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MV Weekly Market Flash: End of the Complacency Trade?

April 13, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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From the beginning of January to the beginning of March, the S&P 500 set a total of 13 new record highs. Twelve of them happened after January 20, which no doubt made for an unhappy crowd of “sell the Inauguration” traders. Since March 1, though, it’s been all crickets. The benchmark index is a bit more than two percent down from that March 1 high, with the erstwhile down and out defensive sectors of consumer staples and utilities outperforming yesterday’s financial, industrial and materials darlings.

More interesting than the raw price numbers, though, is the risk-adjusted trend of late. To us, the remarkable thing about the reflation trade – other than investors’ boundless faith in the pony-out-back siren song of “soft” data – was the total absence of volatility that accompanied it. The reflation trade reflected a complacency that struck us as somewhat out of alignment with what was actually going on in the world. In the past several days, though, the CBOE VIX index – the market’s so-called “fear gauge” – has ticked above 15 for the first time since last November’s election. Half a (pre-holiday) week doth not a trend make – and the VIX is still nowhere near the threshold of 20 that signifies an elevated risk environment – but there may be reason to suspect that the complacency trade has run its course.

Risk-Adjusted Bubble

Equity markets have been expensive for some time, with traditional valuation metrics like price-earnings (P/E) and price-sales (P/S) higher than they have been since the early years of the last decade. But they remain below the nosebleed levels of the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s…unless you add in a risk adjustment factor. Consider the chart below, showing Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio (CAPE) divided by the VIX. The data run from January 1990 (when the VIX was incepted) to the end of March 2017.

When adjusted for risk this way, the market recently has been more expensive than it was at the peak of both earlier bubbles – the dot-com fiesta and then the real estate-fueled frenzy of 2006-07. The late 1990s may have been devil-may-care as far as unrealistic P/E ratios go, but there was an appropriate underpinning of volatility; the average VIX level for 1998 was a whopping 25.6, and for 1999 it was 24.4. Quite a difference from the fear gauge’s tepid 12.6 average between November 2016 and March of this year.

Killing Me Softly

In our era of “alternative facts” it is perhaps unsurprising that the term “soft data” took firm root in the lexicon of financial markets over the past months. The normal go-to data points we analyze from month to month – real GDP growth, inflation, employment, corporate earnings and the like – have not given us any reason to believe some paradigm shift is underway. Meanwhile the soft platitudes of massive infrastructure build-out and historical changes to the tax code have ceded way to the hard realities of crafting legislature in the highly divisive political environment of Washington. Survey-based indicators like consumer or business owner sentiment, which have been behind some of the market’s recent era of good feelings, are not entirely useless, but they don’t always translate into hard numbers like retail sales or business investment.

The good news is that the hard data continue to tell a reasonably upbeat story: moderate growth in output here and abroad, a relatively tight labor market and inflation very close to that Goldilocks zone of two percent. This should continue to put limits on downside risk and make any sudden pullback a healthy buying opportunity. But we believe that further overall upside will be limited by today’s valuation realities, with an attendant likelihood that investors will return their attention to quality stocks and away from effervescent themes. And, yes, with a bit more sobriety and a bit less complacency.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Dog Days of Spring

March 31, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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It is something of an annual tradition: at some point, usually in the middle of a humid and lazy Atlantic Seaboard August, we will write something about the “dog days” of summer in investment markets. You know – light trading volume and mostly listless price direction, occasionally punctuated by an exaggerated surge or plunge based on some rumor or stray macro data point. Well, this year the dog days have arrived early. A couple one percent-plus days – one down and one up, for reasons that are barely remembered – provided some color to an otherwise tepid month long on political headlines and short on directional action. As the second quarter gets underway, we consider what might – or might not – puncture the market’s smug haze of mellow.

The Beta Economy

The present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may fancy himself an alpha human, but the economy in which his administration finds itself is decisively beta. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. A beta economy means real growth somewhere around two percent – nothing like the alpha economy of the 1990s, but perfectly acceptable, with modest price inflation and a mostly healthy labor market. Much of the rest of the world is enjoying a similar beta vibe. GDP is actually a bit higher in the EU than it is at home, Japan is managing to stay out of recession, and China’s factories are humming along nicely with recent PMI readings for services and manufacturing comfortably above the growth threshold number of 50.

Importantly for investors, a beta economy supplies the most compelling reason not to get fooled by a momentary sell-off like the little one last week. With no sign of a recession in sight, at home or anywhere consequential abroad, there simply isn’t much of a case to make to run for the hills. But what about the upside? Can businesses crank out alpha earnings in a beta economy?

Those Elusive Double Digits

Q4 2016 earnings season is over, and the 5.1 percent growth registered by S&P 500 companies falls well within our definition of “beta,” in the context of the last couple decades of quarterly results. Surprisingly, 5.1 percent is also very close to what analysts were predicting last fall: the FactSet consensus of analyst projections on September 30 pegged Q4 earnings growth at 5.2 percent. Reasonable! But that same consensus group also gave their Q1 2017 estimates on that same day, and that number was a very alpha-like 13.9 percent. Do they still feel that way? Not so much – the revised Q1 consensus number as of today, right before the actual figures start to come out, is 9.1 percent.

