There has been a massive storm of political rain that has blanketed the media airwaves and internet last month, however, the stock market ignored the deluge of headlines and focused on more important factors, as prices once again pushed to new record highs. Over the eight-year bull market, the old adage to “sell in May, and go away,” once again was not a very successful strategy. Had investors heeded this advice, they would have missed out on a +1.2% gain in the S&P 500 index during May (up +7.7% for 2017) and a +2.5% surge in the technology-driven NASDAQ index (+15.1% in 2017).
Keeping track of the relentless political storm of new headlines and tweets almost requires a full-time staff person, but nevertheless we have summarized some of the political downpour here:
French Elections: In the wake of last year’s U.K. “Brexit”, fears of an imminent “Frexit” (French Exit) resurfaced ahead of the French presidential. Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, swept to a decisive victory over National Front candidate Marine Le Pen by a margin of 66% to 34%.
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Firing of FBI Director: President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey based on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who cited Comey’s mishandling of Hillary Clinton’s private email server investigation. The president’s critics claim Trump was frustrated with the FBI’s investigation into the administration’s potential ties with Russian officials in relation to the 2016 presidential elections. Comey is expected to testify next week to Congress, where he will likely address reports that President Trump asked him to drop the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn during a February meeting.
Trump Classified Leak to Russians: Reports show that President Trump revealed classified information regarding the Islamic State (ISIS) to the Russian foreign minister during an Oval Office meeting. The ISIS related information emanating from Syria reportedly had been passed to the U.S. from Israel, with the provision that it not be shared.
Impeachment Talk and Appointment of Independent Special Prosecutor: Heightened reports of Russian intervention coupled with impeachment cries from the Democratic opposition coincided with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s announcement that former FBI director Robert Mueller III would take on the role as an independent special counsel in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rosenstein had the authority to make the appointment after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself after admitting contacts with Russian officials. The White House, which has denied colluding with the Russians, issued a statement from President Donald Trump looking forward “to this matter concluding quickly.”
Kushner Under Back Channel Investigation: President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is under investigation over discussions to set up a back channel of communication with Russian officials. At the heart of the probe is a December meeting Kushner held with Sergey Gorkov, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank, a Russian bank subject to sanctions imposed by President Obama. Back channels have been legally implemented by other administrations, but the timing and nature of the discussions could make the legal interpretation more difficult.
Trump’s First Foreign Trip: A whirlwind trip by President Trump through the Middle East and Europe, resulted in commitments to Middle East peace, multi-billion contract signings with the Saudis, pledges to fight Muslims extremism, calls for NATO members to pay their “fair share,” and demands for German President Angela Merkel to address the elevated trade deficit with the U.S.
Subpoenas Issued to Trump Advisors: The House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas to ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, as it relates to potential Russian interference in the presidential campaign. Flynn reportedly plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to a separate subpoena issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Repeal and Replace Healthcare: The Republican-controlled House of Representatives narrowly passed a vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act after prior failed attempts. The bill, which allows states to apply for a waiver on certain aspects of coverage, including pre-existing conditions, received no Democratic votes. While the House passage represents a legislative victory for President Trump, Senate Republicans must now take up the legislation that addresses conclusions by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). More specifically, the CBO found the revised House health care bill could leave 23 million more Americans uninsured while reducing the federal deficit by $119 billion in the next decade.
North Korea Missile Tests: If domestic political turmoil wasn’t enough, North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of medium-to-long-range missile tests in an effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the mainland United States. Due to the rising tensions, the U.S. and South Korea have been planning nuclear carrier drills off the coast of the Korean peninsula.
Wow, that was a mouthful. While all these politics may be provocative and stimulating, long-time followers of mine understand my position…politics are meaningless (see Politics-Schmolitics). While a terrorist or military attack on U.S. soil would undoubtedly have an immediate and negative impact, 99% of daily politics should be ignored by investors. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the stock market, which continues to make new record highs in the face of a hurricane of negative political headlines. What the stock market really cares most about are profits, interest rates, and valuations:
- Record Profits: Stock prices follow the direction of earnings over the long-run. As you can see below, profits vacillate year-to-year. However, profits are currently surging, and therefore, so are stock prices – despite the negative political headlines.
Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog
- Near Generationally Low Interest Rates: Generally speaking, most asset classes, including real estate, commodities, and stock prices are worth more when interest rates are low. When you could earn 15% on a bank CD in the early 1980s, stocks were much less attractive. Currently, bank CDs almost pay nothing, and as you can see from the chart below, interest rates are near a generational low – this makes stock prices more attractive.
- Attractive Valuations: The price you pay for an asset is always an important factor, and the same principle applies to your investments. If you can buy a $1.00 for $0.90, you want to take advantage of that opportunity. Unfortunately, the value of stocks is not measured by a simple explicit price, like you see at a grocery store. Rather, stock values are measured by a ratio (comparing an investment’s price relative to profits/cash flows generated). Even though the stock market has surged this year, stock values have gotten cheaper. How is that possible? Stock prices have risen about +8% in the first quarter, while profits have jumped +15%. When profits rise faster than prices appreciate, that means stocks have gotten cheaper. From a multi-year standpoint, I agree with Warren Buffett that prices remain attractive given the current interest rate environment. To read more about valuations, check out Ed Yardeni’s recent article on valuations.