Nearly one-third of S&P 500 corporations have reported earnings and revenue from the third quarter. With 147 companies chiming in, profits are down -0.6% and sales are down -2.7% from a year earlier.
One might have thought that several quarters of contraction in earnings and revenue (a.k.a. an “earnings recession” and a “revenue recession”) might have weakened stocks. After all, if robust sales and hearty profits are the primary drivers behind price appreciation for companies in the Dow and the S&P 500, shouldn’t diminishing sales and dwindling profits lead to price drops for the Dow and S&P 500?
Welcome to the mixed-up world of centralized bank planning.
For example, at a news conference today (10/22/2015), the president of the European Central Bank (ECB) underscored the downside risks to the euro-zone economy. Mario Draghi emphasized everything from the impact of China’s slowdown to the rapid-fire fall in commodity demand. His prescription? More central bank stimulus up-and-above the ECB’s existing bond-buying program and negative interest rate policy. On the news, developed world benchmarks (e.g., Dow, S&P 500, Stoxx Europe 600) surged by more than 1% across the board.
Did it matter that Caterpillar (CAT) discussed its expectation for 2016 revenue to collapse by 5% across all of its segments (i.e., transportation, construction, resources)? Nope. Did investors fret 3M’s (MMM) intention to reduce its global workforce by 1500 positions on dismal earnings? Hardly. Investors have come to expect huge rewards for taking risk when central planners engage in extraordinary levels of borrowing cost manipulation.
Perhaps ironically, weakness in multinational earnings and revenue simply confirms weakness in the global economy. Indeed, the weaker the results, the greater the likelihood that the ECB will step up its stimulus measures and the greater the probability that the U.S. Federal Reserve will leave 0% lending rates intact.
Bad news is good news yet again.
Just how powerful is the combination of quantitative easing (QE), zero percent rate policy and even negative percent rate policy? Omnipotent.
Take a look at the performance of Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) as it relates to the creation of electronic dollar credits for the purpose of buying debt, or QE. Specifically, in mid-December of 2012, the U.S. Federal Reserve upped its QE3 program to $85 billion per month in the acquisition of U.S. treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. The program began winding down in 2014 during the “Great Taper,” though the final day of the last asset purchase actually occurred in mid-December of 2014. The 2-year performance for VTI? Approximately 52%.
Now take a look what happened from the removal of the stimulus “punch bowl” through October 21st of this year. The gains have been so paltry, an all-cash position provided a better risk-adjusted return.
With the recent revelation from the ECB, and the predictable reaction of market participants, is it time to amplify your risk taking? Quite possibly. On the other hand, there are at least two reasons to exercise some restraint. First, extreme stock valuations challenge the notion that you should always follow the central banks (e.g., Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England, etc.). Warren Buffett’s favorite measure of stock valuation, total-market-cap-to-GDP, sits at 117.7%. That is the second highest in history and it is higher than the 2007 peak of 110.7%. Market-cap-to-GDP fell to 62.2% at the 2009 March bottom.
In addition to clear concerns regarding fundamental valuation, the most widely regarded technical indicator still points to a long-term downtrend. The S&P 500 has yet to reclaim its 200-day moving average since falling below the level in mid-August. (Note: That might change by the time this article hits the Internet!)
Prior to the start of the mid-August correction, our tactical asset allocation moved moderate clients from a 65%-70% equity stake (e.g., domestic, foreign, large, small, etc.) to a 50%-55% equity stake (mostly large-cap domestic). Similarly, we shifted the 30%-35% income allocation (e.g., short, long, investment grade, higher yielding, etc.) to something akin to 20%-25% income (mostly investment grade). The aim? Reduce exposure to riskier assets and raise cash equivalents to roughly 25% for a future move back into risk assets.
Granted, valuations represent a significant concern over the longer-term. This bull market in stocks is unlikely to carry on indefinitely regardless of central bank rate manipulation and monetary stimulus. That said, trendlines and other market internals give us the best indication of near-term risk preferences. It follows that a break above 200-day trendline resistance coupled by continued improvement in credit spreads and advance-decline lines would be a reason to put some capital back to work.
Where might I add some risk? At present, our equity holdings include funds like iShares USA Minimum Volatility (USMV), Vanguard Mid-Cap Value (VOE) and Vanguard High Dividend Yield (VYM). Certain sector funds that have already reestablished respective uptrends – SPDR Select Sector Technology (XLK), SPDR Select Sector Consumer Staples (XLP) and Vanguard REIT (VNQ) – are funds on my radar screen.
By the same token, investors may wish to hedge against a longer-term bearish turn of events. The ECB’s comments this morning did not just create demand for “risk-on” assets; that is, “risk-off” assets are holding their own. German bunds catapulted higher on Draghi’s comments. The U.S. dollar via PowerShares DB Dollar Bullish (UUP) skyrocketed. And risk-off treasuries at the long-end of the curve also gained ground.
In fact, a second-half-of-the-year comparison between the FTSE Multi-Asset Stock Hedge Index (a.k.a. “MASH”) and the S&P 500 shows the value of multi-asset stock hedging. Components of “MASH” include zero-coupons, TIPS, munis, long-dated treasury bonds, gold, German bunds, Japanese government bonds, the yen, the dollar and the Swiss franc.
Disclosure Statement: ETF Expert is a web log (“blog”) that makes the world of ETFs easier to understand. Gary Gordon, MS, CFP is the president of Pacific Park Financial, Inc., a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC. Gary Gordon, Pacific Park Financial, Inc., and/or its clients may hold positions in the ETFs, mutual funds, and/or any investment asset mentioned above. The commentary does not constitute individualized investment advice. The opinions offered herein are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell or hold securities. At times, issuers of exchange-traded products compensate Pacific Park Financial, Inc. or its subsidiaries for advertising at the ETF Expert website. ETF Expert content is created independently of any advertising relationship.