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.
Small Caps lagged the S&P 500 by almost ten percentage points in 2014, but their underperformance streak technically dates back to April 2011. Nonetheless, their cumulative, 45-month underperformance in relation to the S&P 500 (now about –18%) is still modest enough that any mention of the current “Large Cap Leadership Cycle” is bound to draw a few head scratches.
Xenophobia continues to be a handsomely rewarded trait for U.S.-based equity investors, with the MSCI World Ex USA Index down 3.8% YTD through December 3rd—and now (incredibly) unchanged from its May 2011 high. Comparable period gains for the S&P 500 are +12.2% YTD and +50% from spring 2011 highs.