Are We Complacent or Petrified? by A. Michael Lipper, CFA

On my recent one-day visit to San Francisco, I chatted briefly with a flight attendant who wanted to know whether any of the papers I was discarding would make her rich if she read them. I suggested that she should enter the pilots’ cabin and learn to become a flight captain. She demurred, as her friends who were pilots were mostly bored when flying these airliners. (Of course, boredom can turn to panic when something goes wrong.) Her comment echoed in me when I read that Dave Tepper, the very successful New Jersey–based hedge fund manager, was quoted as saying the market had an air of complacency. Examining my own and others’ current thinking, I believe our low level of activity could indicate that we have become petrified.

Why Are We Petrified?

Sir Isaac Newton introduced the concept that God was the watchmaker in the sky who kept all the physical forces in balance, so it would appear that many countervailing forces were in balance. During this period of extremely low stock market volume, we should instinctively be taking advantage of apparently reasonably priced securities. But our somewhat undefined fears or constraints are playing off one another, so we are doing nothing.

What Is the Import of These Messages for Bonds?

Both German and more remarkably French 10-year bonds are yielding below similar US Treasury bonds. The lower yields are caused by investors pushing prices up and therefore yields down as German and French bonds appear safer than those of the United States. At the same time, the spreads on the five-year TIPS have widened, which is somewhat counterintuitive. If the dollar appreciates due to higher rates, in theory, both inflation and recession risks should decline, according to Moody’s. The desired loosening of underwriting standards for mortgages as dictated by the government brings fears that we are once again starting another residential housing bubble.

In Terms of Stocks: More Confusion

One way to look at the stock market is to use a military approach. The large caps — or, if you will, the generals — are leading the grinding march upward, whereas the smaller caps are in retreat. In April, of the 10 S&P 500 stock sectors earning estimate revisions, telecom (+15.8%) was the only double-digit gainer and discretionary (–10.2%) and financials (–11.0%) were double-digit losers. Five sectors were up and five were down, which showed that within a relatively flat market, there was a lot of selectivity.

This selectivity becomes even more pronounced when one looks at movement within market capitalizations. In terms of price movements by sectors, eight of the large caps were up, led by energy (+5.11%) and utilities (+4.2%). In contrast, for the S&P Small Cap 600, eight of the sectors declined, but the same two were the leading sectors, with much smaller gains of +1.84% and +1.08%. Thus, hiding out in large caps has worked as it has in the past in a nervous, late stage bull market.

Better Valuation Methods

I am pleased that S&P 500 Index is providing both reported estimated earnings price ratio and their estimate of changes in operating earnings. First, I have never been comfortable with the academically derived CAPE (Cyclically Adjusted Price-to-Earnings ratio) approach to valuation — that is, accepting reported earnings as a basis for valuation.

Second, the current market only looks reasonably cheap if one buys into the forward estimates. For example, the P/E for the S&P 500 using 2013 earnings was 17.74× and 26.01× for the S&P 600 (small cap); both declined using what looks to me a very generous estimate for 2014 P/E ratios of 15.1× and 17.99×, respectively. The reason for my skepticism is based on S&P’s estimated gains in operating earnings, +17.51% for the 500 and +44.56% for the 600. In the latter case, this is almost three times the operating estimate gain for 2013 of +15.96%.

The Problem with Overly Generous Estimates

In my mind, the overly generous estimate of operating earnings gains for small caps in 2014 is to some extent petrifying me in my investment management responsibilities. I believe in utilizing time spans to segment portfolios. The longest time span is for a family fortune or an endowment for future users of an institution. Recognizing that a portion of the future belongs to those that successfully disrupt the markets of today, most often this kind of courage — or perhaps desperation — is found in smaller companies. Thus, smaller companies, particularly those found in small funds, are a regular diet for most of our accounts. While I am looking for quintuples or “10 baggers” in this kind of merchandise, I can materially cut our returns by paying too high an initial price. Perhaps the very recent 10% correction in NASDAQ prices helps a little, but it’s not enough. I need a substantial discount in many of these biotech and new technology stocks, which, to use Warren Buffett’s term, are beyond my circle of competence; as such, I use appropriate mutual funds and related vehicles.

Count Our Blessings

The fashion of the times is moving away from the old numerical fads, such as modern portfolio theory, which was modern in the world of physics over 100 years ago, had nothing to do with the construction of winning portfolios, and was a very much an unproven theory. During this current phase in the stock market, as correlations within and among stock groups break down, we will need a new set of blankets to cover the different speeds the various proverbial horses are running. I would suggest two general approaches; the first has to do with operating results and second the nature of the ownership of the shares.

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This was previously published on Inside Investing at the CFA Institute.

Copyright © 2008 – 2014 A. Michael Lipper, C.F.A.
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A. Michael Lipper is a CFA charterholder and the president of Lipper Advisory Services, Inc., a firm providing money management services for wealthy families, retirement plans and charitable organizations. A former president of the New York Society of Security Analysts, Mike Lipper created the Lipper Growth Fund Index, the first of today’s global array of Lipper Indexes, Averages and performance analyses for mutual funds. After selling his company to Reuters in 1998, Mike has focused his energies on managing the investments of his clients and his family. His first book, MONEY WISE: How to Create, Grow and Preserve Your Wealth was published by St. Martin’s Press. Mike’s unique perspectives on world markets and their implications have been posted weekly at Mike Lipper’s Blog since August, 2008.

Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.