Stocks Are Sounding the Alarm on Earnings

The U.S. stock market is warning investors about earnings, and it’s time to pay attention.

The S&P 500 Index slipped into a correction on Dec. 7. It ended the day down 10.2 percent from its recent peak on Sep. 20, breaching the 10 percent decline that customarily marks a correction. The index is little changed this week through midday Friday.

Investors are comforting themselves, as they have all year, with reassurances about strong fundamentals. According to estimates compiled by Bloomberg, Wall Street analysts expect earnings for the S&P 500 to grow by 12 percent in 2018 and by an additional 9 percent in 2019. That’s well above the average growth rate of 4 percent a year since 1871, according to numbers compiled by Yale professor Robert Shiller.

It’s false comfort, however. As I pointed out in May, declines in the stock market most often precede slumps in earnings rather than the other way around. And this would be a particularly bad time for earnings to disappoint. Stock prices have rarely been as vulnerable to a downturn in earnings as they are today. If the market decides that the earnings outlook is too rosy, the recent sell-off could get a lot worse.

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Investors Are Supposed to Be Rewarded for Risk, Right?

After the Federal Reserve raised the federal funds rate as expected on Wednesday, investors are no doubt watching how longer-term interest rates respond. But the stock market’s moves will be just as revealing.  

U.S. stocks have been on a historic run since the 2008 financial crisis. The S&P 500 Index has returned 18 percent annually from March 2009 through August, including dividends, making it one of the best decades for stocks since 1926. It’s also the second-longest stretch without a bear market, as defined by a decline of 20 percent or more.

Bulls attribute much of that success to lower interest rates. It’s no coincidence that stocks skyrocketed soon after the Fed dropped rates in late 2008 in response to the financial crisis, they argue, and that the market kept moving higher while the Fed held rates low for years.  

The gist of the argument is that investors expect a premium for owning risky stocks rather than safe bonds — in technical jargon, an equity risk premium. When bond yields decline, stocks can pay less, too, provided that the premium stays roughly the same. But there’s little evidence investors are paying attention to the premium.

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Stocks’ Fundamental Swings Still Apply as Time Goes By

U.S. stocks have been shaky lately. Volatility spiked in February after years of calm, and the market continues to be bumpy. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 Index has gone nowhere this year, down 1 percent through Monday.

Investors, however, needn’t fear that the recent volatility will turn into a rout because “the fundamentals are strong.” Or at least, that’s the refrain Wall Street analysts never tire of crooning for investors.

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Stock Stumble Isn’t a Starting Gun for Hysteria

Panicking is never a good plan when it comes to investing, but it’s particularly silly now, because nothing truly eventful has happened yet.

Sure, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1,175 points on Monday — the biggest one-day drop ever, before stocks fluctuated on Tuesday. In percentage terms, it was a 4.6 percent decline. Investors may not see that every day, especially recently, but it’s happened plenty of times in the past.

And yes, the S&P 500 Index was down 7.8 percent since Jan. 26 through Monday. But it’s nowhere near a 20 percent decline that constitutes a technical bear market. It’s not yet even a correction, which is a 10 percent decline.

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On Goldman’s Rosy Market Outlook

For anyone suffering whiplash after following the markets in recent months, Goldman Sachs’s well-known strategist, Abby Joseph Cohen, recently offered a soothing forecast: She pegged the S&P 500’s fair value at 2,100. As of this writing, the S&P 500 is trading at about 1,896.

Cohen didn’t show how she arrived at her valuation, but the calculation is straightforward: you use earnings per share multiplied by the fair value, price-to-earnings ratio. Et voila.

Problems arise and predictions vary, however, because neither EPS nor the fair value P/E is obvious — and the resulting fair value can vary wildly depending on the assumptions used for each of those measures.

To see the effect of EPS on fair value, let’s assume that the fair value P/E for the S&P 500 is 16.5. Looking at S&P’s earnings data, the forward operating EPS of $126 yields a fair value for the S&P 500 of 2,079. The forward, as reported EPS of $119 yields a fair value of 1,964. The trailing operating EPS of $106 yields a fair value of 1,749. The trailing as reported EPS of $95 yields a fair value of 1,568. (Operating EPS excludes non-recurring items; as reported EPS doesn’t exclude non-recurring items.)

By using the most conservative of those valuations, we’ve already shed 25 percent from Goldman’s estimate of fair value – a real life decline that would make investors weep – and we haven’t even normalized earnings yet.

If we then cyclically adjust earnings using a ten-year trailing average, the normalized operating EPS of $88 yields a fair value of 1,452. The normalized as reported EPS of $76 yields a –- gasp –- fair value of just 1,254.

The fair value P/E is as elusive as EPS. A common proxy for fair value P/E is the historical average P/E, and reliable U.S. stock data is compiled by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller going back to 1871. But which historical period should we use? From 1871 to 1945, the U.S. was effectively an emerging market. Soon thereafter, the U.S. joined an elite club of developed countries and eventually became the most creditworthy country in the world.

Investors appropriately priced the U.S. more richly in the “developed” period than in the “emerging” period. To see the effect of fair value P/E on the resulting fair value, let’s assume that EPS for the S&P 500 is $126. The average one-year trailing P/E since 1946 is 16.8, which yields a fair value for the S&P 500 of 2,117. But the average one-year trailing P/E since 1871 is 15.4, which yields a fair value of 1,940 – nearly a 10 percent haircut from the post-1946 figure.

One way around the problem of deciding which set of historical data to use is to build a fair value P/E from the bottom up (as I recently did for China) by using the sum of inflation, real productivity growth, and dividend yield.

The IMF estimates that U.S. inflation over the next five years will be 2.2 percent annually, and that real productivity growth will be 1.7 percent annually. The current dividend yield for the S&P 500 is 2.3 percent. The sum of these three variables is 6.2 percent, the inverse of which implies a fair value P/E of 16.1.

By these lights, Goldman’s fair value for the S&P 500 of 2,100 is aggressive. In order to get there, one has to assume the most optimistic earnings results for 2016 – a forward operating EPS of $126 – and a generous fair value P/E of 16.7.

Cohen may be right, of course, but investors would be wise to think critically about her assumptions. Cohen is no stranger to bullish calls. Near the peak of the tech bubble in late 1999, she believed that the market was near fair value. (Cohen says that in March 2000 she suggested that clients sell stocks.) In January 2008, Cohen predicted that the S&P 500 would close the year at 1,675. Spoiler alert: It didn’t.

My Bloomberg colleagues reported last week that the U.S. is showing worrisome signs of decline, including weakening retail sales, manufacturing, and wholesale prices. The S&P 500’s brutal selloff so far this year appears to echo those concerns, and 2,100 seems to be increasingly farther way, in my estimation.

So I’m inclined to use a more cautious valuation when looking at the S&P 500. I’ll take the normalized operating EPS of $88 and the fair value P/E of 16.1, and peg the index’s fair value at 1,417.

But investors need not accept Goldman’s or my estimation of fair value. Given how readily available good data is these days, every investor can form his or her own judgment about EPS, fair value P/E, and the resulting fair value for the S&P 500.

What’s your number?

Source: Bloomberg Gadfly, https://bloom.bg/2yX7uL7

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Show Me the Money

Remember: Stock rallies are ultimately dependent on corporate earnings growth. As Ben Graham, the father of security analysis, reputedly said, “In the short run the market is a voting machine, but in the long run it’s a weighing machine.”

What the market weighs is earnings.

So how to assess “abnormal items” (such as merger costs, natural disasters, one-time sales, or any other unusual event) that skew earnings?

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