This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (January 2, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Investors in the U.S. stock market partied their way to a sixth consecutive year of gains during 2014 (S&P 500 +11.4%; Dow Jones Industrial Average +7.5%; and NASDAQ +13.4%). From early 2009, at the worst levels of the crisis, the S&P 500 has more than tripled – not too shabby. But similar to recent years, this year’s stock bubbly did not flow uninterrupted. Several times during the party, neighbors and other non-participants at the stock party complained about numerous concerns, including the Fed Tapering of bond purchases; the spread of the deadly Ebola virus; tensions in Ukraine; the rise of ISIS; continued economic weakness across the eurozone; the decline of “The Fragile Five” emerging markets (Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa), and other headline grabbing stories to name just a few. In fact, the S&P 500 briefly fell -10% from its mid-September level to mid-October before a Santa Claus rally pushed the index higher by +4% in the last quarter of the year.
Even though the U.S. was partying hardy in 2014, it was not all hats and horns across all segments of the market. Given all the geopolitical trepidation and sluggish economic growth abroad, international markets as measured by the Total World Stock ETF (VT) gained a paltry +1.2% for the year. This dramatic underperformance was also seen in small capitalization stocks (Russell 2000 Index ETF – IWM), which only rose +3.7% last year, and the Total Bond Market (BND), which increased +2.9%.
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Despite these anxieties and the new Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen removing the Quantitative Easing (QE) punchbowl in 2014, there were still plenty of festive factors that contributed to gains last year, which should prevent any hangover for stocks going into 2015. As I wrote in Don’t Be a Fool, corporate profits are the lifeblood for stock prices. Fortunately for investors, the news on this front remains positive (see chart below). As strategist Dr. Ed Yardeni pointed out a few weeks ago, profit growth is still expected to accelerate to +9.3% in 2015, despite the recent drag from plummeting oil prices on the energy sector.
Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog
While a -50% decline in oil prices may depress profits for some energy companies, the extra discretionary spending earned by consumers from $2.24 per gallongasoline at the pump has been a cheery surprise. This consumer spending tailwind, coupled with the flow-through effect to businesses, should provide added stimulative benefit to the economy in 2015 too. Let’s not forget, this economic energy boost comes on the heels of the best economic growth experienced in the U.S. in over a decade. More specifically, the recently reported third quarter U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) statistics showed growth accelerating to +5%, the highest rate seen since 2003.
Another point to remember about lower energy prices is how this phenomenon positively circulates into lower inflation and lower interest rate expectations. If energy prices remain low, this only provides additional flexibility to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions. With the absence of any substantive inflation data, Chairwoman Yellen can remain “patient” in hitting the interest rate brakes (i.e., raising the Federal Funds rate) in 2015.
Geographically, our financial markets continue to highlight our country’s standing as one of the best houses in a sluggish global growth neighborhood. Not only do we see this trend in our outperforming stock indexes, relative to other countries, but we also see this in the rising value of the U.S. dollar. It is true that American exports become less competitive internationally in a strong dollar environment, but from an investment standpoint, a rising dollar makes U.S. stock markets that much more attractive to foreign investors. To place this dynamic into better perspective, I would note the U.S. Dollar index rose by approximately +13% in 2014 against a broad basket of currencies (including the basket case Russian Rouble). With the increasing likelihood of eurozone Quantitative Easing to take place, in conjunction with loose monetary policies in large developed markets like Japan, there is a good chance the dollar will continue its appreciation in the upcoming year.
On the political front, despite the Republicans winning a clean sweep in the midterm elections, we should still continue to expect Washington gridlock, considering a Democrat president still holds the all-important veto power. But as I have written in the past (see Who Said Gridlock is Bad?), gridlock has resulted in our country sitting on a sounder financial footing (i.e., we have significantly lower deficits now), which in turn has contributed to the U.S. dollar’s strength. At the margin however, one can expect any legislation that does happen to get passed by the Republican majority led Congress will likely be advantageous for businesses and the stock market.
When Will the Party End?
What could cause the party to come to a screeching halt? While I can certainly point out some obvious potential negative scenarios (e.g., European financial mayhem, China economic speed bump, interest rate spike), history shows us it is usually unforeseen events (surprises) that cause significant downdrafts in stock market prices. The declines rarely come from factors you read in current newspaper headlines or hear on television.
Just like any party, this year is likely to include high points and low points in the financial markets – and of course some lull periods mixed in as well. However, with the economy improving and risk appetites increasing, we are bound to see more party poopers on the sidelines come join the celebration in 2015. It will be a while before the cops arrive and stop the party, so there should be plenty of time to prepare for any hypothetical hangover.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own a range of positions, including positions in certain exchange traded funds positions (including BND), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VT, IWM 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.