The S&P 500 posted a 7.7% price gain for the six months ended April 30th, although this advance has been a hard-fought battle as gains have resulted from a narrow list of drivers. Style leadership has been concentrated in mega-cap tech names, such that the ten members of the NYSE FANG+® Index have produced 77% of the S&P 500’s YTD gain. Furthermore, gains over recent months have resulted solely from expanding multiples. Narrowness in either thematic leadership or price drivers is concerning because breadth is a useful concept in evaluating the staying power of a market advance. In light of this year’s market action, we are intrigued by the notion of measuring breadth not simply by price moves alone but by examining each of these two important sub-components individually. Does today’s environment, where price gains are driven by valuation increases alone, tell us anything about future market returns?
The S&P 500 posted an encouraging +9.2% YTD, but below the surface that strong return was the result of a limited number of influences. There is narrowness in both thematic and return drivers; the fact that gains have not been broad-based is cause for concern about performance during the remainder of 2023.
If there is one thing sure to make equity investors swoon, it is the prospect of buying into a credible, long-lived secular growth story at a relatively modest valuation. Over the past three decades, Emerging Markets (EM) have proffered just such an opportunity. EM’s economic growth rates have far surpassed those of developed nations, and the valuations attached to EM stocks have often been at a discount to other markets.
However, this combination of secular growth and attractive valuations has not always paid off for investors. The MSCI Index has underperformed the U.S., Europe, and even Japan over the last ten years in local currencies. Furthermore, EPS growth for the EM Index has come in far below its economic growth rate, creating an exasperating drag on Index performance as it tries to keep up with other regions.
Investors view Emerging Markets (EM) as the best source of economic growth across global equity markets, and rightly so. Annualized EM GDP growth of 8.6% since 2001 is more than double that of the U.S. and Europe. However, investors have not captured this extraordinary advance because earnings per share for the MSCI EM Index have lagged far behind EM economic growth rates.
In a couple of weeks, final second quarter EPS for the S&P 500 will confirm the fastest recovery ever from a recession-related earnings decline. That’s old news, and before it has even hit the tape. But we’ve had a sneak peak from the monthly, 12-month trailing EPS numbers published by MSCI for its USA Large Cap Index. Those figures showed that EPS exceeded their pre-COVID peak in May, and the latest reading (through August) is already 22% above the prior high! Simple trendline analysis suggests that EPS for U.S. Large Caps are likely higher today than they would have been in the absence of the COVID pandemic and hyper-stimulative response.
The Major Trend Index has remained in neutral territory during the last several weeks of upside action, suggesting there remain significant fundamental and technical shortcomings beneath it all. But this precarious MTI stance didn’t preclude us from acting on a new bullish reading for Emerging Market equities at the end of April.
EPS growth rates are coming in higher than expected. While sales growth remains muted, the ability of companies to do more with less and maintain high operating margins is impressive. Margins are determined at the discretion of management and are thus sticky and unlikely to drop off significantly unless wage pressures resume and slack capacity around the globe is absorbed.