Stocks Advance, But on Wobbly Trends
Stocks advanced last week, with the biggest gains in Asia. In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.77% to 17,215, the S&P 500 Index grew 0.94% to 2,033 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 1.16% to close the week at 4,886. Equities continue to benefit from an active cycle of mergers and acquisitions. Last week's list included Dell's plans to buy hardware maker EMC and AB InBev raising its bid for SAB Miller.
Stocks are also benefiting from the recent drop in interest rates, a trend that continued last week: The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell from 2.09% to 2.03%, and at one point dipped below 2%. German, Italian and Australian yields also dropped last week, as bond prices rose.
Recent weeks have seen stocks, credit and even emerging markets start to recover. Unfortunately, the gains have not been driven by signs of economic improvement, firming inflation or rising earnings. Instead, investors are once again taking solace in low rates and benign monetary conditions, which can and probably will persist for the remainder of the year. But that can only take the market so far. Meanwhile, another important trend is emerging: For investors looking for some longer-term ballast in their portfolios, particularly equity-centric portfolios, longer-duration bonds are reasserting their role as an effective hedge to equity risk.
In most countries, interest rates are being held down by persistently low inflation. For example, the latest readings on Chinese inflation came in below expectations while U.K. readings turned negative for only the second time since 1960. Even in the U.S., producer prices are falling at the fastest pace since 2009.
As realized inflation has remained stubbornly low, inflation expectations have also been stuck. For example, U.S. five-year inflation expectations fell to around 1.15%, down from 1.25% the previous week. With inflation expectations still falling, a 2015 rate hike by the Federal Reserve (Fed) looks increasingly unlikely; even the odds of an early 2016 hike appear to be fading.
This has all helped keep bond yields low. But with bonds providing little appeal and short-term rates fast approaching their ninth calendar year at zero, investors are once again relying on stocks to do the heavy lifting in their portfolios. But this comes with the cost of escalating valuations: Since Sept. 30, the trailing price-to-earnings ratio on the S&P 500 has risen by 10%.
That said, while stocks have managed to rebound from their lows, the S&P 500, Dow Industrials and Russell 2000 are all down year-to-date. The major culprit has been disappointing company earnings, a trend evident in the admittedly still early third quarter earnings season. Last week, the biggest disappointment came from industry bellwether Walmart. The company issued a profit warning, blaming higher wages. The stock promptly fell by more than 10%, its largest one-day loss since 1988. The negative reaction reflects a broader anxiety: With revenue growth sluggish, should U.S. margins start to descend from their lofty highs, earnings growth will be even tougher to come by.
The hard truth is that although rising valuations can continue a while longer, particularly if the European Central Bank or Bank of Japan add to their own quantitative easing programs, valuations, particularly for U.S. equities, are already on the wrong side of high. At roughly 18 times trailing earnings, multiples are now back to the same level where the market peaked this summer. We think stocks can rise further this year, but in the absence of earnings growth, U.S. stocks are at best stuck and at worst vulnerable to any unexpected growth shock.