This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (May 1, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
We live in a time of confusing dichotomies, which makes deciphering the flood of daily data quite challenging. In that context, determining whether the current economic fundamentals should be viewed from a glass half empty of glass half full perspective can be daunting.
More specifically, stock markets have again recently hit new all-time record highs, yet if you read the newspaper headlines, you might think we’re in the midst of Armageddon. Last month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index eclipsed 21,000 and the technology-heavy NASDAQ index surpassed the psychologically important 6,000 threshold. In spite of the records, here’s a sampling of the steady stream of gloomy feature stories jamming the airwaves:
- French Elections – Danger of European Union Breakup
- Heightened Saber Rattling by U.S. Towards North Korea
- Threat of U.S. Government Shutdown
- First 100 Days – Obamacare repeal failure, tax reform delays, no significant legislation
- NAFTA Trade Disputes
- Russian Faceoff Over Syrian Civil War & Terrorism
- Federal Reserve Interest Rate Hikes Could Derail Stock Market
- Slowing GDP / Economic Data
Given all this doom, how is it then that stock markets continue to defy gravity and continually set new record highs? Followers of my writings understand the crucial, driving dynamics of financial markets are not newspaper, television, magazine, and internet headlines. The most important factors are corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and investor sentiment. All four of these elements will bounce around, month-to-month, and quarter-to-quarter, but for the time being, these elements remain constructive on balance, despite the barrage of negative, gut-wrenching headlines.
Countering the perpetual flow of gloomy, cringe-worthy headlines, we have seen a number of positive developments:
- Record Breaking Corporate Profits: Profits are the chief propellant for higher stock prices, and so far, for the 1st quarter, S&P 500 company profits are estimated to have risen +12.4% – the highest rate since 2011, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. As I like to remind my readers, stock prices follow profits over the long-run, which is evidenced by the chart below.
- Interest Rates Low: With interest rate levels still near generational lows (10-Year Treasury @ 2.28%), and inflation relatively stable around 2%, this augurs well for most asset prices. For U.S. consumers there are many stimulative effects to lower interest rates, whether you are buying a house, purchasing a car, paying off a school loan, and/or reducing credit card debt. Lower rates equal lower payments.
- Potential Tax Reform: There are numerous stimulative components to the largest planned tax-cut in history. First of all, cutting the tax rate from 35% to 15% for corporations and small businesses (i.e. pass-through entities like LLCs and S-Corps) would place a lot of dollars back in the pockets of taxpayers and should stimulate economic growth. Other components of the White House proposal include the termination of the estate tax, the elimination of the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) targeted at wealthier households, and the doubling of the standard deduction to help middle-income families. All of this sounds great on paper, but not a lot of details have been provided yet on how these benefits will be paid for – removing state tax deductions alone is unlikely to fully offset revenue declines. The chart below highlights how high U.S. corporate income tax rates are relative to other foreign counterparts.
- Business Spending & Confidence on the Rise: Ever since the 2008-09 Great Recession, the U.S. has been a better house in a bad neighborhood relative to other global developed economies. However, the recovery has been gradual and muted due to tight-fisted companies being slow to hire and invest. Although recent Q1 GDP economic data came in at a sluggish +0.7% growth rate, the bright spot embedded in the data was a +12% annualized increase in private fixed investment. This is consistent with the spike we’ve seen in recent business and consumer confidence surveys (see chart below). Although this confidence has yet to translate into an acceleration in broader economic data, the ramp in capital spending and positive business sentiment could be a leading indicator for faster economic growth to come. Stimulative legislation enacted by Congress (i.e., tax reform, infrastructure spending, foreign repatriation, etc.) could add further fuel to the economic growth engine.
- Economy Keeps Chugging Along: As the wealthiest country on the planet, we Americans can become a little spoiled with success, which helps explain the media’s insatiable appetite for growth. Nevertheless, the broader economic data show a continuing trend of improvement. Simply consider the trend occurring in these major areas of the economy:
- Unemployment – The jobless rate has been chopped by more than half from a 10.0% cycle peak to 4.5% today.
- Housing – The number of annual existing home sales has increased by more than +60% from the cycle low to 5.7 million units, which still leaves plenty of headroom for growth before 2006 peak sales levels are reached.
- Consumer Spending – This segment accounts for roughly 70% of our country’s economic activity. Although we experienced a soft patch in Q1 of 2017, as you can see from the chart below, we Americans have had no problem spending more to keep our economy functioning.
While key economic statistics remain broadly constructive, there will come a time when prudence will dictate the pursuit of a more defensive investment strategy. When will that be? In short, the time to become more cautious will be when we see a combination of the following occur:
- Sharp increase in interest rates
- Signs of a significant decline in corporate profits
- Indications of an economic recession (e.g., an inverted yield curve)
- Spike in stock prices to a point where valuation (prices) are at extreme levels and skeptical investor sentiment becomes euphoric
To date, there is no objective evidence indicating these dynamics are in place, so until then, I will remain thirsty and grab my half glass full of water.