S&P 500: The Bunny Rabbit Market byWade W. Slome, CFA, CFP, Investing Caffeine
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (April 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
With spring now upon us, we can see the impact the Easter Bunny has had on financial markets…a lot of bouncing around. More specifically, stocks spent about 50% of the first quarter in negative territory, and 50% in positive territory. With interest rates gyrating around the 2% level for the benchmark 10-Year Treasury Note for most of 2015, the picture looked much the same. When all was said and done, after the first three months of the year, stocks as measured by the S&P 500 finished +0.4% and bonds closed up a similarly modest amount of +1.2%, as measured by the Total Bond Market ETF (BND).
Why all the volatility? The reasons are numerous, but guesswork of when the Federal Reserve will reverse course on its monetary policy and begin raising interest rates has been (and remains) a dark cloud over investment strategies for many short-term traders and speculators. In order to provide some historical perspective, the last time the Federal Reserve increased interest rates (Federal Funds rate) was almost nine years ago in June 2006. It’s important to remember, as this bull market enters its 7th consecutive year of its advance, there has been no shortage of useless, negative news headlines to keep investors guessing (see also a Series of Unfortunate Events). Over this period, ranging concerns have covered everything from “Flash Crashes” to “Arab Springs,” and “Ukraine” to “Ebola”.
Last month, the headline pessimism persisted. In the Middle East we witnessed a contentious re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Saudi Arabia led airstrikes against Iranian-backed, Shi’ite Muslim rebels (Houthis) in Yemen; controversial Iranian nuclear deal talks; and President Barack Obama directed airstrikes against ISIS fighters in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, while he simultaneously announced the slowing pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in the global financial markets, investors and corporations continue to assess capital allocation decisions in light of generationally low interest rates, and a U.S. dollar that has appreciated in value by approximately +25% over the last year. In this low global growth and ultra-low interest rate environment (-0.12% on long-term Swiss bonds and 1.93% for U.S. bonds), what are corporations choosing to do with their trillions of dollars in cash? A picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of companies in the S&P 500 club, share buybacks and dividends have been worth more than $900,000,000,000.00 over the last 12 months (see chart below).
Source: Financial Times
Case in point, Apple has been the poster child for how companies are opportunistically boosting stock prices and profitability metrics (EPS – Earnings Per Share) by borrowing cheaply and returning cash to shareholders via stock buybacks and dividend payments. More specifically, even though Apple has been flooded with cash (about $178 billion currently in the bank), Apple decided to accept $1.35 billion in additional money from bond investors by issuing bonds in Switzerland. The cost to Apple was almost free – the majority of the money will be paid back at a mere rate of 0.28% until November 2024. What is Apple doing with all this extra cash? You guessed it…buying back $45 billion in stock and paying $11 billion in dividends, annually. No wonder the stock has sprung +62% over the last year. Apple may be a unique company, but corporate America is following their shareholder friendly buyback/dividend practices as evidenced by the chart below. By the way, don’t be surprised to hear about an increased dividend and share buyback plan from Apple this month.
Source: Investors Business Daily
Despite all the turmoil and negative headlines last month, the technology-heavy NASDAQ Composite index managed to temporarily cross the psychologically, all-important 5,000 threshold for the first time since the infamous tech-bubble burst in the year 2000, more than 15 years ago. The Dow Jones Industrial also cracked a numerically round threshold (18,000) last month, before settling down at 17,779 at month’s end.
While the S&P 500 and NASDAQ indexes have posted their impressive 9th consecutive quarter of gains, I don’t place a lot of faith in dubious, calendar-driven historical trends. With that said, as I eat jelly beans and hunt for Easter eggs this weekend, I will take some solace in knowing April has historically been the most positive month of the year as it relates to direction of stock prices (see chart below). Over the last 20 years, stocks have almost averaged a gain of +3% over this 30-day period. Perhaps investors are just in a better mood after paying their taxes?
Even though April has historically been an outperforming month, banker and economist Robert Rubin stated it best, “Nothing is certain – except uncertainty.” We’ve had a bouncing “Bunny Market” so far in 2015, and chances are this pattern will persist. Rather than fret whether the Fed will raise interest rates 0.25% or agonize over a potential Greek exit (“Grexit”) from the EU, you would be better served by constructing an investment and savings plan to meet your long-term financial goals. That’s an eggstra-special idea that even the Easter Bunny would want to place in the basket.
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) including BND and AAPL (stock), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in 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.