That’s still not bad, but it’s not the double digits investors would prefer to see to validate those valuations nearing nosebleed territory. The last twelve months (LTM) P/E ratio touched 20 this week, a level last seen in the post-trough recovery following the 2001-02 recession. The price to sales (P/S) ratio, is at levels last seen in the heady final days of the dot-com bubble at the beginning of the 2000s. We have believed for some time that the “valuation ceiling” remains the biggest headwind to substantial upside gains. Of course, this view has taken quite a bit of flak of late from the ever-popular “reflation-infrastructure trade” that has dominated market chatter for the past five months. Which brings us to our final musing about Q2 market direction…whither the animal spirits?

Momentum Is Its Own Momentum, Until It’s Not

What market pundits continue to call the “Trump trade” has been durable, even as prospects for any kind of sweeping, historic tax reform and massive new spending on infrastructure build out – never an obvious outcome to begin with – have looked less and less likely. But, as we have noted elsewhere in recent commentaries, such upside as there has been for the past couple months really has less to do with those reflation-infrastructure themes than it does with plain old momentum and those robust animal spirits.

Consider industry sectors. Sector-wise, the Four Horsemen of the reflation trade that ignited after the election were financials, materials, industrials and energy. These also happen to be the four sectors trailing the market in 2017 year-to-date, while technology, healthcare and consumer discretionary have all outperformed. Tech and discretionary, in particular, seem like pretty reasonable places to be if you’re comfortable with that beta economy and looking for a low-impact way to continue participating in equities. This low-key sector rotation has kept the rally going even as the original theme behind it went stale.

The problem, of course, is what happens when momentum wanes, as it eventually does? The first thing to watch out for is signs of the return of volatility, which as we all know has been strangely absent for the duration of this most recent phase of the bull market. Even that one-day pullback last week failed to elicit much more than a shrug from the supine VIX index. The market’s vaunted “fear gauge” has stayed in a volatility valley well below 15 for the entire year thus far (compare that with an average level above 20 for the first two months of 2016).

We tend to pay less attention to the VIX’s occasional sharp peaks than to the mesas – those extended periods of baseline elevation around 15-17. A new mesa formation on the VIX would, in our opinion, raise the prospects of a sizable near-term pullback in the 5 – 10 percent range. At which time we could, mercifully, shake off the dog days and get into some desirable new positions at more reasonable values.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Japan and the Fifty Percent Curse

March 3, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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The heady cocktail of animal spirits and hope that is the so-called reflation-infrastructure trade has many fans, but perhaps none more so than the monetary policymaking committee of the Bank of Japan. One of the first casualties of last year’s big November rally was the yen, which plummeted in value against the US dollar. That plunge was just fine, thank you very much, in the mindset of Marunouchi mandarins. A weak yen would make Japanese exports more competitive, while the continuation of easy money and asset purchases at home would finally create the conditions necessary for reaching that long-elusive 2 percent inflation target.

Lo and behold, the latest price data show that Japan’s core inflation rate rose 0.1 percent year-on-year in January, the first positive reading in two years. Only 1.9 percent more to go! Expectations of stimulus-led growth, continued weakness in the yen and a return to brisker demand both at home and in key export markets have led Morgan Stanley’s global research team to name Japan as the stock market with the most attractive prospects for 2017.

Patience Has Its Limits

Beleaguered long-term investors in Japan’s stock market would be more than happy to see Morgan Stanley’s prognostications come true – but they have heard this siren song before. The Nikkei 225 stock index reached a record high of just under 40,000 on the last trading day of 1989. As the chart below shows, things have been pretty bleak since those halcyon bubble days when the three square miles of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace were valued by some measures as more expensive than the entire state of California.

If the Morgan spivs are right about Japanese shares, and keep being right, it will represent a decisive break from a struggle of more than two decades for the Nikkei to sustain a level greater than 50 percent of that all-time high value. Prior to 2015, the Nikkei had failed to even touch that 20,000 halfway point at any time since March 2000 (which, as you will recall, was when the US NASDAQ breached 5,000 just before the bursting of the tech bubble). 2015 represented the high water mark of investor expectations for “Abenomics” – the three-pronged economic recovery program of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – to deliver on its promises of sustained growth. Those expectations stalled out as the macro data releases kept pointing to more of the same – tepid or negative growth and the failure of needed structural reforms to take root. Japan’s problems, as anyone who has studied the long-term performance of the one-time Wunderkind of the world economy will tell you, are deep and very hard to dislodge.

