Inside The Stock Market ...trends, cross-currents, and outlook
“Bull markets climb a wall of worry,” the old saying goes. We’ve heard that piece of wisdom (or imagined we heard it) every week since early summer. But we doubt it was meant to apply to today, when the paralyzing fear is not of potential loss, but of foregone upside (i.e., fear of missing out, or FOMO).
The first up-leg of the bull market has catapulted many Large Cap valuations to levels seen only in 1999, 2000, 2019, and pre-pandemic 2020. At the six-month point on September 23rd, the S&P 500 P/E on 5-Yr. Normalized EPS had already reached 26.9x—a reading that is 30% higher than at the same point of any other bull market.
Mid and Small Cap stocks underperformed in 2018 and 2019. However, after the collapse of February and March, these “SMID” Caps have largely kept pace with the torrid rebound in the blue chips. Today’s valuations are priming the SMIDs for a similar “decoupling” in the years ahead, like that following Y2K.
U.S. corporations piled on almost $1 trillion in debt over the first six months of the year (a 10% increase). Corporate debt has now surged to 56% of GDP. We’ve argued that the level of corporate debt isn’t the problem, in and of itself. Rather, it’s what this debt has failed to generate that is the real problem.
In the 24 months leading up to its early-September peak, the S&P 500 Technology sector gained 68%. By comparison, the two-year S&P 500 Technology gain going into its March-2000 peak was 203%. The S&P SmallCap 600 Technology Index doubled in the 23 months leading into the early-2000 top versus the two-year gain of just 6% at its 2020-summer peak.
Like many years, 2020 is one in which an investor who was armed with a perfect economic forecast would have been befuddled by stock market action. Who would have imagined that passive equity investors (including many posing as Wall Street strategists) would be so well-rewarded for ignoring the economic downturn?
The most likely catalysts for improved relative performance of foreign stocks would be: (1) a bear market; (2) a recession; and, (3) a major downturn in the U.S. dollar. This year has supplied all three, yet the relative strength ratios of most foreign equity composites continue to grind lower as if it’s “business as usual.”
In 2019 and 2020, our regard for time-tested valuation tools resulted in tactical portfolios being underexposed to stocks during a pair of tremendous rallies. Now, the critique is that we don’t appreciate the brilliance of today’s policymakers and their miraculous ability to pivot just when the stocks (and, in the latest case, the economy) need it most.
Several measures of U.S. economic “surprises” have soared to all-time highs in the last couple of months, showing that even economic forecasters have finally learned to play the corporate game of “under-promise then over-deliver.” Mind you, that’s only 30 years after most industrial firms eliminated the role of “staff economist.”
One characteristic of recent stock market action is extreme correlation. Chart 1 shows that during the sharp market decline following the COVID-19 arrival in the U.S. and the V-shaped upturn thereafter, the average correlation of S&P 500 constituents moved to near its highest level measured back to 1986.