourth quarter will have grown by 2.81 percent from a year earlier, according to FactSet, a market research company. Stock prices grew by a bit more than that – 3.2 percent – over the same period, so valuation measures like price to earnings (P/E) and price to sales (P/S) edged up further still. In fact, the price to sales ratio is higher than it has ever been since the end of 2000, and within striking distance of the nosebleed all-time high reached at the peak of that bubble in March 2000. The chart below illustrates this trend.
Price to sales is a useful metric because it shines the spotlight on how much revenue a company generates – from sales of its goods and services – relative to the price of the company’s stock. We inhabit a world where global demand has been persistently below-trend for most of the time since the 2007-08 recession. Weaker demand from world consumer markets, along with the added headwind of a strong dollar, has impeded U.S. companies’ ability to grow their sales from year to year, and that in turn helps explain why stock prices have run so far ahead of revenue growth.
Knock Three Times on the Ceiling
While price to sales is important, investors generally tend to place more emphasis on the bottom line – earnings – than on the revenue metric. Some investors focus on past results, such as last twelve months, or full-cycle measurements like Robert Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio. Others believe that forward-looking measures are more useful and pay closer attention to analysts’ consensus estimates for the next twelve months. By any of these measures the market is expensive. The Shiller CAPE ratio, for example, currently stands at 28.3 times. That’s higher than it has been any but two times in the last 137 years (yes, one hundred and thirty seven, that is not a typo). The CAPE ratio was higher in September 1929, before the Great Crash, and again in March 2000 before that year’s market implosion.
While CAPE is a useful reality check on the market, neither it nor any other metric is necessarily a useful timing tool. There is no reason to believe that the so-called “Trump trade,” based largely on Red Bull-fused animal spirits, will end on a specific date (all the silly chatter of the “sell the inauguration trade” aside). What particularly interests us as earnings season gets underway is whether – and this would be contrary to the trend of the last several years – the earnings expectations voiced by that consensus outlook actually squares with reality. Consider the chart below.
There’s a lot on this chart, so let’s unpack it piece by piece. Let’s start with the horizontal lines depicting two “valuation ceilings” which, over the past two years, have served as resistance levels against upward breakouts. The first such ceiling is defined by the S&P 500’s high water mark reached in May 2015. The index challenged that high several times over the next 14 months but consistently failed to breach it. Then Brexit happened. The post-Brexit relief rally in July 2016 powered the index to a succession of new highs before topping out in August. It then again traded in mostly sideways pattern through early fall up to Election Day. Of course, we know what happened next.
Hope Springs Eternal
Now we come to the second key part of the above chart, and the one to which we are most closely paying attention as we study the forward earnings landscape. The thick green and red dotted lines show, respectively, the last twelve months (LTM) and next twelve months (NTM) earnings per share for the S&P 500. In other words, this chart is simply breaking the P/E ratio into its component parts of price and earnings, using both the LTM and NTM figures.
So how do we interpret these LTM and NTM lines? Take any given day – just for fun, let’s say December 10, 2015. On that day, the NTM earnings per share figure was $125.79. If we could travel back in time to 12/10/15 and talk to those “consensus experts,” they would tell us that they expected S&P 500 EPS to be $125.79 one year hence, on December 10, 2016. But now look at the green line, showing the last twelve months EPS. What were the actual S&P 500 earnings in December ’16, twelve months after that $125.79 prediction? $108.86 is the right answer, quite a bit lower than the consensus brain trust had expected!
Why is this Kabuki theater of mind games between company C-suites, securities analysts and investors important? Look at the NTM EPS trend line, which has gone up steadily for the last year even as real earnings have failed to kick into growth mode. Right now, those gimlet-eyed experts are figuring on double-digit earnings growth for 2017. Double digit earnings growth would offer at least some justification for those decade-plus high valuation levels we described above. Is there a chance that reality will fall short of that rosy outlook? That is the question that should be on the mind of any investor at all concerned about the fundamentals of value and price.
Global demand patterns have yet to show any kind of a significant pick-up from recent years, though the overall economic picture continues to improve at least moderately. And the headwinds from a strong U.S. dollar do not appear to be set to abate any time soon. As we said above – and have said numerous times elsewhere – none of this means that the market is poised for a near-term reversal. Animal spirits can blithely chug along as long as there is more cash sitting on the sidelines ready to jump back in, or a sense that there is still a “Greater Fool” out there, yet, to come in and buy.
But pay attention to valuation, and specifically to whether double-digit earnings truly are just around the corner or yet another case of hope flailing against reality.