No Really, It’s Different This Time

Abe is not the first prime minister to apply stimulus in an effort to shake the economy out of its lethargy. Massive public works programs have been a hallmark of the past quarter century. Over this time, yields on the 10-year benchmark Japanese Government Bond (JGB) have never risen above 2 percent (including during periods when yields on US and European sovereigns were at 6 percent or higher). The 10-year yield’s trajectory is shown (green trend line) on the chart above. No amount of stimulus, it would seem, was enough to convince Japanese households to go out and spend more in anticipation of rising prices and wages.

So what is it about the current environment that could induce Japanese share prices to break the 50 percent curse for once and all? We would imagine the answer to be: not much. While it is true that both the US and Europe look set to continue a modest uptrend in growth and demand (with or without the reflation jolt catalyzing all those animal spirits), Japanese companies are not necessarily positioned to benefit – certainly not in the way they did in the very different economy of the 1970s-80s when “Japan as Number One” was required reading for MBAs and corporate executive suites. While they have arguably become more shareholder-friendly in recent years, as evidenced by higher levels of share buybacks and the like, corporate business practices remain largely traditional and hidebound. Just a decade ago, these companies blew a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride the wave of the great growth opportunity that was China – in their own back yard.

There is no magic formula for growth. In a country with an old and declining population (and extremely strict limits on immigration), a supernova-like burst of productivity is the only plausible route to real, organic improvement. Until then, that barrier of 20,000 in the Nikkei may continue to be a tough nut to crack.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Political Risk and the Cloak of Invisibility

February 17, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Over the past couple weeks we have been snooping around some of the contrarian corners of the world, to see what those folks not completely enamored of the “Trump trade” have been up to (Eurozone, Brexit, what have you). While we were away, all manner of things has gone down in Washington, often in a most colorful (or concerning, take your pick) fashion. But virtually all the chief planks of that Trump trade – the infrastructure, the corporate tax reform – remain stuck in the sketchbooks and doodlings of Paul Ryan and his band of policymakers, waiting to see the light of day. By this point in his first term, Barack Obama had already passed a $1 trillion stimulus bill, among other legislative accomplishments. Is there a point at which the band of inverse-Murphy’s Law acolytes begin to question their faith that if something can go right, it will? To put it another way, does political risk still matter for asset valuation?

“Vol Val” Alive and Well

If there is a political risk factor stalking the market, it appears to have paid a call on J.K. Rowling and come away with a Hogwarts-style cloak of invisibility. For evidence, we turn to our favorite snapshot of trepidation and animal spirits – those undulating valleys of low volatility occasionally punctuated by brief soaring peaks of fear that make up the CBOE VIX “fear gauge,” shown in relation to the price performance of the S&P 500. 

Since the election last November, market volatility as measured by the VIX has subsided to its lowest level since the incredibly somnambulant dog days of summer in 2014. In fact, as the chart shows, the lowest vol readings have actually occurred on and after Inauguration Day (so much for that “sell the Inauguration” meme making the rounds among CNBC chatterboxes a few weeks back). Meanwhile, of course, the S&P 500 has set record high after record high. How many? Sixteen and counting, to date, since November 9, or about one new record for every four days of trading on average.

That by itself is not unheard of though: the index set a new record 25 times (measured over the same time period) following Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. But 1996 was a different age, one with arguably less of the “this is unprecedented” type of political headlines to which we have fast become accustomed in the past two months. To a reader of the daily doings of Washington, it would seem that political risk should be clear and present. One of this week’s stories that caught our attention was the good times being had by London bookmakers setting betting markets for the odds of Trump failing to complete his first term (the odds apparently now sit around 2:1). So what gives with this week’s string of record highs and submerged volatility?

The Ryan Run-up

The “Trump bump”, of course, was never about the personality of the 45th president, or anything else that he brings to the table other than a way to facilitate the longstanding economic policy dreams of the Ayn Randian right, represented more fulsomely by House Speaker Paul Ryan than by Donald Trump. Looking at the rally from this standpoint perhaps explains at least in part the absence of visible political risk. So what, goes this line of thinking, if Trump were either to be impeached or somehow removed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment? Vice President Pence ascends to the Oval Office, the Twitter tornadoes subside and America gets on with the business of tax cuts and deregulation in a more orderly fashion (though not much infrastructure spending, as that was never really a Ryan thing). Move along, nothing to see here.

While we understand the logic behind that thinking, we think it is misguided, not least of all because – London oddsmakers notwithstanding – we think that either impeachment or a 25th Amendment removal from office are far out on the tail of any putative distribution of outcomes. We would ascribe a higher likelihood to a different outcome; namely, that political uncertainty will continue to permeate every sphere of activity from foreign policy to global trade to domestic unrest in a bitterly divided, partisan nation. So far we are muddling through – headlines aside, many American institutions are showing their resilience in the face of challenge. That’s good news. But not good enough, in our view, to keep political risk behind its Invisibility Cloak for much longer. We’re not prophesying any kind of imminent market cataclysm, but we do expect to see our old friend volatility make an appearance one of these days in the not too distant future.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Valuation Ceiling’s Moment of Truth

January 6, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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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.

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