As stock prices sit near all-time record highs, and as we enter year nine of the current bull market, I remain amazed and amused at the brazen disregard for important basic economic concepts like supply & demand, interest rates, and rising profits.
If the stock market was a doctor’s patient, over the last decade, bloggers, pundits, talking heads, and pontificators have been ignoring the improving, healthy patient’s vital signs, while endlessly predicting the death of the resilient stock market.
However, let’s be clear – it has not been all hearts and flowers for stocks – there have been numerous -10%, -15%, and -20% corrections since the Financial Crisis nine years ago. Those corrections included the Flash Crash, debt downgrade, Arab Spring, sequestration, Taper Tantrum, Iranian Nuclear Threat, Ukrainian-Crimea annexation, Ebola, Paris/San Bernardino Terrorist Attacks, multiple European & Chinese slowdowns and more.
Despite the avalanche of headlines and volatility, we all know the net result of these events – a more than tripling of stock prices (+259%) from March 2009 to new all-time record highs. With the incessant stream of negative news, how could prices appreciate so dramatically?
Over the years, the explanations by outside observers have changed. First, the recovery was explained as a “dead cat bounce” or a short-term cyclical bull market within a long-term secular bear market. Then, when stock prices broke to new records, the focus shifted to Quantitative Easing (QE1, QE2, QE3, and Operation Twist). The QE narrative implied the bull advance was temporary due to the non-stop, artificial printing presses of the Fed. Now that the Fed has not only ended QE but reversed it (the Fed is actually contracting its balance sheet) and hiked interest rates (no longer cutting), outsiders are once again at a loss. Now, the bears are left clinging to the flawed CAPE metric I wrote about three years ago (see CAPE Smells Like BS), and using political headlines as a theory for record prices (i.e., record stock prices stem from inflated tax cut and infrastructure spending expectations).
It’s unfortunate for the bears that all the conspiracy theory headlines and F.U.D. (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) over the last 10 years have failed miserably as predictors for stock prices. The truth is that stock prices don’t care about headlines – stock prices care about economics. More specifically, stock prices care about profits, interest rates, and supply & demand.
It’s quite simple. Stock prices have more than tripled since early 2009 because profits have more than tripled since 2009. As you can see from the Macrotrends chart below, 2009 – 2016 profits for the S&P 500 index rose from $6.86 to $94.54, or +1,287%. It’s no surprise either that stock prices stalled for 18 months from 2015 to mid-2016 when profits slowed. After profits returned to growth, stock price appreciation also resumed.
When you could earn a +16% on a guaranteed CD bank rate in the early 1980s, do you think stocks were a more or less attractive asset class? If you can sense the rhetorical nature of my question, then you can probably understand why stocks were about as attractive as rotten milk or moldy bread. Back then, stocks traded for about 8x’s earnings vs. the 18x-20x multiples today. The difference is, today interest rates are near generational lows (see chart below), and CDs pay near +0%, thereby making stocks much more attractive. If you think this type of talk is heresy, ignore me and listen to the greatest investor of all-time, Warren Buffett who recently stated:
“Measured against interest rates, stocks are actually on the cheap side.”
Supply & Demand
Another massively ignored area, as it relates to the health of stock prices, is the relationship of new stock supply entering the market (e.g., new dilutive shares via IPOs and follow-on offerings), versus stock exiting the market through corporate actions. While there has been some coverage placed on the corporate action of share buybacks – about a half trillion dollars of stock being sucked up like a vacuum cleaner by cash heavy companies like Apple Inc. (AAPL) – little attention has been paid to the trillions of dollars of stock vanishing from mergers and acquisition activities. Yes, Snap Inc. (SNAP) has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention for its $3 billion IPO (Initial Public Offering), this is a drop in the bucket compared to the exodus of stock from M&A activity. Consider the trivial amount of SNAP supply entering the market ($3 billion) vs. $100s of billions in major deals announced in 2016 – 2017:
- Time Warner Inc. merger offer by AT&T Inc. (T) for $85 billion
- Monsanto Co. merger offer by Bayer AG (BAYRY) for $66 billion
- Reynolds American Inc. merger offer by British American Tobacco (BTI) for $47 billion
- NXP Semiconductors merger offer by Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) for $39 billion
- LinkedIn merger offer by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) for $28 billion
- Jude Medical, Inc. merger offer by Abbott Laboratories (ABT) for $25 billion
- Mead Johnson Nutrition merger offer by Reckitt Benckiser Group for $18 billion
- Mobileye merger offer by Intel Corp. (INTC) for $15 billion
- Netsuite merger offer by Oracle Corp. (ORCL) for $9 billion
- Kate Spade & Co. merger offer by Coach Inc. (COH) for $2 billion
While these few handfuls of deals represent over $300 billion in disappearing stock, as long as corporate profits remain strong, interest rates low, and valuations reasonable, there will likely continue to be trillions of dollars in stocks being purchased by corporations. This continued vigorous M&A activity should provide further healthy support to stock prices.
Admittedly, there will come a time when profits will collapse, interest rates will spike, valuations will get stretched, sentiment will become euphoric, and/or supply of stock will flood the market (see Don’t be a Fool, Follow the Stool). When the balance of these factors turn negative, the risk profile for stock prices will obviously become less desirable. Until then, I will let the skeptics and bears ignore the healthy economic vital signs and call for the death of a healthy patient (stock market). In the meantime, I will continue focus on the basics of math and offer my economics textbook to the doubters.