Given the volume of recent memorable events, it appears September will become a month to remember. Not only did we witness horrific natural disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico but Americans have also had to digest the saber rattling by the North Korean “Rocket Man“ leader, Kim Jong Un*. If that wasn’t enough, there were a slew of headlines detailing the Washington gridlock and dysfunction over healthcare legislation / tax reform; hackings at Equifax affecting up to 143 million credit accounts; the planned unwinding of the Federal Reserves $4.2 trillion bond portfolio; and a controversy over NFL football players kneeling during the national anthem.
Despite all these notable events, the Dow Jones Industrial Average just posted its 8th consecutive quarter of advances. For the three months ending in September, the Dow impressively climbed more than 1,000 points (+4.7%) to a new record high of 22,381. For the year, the Dow remarkably has risen approximately +13%, excluding dividends, which translates into a total 2017 return of more than +15%, thus far.
However, not everybody has participated in the financial party. Negative political headlines have by and large paralyzed the hearts and minds of the general public, but as I have been writing for some time, stocks do not care much about governmental affairs – stock prices care about fundamentals. There have been two critical, fundamental components fueling the repetitive new highs experienced in the stock market: 1) The extraordinarily persistent surge in corporate profits (see chart below); and 2) The stubbornly declining interest rates, which are near generationally-low levels. When investors are offered next-to-nothing interest rates in their bank accounts, and coupon payments on Treasury bonds remain paltry (10-Year Treasury closed month at a yield of 2.33%), suddenly stock opportunities can look much more attractive in a scarce investment environment.
And geographically speaking, the rise in corporate profits has not been limited to the U.S. There has also been a synchronized escalation in corporate earnings globally. Whether we are talking about Europe, China, or emerging markets, in general, the economic recovery in these regions is now occurring coincidentally with the U.S. Case in point is the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), which serves as a broad indicator of the economic health of the manufacturing sector. The chart below highlights the clear recovery that has been ongoing in the global manufacturing sector over the last year and a half.
In addition to these numerous positive factors, a cheaper (weaker) U.S. dollar has also contributed to our nation’s economic tailwind. More specifically, a lower valued dollar makes American goods sold abroad cheaper for foreign buyers. This currency exchange rate dynamic is important because 43% of Fortune 500 sales (S&P 500) are derived from American products and services sold in foreign countries.
Tax Reform to be Born?
You probably don’t need me to tell you that gridlock in Washington D.C. is alive and well, but new details surrounding potential tax reform legislation that surfaced last week has lifted short-term investor optimism. As you can see from the chart below, the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate among 35 developed countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), thereby making U.S. business less competitive globally. In hopes of reversing this trend, a basic framework was introduced by the President that proposed a top corporate rate of 20%, top small business rate of 25%, and streamlined personal tax brackets of 12%, 25%, and 35% (down from 7 brackets). Other key elements of the tax plan include, a doubling of the standard deduction for middle-class Americans; the elimination of the estate tax for the wealthy; the repeal of the alternative minimum tax; and immediate tax write-offs for business capital investments.
Many other important details have yet to be released and further specifics remain to be negotiated on Capitol Hill. For example, the removal of deductions for state and local taxes was announced, however additional information explaining how the estimated $2.2 trillion in tax cuts will be funded has yet to surface.
Regardless of the tax reform outcome, the economy continues to chug along at a healthy clip. Most recently, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the central statistic in measuring the health of the U.S. economy, was revised higher to a respectable +3.1% rate in the second quarter. The latest natural disasters may clip third quarter growth temporarily, however, the consensus remains the economic expansion stands on firm ground, despite the financial drag of the hurricanes.
While geopolitical, meteorological, and athletic anthem headlines have made this a “September to Remember,” fundamental strength and other factors have contributed to this enduring and unforgettable bull market. There will be many more noteworthy headlines to occur in coming months and years, but placing these events in the proper context and investing wisely will lead to a much more positive, memorable existence.