Over the last five years, the stock market has been an all-you-can-eat buffet of gains for investors. It has been almost two years since the spring of 2012 when the Arab Spring and potential exit of Greece from the EU caused a -10% correction in the S&P 500 (.INX) index (see Series of Unfortunate Events). Indigestion of this 10% variety is typically on the menu and ordered at least once per year. With stocks up about +50% over the last two years, performance has tasted sweet. But even binging on your favorite entrée or dessert will eventually lead to a food coma. At that bloated point, a digestion phase is required before another meal of gains can be consumed.
So far investors haven’t been compelled to expel their meals quite yet, but it’s clear to me the rate of appreciation is not sustainable over the long-term. Could the incredible returns continue in the short-run during 2014? Certainly. As I’ve written before, the masses remain skeptical of the recovery/rally and any definitive acceleration in economic growth could spark the powder-keg of skeptics to come join the party (see Here Comes the Dumb Money). If and when that happens, I will be gladly there to systematically ring the register of profits I’ve consumed, by locking in gains and reallocating to less loved areas (i.e., go on a stock diet).
Q4 Appetizers Here, Main Course Not Yet
The 4th quarter earnings appetizers have been served, evidenced by the 50-odd S&P 500 corporations that have reported their financial results, and thus far some Tums may be needed to relieve some heartburn. Although about half of those companies reporting have beat Wall Street estimates, 37% of the group have missed expectations, according to Thomson Reuters. It’s still early in the earnings season, but as of now, the ratio of companies beating Wall Street forecasts is below historical averages.
We can put a little meat on the earnings bone by highlighting the disappointing profit warnings and lackluster results from bellwether companies like United Parcel Service, Inc. (NYSE:UPS), Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC), General Electric Company (NYSE:GE), CSX Corporation (NYSE:CSX), and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (LON:RDSA) (LON:RDSB), to name a few. Is it time to panic and run for the restroom (or exits)? Probably not. About 90% of the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) companies still need to give their Q4 profitability state of the union. What’s more, another reason to not throw in the white towel yet is the global economic environment looks significantly better in areas like Europe, China, and other emerging markets.
Worth remembering, the stock market is a discounting mechanism. The market pays much more attention to the future versus the past. So, even if the early earnings read doesn’t look so great now, the fact that the S&P 500 is down less than -1% off of its all-time, record highs may be an indication of better things ahead.
Recipe for a Pullback?
If earnings continue to drag on in a disappointing fashion, and political brinkmanship materializes surrounding the debt ceiling, it could easily be enough to spark some profit-taking in stocks. While Sidoxia is finding no shortage of opportunities, it has become apparent some speculative pockets of euphoria have developed. Areas like social media and biotech are ripe for corrections.
While the gains over the last few years have been tantalizing, investors must be reminded to not overindulge. Carefully selecting stocks to chew and digest is a better strategy than recklessly binging on everything in the buffet line. There are plenty of healthy areas of the market to choose from, so it’s important to be discriminating…or your portfolio could end up in a coma.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in UPS, INTC, GE, CSX, RDSA, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.