Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - Record Highs in First Gear

Record Highs in First Gear
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 45 = 16580.84 (record close)
SPX + 5 = 1883
NAS + 11 = 4114
10 YR YLD - .04 = 2.65%
OIL – 1.59 = 99.69
GOLD – 4.60 = 1292.30
SILV - .29 = 19.25

Back on December 31st, we finished the old year with a record high close on the Dow Industrial Average at 16,576; since then the index has bobbed up  and down, briefly hitting an intraday high of  16,631 on April 4th, but on that day we finished in negative territory. Today, a record high close. The S&P 500 is closing in on the record high close of 1890, but not today.

Now, when you hear the Dow is breaking records, you might think the economy is roaring, cruising along the highway in fifth gear. You would be wrong; the economy is stuck in first gear and the clutch is slipping. The Commerce Department reports the economy expanded at a mere 0.1% annual pace in the first three months of the year, one of the weakest rates of growth in the nearly 5-year-old recovery.

A slowdown had been expected due to the harsh winter weather that froze business activity across a large swath of the country, but this report was worse than expected. The gross domestic product had been expanding at a 3.4% pace in the second half of last year. No worries, the weather has warmed and everything is returning to normal. Yeah, not exactly.

There has been a rebound in the monthly data for March but there have been some disappointments as well. On the positive side, households have pared down some of their debt, credit is a little more available, and consumer spending should bounce back. Even the 2% growth in consumption spending is not all that encouraging; 1.1% of that consumption growth, more than half, was attributed to higher household expenditures on health care.

Home construction is likely to pick up speed as the weather improves, but the housing market seems to be slowing down, with reports this week on new home sales turning soft and existing home sales turning negative in many areas. Residential investment has been negative for 2 quarters. The housing market probably won’t deliver much horsepower as the engine of economic growth but it should be a little better than the winter months, when many parts of the nation were frozen.

An area of concern is business investment, as company spending on equipment fell in the first quarter, and the 3 quarter average is barely positive. The change in inventories subtracted 0.57 percentage points from growth in Q1, exports subtracted 0.83 percentage points. The outlook for trade is soft; the US is not immune to weakness overseas; China’s economy has slowed; there are problems in the Eurozone; and emerging markets are still struggling. Meanwhile, incomes have flat lined and unemployment remains unpleasantly high.

On Friday we’ll get the monthly jobs report. Today, we got a preview from ADP, the human resources firm, and their data shows the economy added 210,000 jobs in April. The ADP report showed hiring picking up in nearly all industries and company sizes; it just isn’t picking up at a real fast pace.

The Federal Reserve FOMC wrapping up their policy meeting and they issued a statement that they will keep policy on the same track; interest rate targets are unchanged and the taper continues with another $10 billion in large scale asset purchases cut this month, to a mere $45 billion a month. The central bankers said that economic activity “slowed sharply” earlier in the year but noted it has “picked up recently.” And “The committee currently judges that there is sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing improvement in labor market conditions.”

The disappointing reading on economic growth earlier in the day underscored how bumpy the road back to normal can be. The FOMC statement repeated language from its last meeting in March stating that it will consider the country’s realized and expected progress toward full employment and 2% inflation in determining when to increase rates. The Fed also reiterated that it will take into account “a wide range of information,” including the health of the labor market, inflation pressures and financial developments. In some ways, you could look at the continuation of the taper as a vote of confidence from the Fed. Fed policymakers have said that the phaseout of bond purchases is not on autopilot; the Fed can speed it up or slow it down, depending on how the economy progresses, but apparently the weak GDP number today was not convincing enough to alter expectations; or maybe GDP falls outside the Fed mandate of price stability and maximum employment, and maybe it isn’t something they should specifically pinpoint. Of course, if the economy turns south, they will have to deal with it.

Many Americans are still wondering when the recovery is going to start, but by economic measures, the economy stopped shrinking and started growing in June 2009, the official start of the recovery. That was 58 months ago. Since 1945, the average length of a business-cycle expansion has been 58 months. So if the current recovery continues, it will end up being longer than average, not to mention much weaker. And today’s GDP number was right on the edge of recessionary. The cold weather excuse only goes so far. Already in the second quarter we’ve had deadly and damaging tornadoes, and as the weather continues to warm, we’ll deal with the effects of drought. You have to wonder if the economy was plagued by more than just weather last quarter.

That doesn’t mean we are now entering a recession; we may be close but we aren’t there yet, and we may still rebound, but this affords a good opportunity to think about how you might handle the next downturn in the business cycle. The stock market was up today, and in light of the GDP report, you have to wonder about stock valuations; the earnings reports haven’t afforded much to cheer. Are you still buying or are you looking to sell into strength.

Since Q4 2011, the average peak-to-trough pull-back on the Dow has been roughly -6%, with no correction exceeding -10%. One may ascertain that a "buy-on-the-dip" mentality remains pervasive among equity investors. So why not add to long, risk-on positions once again? Could this pull-back be different? Aren't stocks "the only game in town" with the excessively accommodative Fed monetary policy?

And while you consider market risk, don’t forget the old idea of the best and worst six months in the stock market; we’re entering the worst six months by the way. The old adage "Sell in May and Go Away", warning investors of a seasonal decline in equities, is often attributed to summer vacations and decreased investment flows relative to winter months. According to the Stock Trader's Almanac, since 1950, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has had an average return of only 0.3% during the May-October period, compared with an average gain of 7.5% during the November-April period. 

When we look at the 13 cases since 2001, the strategy of selling out just before May would have given rise to successful trades in 9 cases, or about 70 % of the time. Moreover, we observe that the "Sell in May" strategy has not failed in two consecutive years since 1992-1993. Given that "Sell in May" failed in 2013, we estimate the odds for a seasonal decline are even higher for 2014. This is not a perfect indicator, but there are not perfect indicators. You have to think that anybody who doesn’t recognize the odds is just trying to sell you something.

And on the question of valuations, at 18 times forward earnings for the S&P 500 and 36 times forward earnings for the Nasdaq, US stocks are generally closer to the high end of their range; that seems a bit pricey compared to emerging markets with 12 times forward earnings. Still, somebody was buying today, at least enough to push the Dow to a record high close. Investor optimism for US stocks has been trending up since the end of 2011, reaching an extreme level in January. Of course that would be a contrary indicator. There are plenty of voices telling you to stay the course, or even buy, and then buy some more. I’m just saying it is important to consider the possibility of selling into strength. 

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