We don’t know enough about banking-system mechanics to conclude if the Fed’s balance-sheet increase associated with March’s bank bailout constitutes a new round of QE. But if it is, we’re skeptical equity investors should celebrate it. In fact, those running Small-Cap portfolios should probably fear it!
Stocks could trade higher in the next few months as CPI numbers enjoy easy year-to-year comparisons, prompting a more soothing tone in daily Fed-speak. Then again, the lagged impact of the last year’s rate hikes and balance-sheet shrinkage has yet to materialize, meaning we’re likely in the eye of the storm.
Some have speculated that 2022 might have been the kick-off for a decade-long era in which the broad stock market indexes will make essentially no progress, like 1966-1982. However, that earlier experience provided opportunities within other market segments, which will also stand a much better chance in coming years.
Last spring and summer, we were incorrectly skeptical that a new bull had been born only five weeks after the death of oldest bull ever. But be careful with labels. Just as the “bear market” mindset caused us to overplay our hand last spring, equity bulls should not assume the current bull will look anything like the decade-long affairs we’ve seen twice in the last 30 years.
Turn on financial television at any random time, and you’re likely to soon hear the argument that still-high U.S. stock market valuations are “justified” by extremely-low interest rates. We’ve countered that these low U.S. rates are simply a reflection of the secular slowdown in economic and earnings growth.
Stocks (and more specifically, U.S. blue chips) did not fully (nor even approximately) discount the economic calamity. The result is that, in just over two months, the “baby bull”—if that’s what it is—has achieved what took his legendary predecessor more than eight years to accomplish: Top 25x on our Normalized P/E.
How does one value a stock market in which 12-month forward EPS estimates show their widest dispersion in history? A good start might be with methods we use when forward estimates show practically no dispersion (like three months ago). In either case, we place little weight on such estimates; each revision usually has only marginal impact on our 5-Year Normalized EPS.
With all the excitement over the Fed’s shift in rhetoric and the excellent subsequent market action, there’s a danger of losing sight of the broader cyclical backdrop for U.S. stocks. Remember, the economy is still operating beyond government estimates of its full-employment potential, and it’s not as if the Fed has actually eased policy—as it did successfully at a similar late-cycle juncture in the fall of 1998 and (ultimately unsuccessfully) in the summer of 2007.
Donald Trump is thought to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and the economic circumstances prevailing at his inauguration two years ago might have further perpetuated that view. The U.S. economy had already been in recovery mode for 7 1/2 years, and the bull market in U.S. stocks was about to celebrate its eighth birthday.
One never appreciates what he or she has until it’s gone. In our case, during the many years it was freely available, we failed to appreciate the zero interest rate. Now that it’s gone, we already feel pressured to join a game where we (and very few others) have any edge: Fed-watching. Our real edge is that we recognize this.
We think stock market action in the next few months will provide the Fed with an excuse to skip any rate increase in 2015. But our view is a minority one, and futures’ market odds on a September increase shot up in early August. Either way, the obsession over the timing of a Fed rate hike ignores the fact that world P/E ratios are already contracting—at least on the basis of our 5-Year Normalized EPS.