The S&P 500 Index returned a modest +1.1% over the three months ended September 30th, the seventh consecutive positive quarter for the index. In August, the index closed above 2,000 for the first time, peaking at 2,011 in mid-September before a slight pullback. Unlike prior market peaks (e.g. 1999, 2007), elevated stock prices today are supported by both strong corporate earnings and an improving economic environment. At 16.5x forward earnings, the S&P 500 Index trades at a valuation slightly higher than the 25-year median of 16.0x. Meanwhile, the 10-year Treasury yields 2.5% versus the 25-year median of 4.8%; considering the low interest rate environment equity valuations appear reasonable. The U.S. housing market continues to recover, with new home sales considerably higher than consensus expectations and home prices on the rise. Higher home values create a wealth effect that boosts confidence and drives consumer spending, which accelerated during the quarter—consumer spending comprises two-thirds of U.S. GDP, so the housing market’s economic impact is material. Meanwhile, employment has steadily improved and inflation has remained in check. The U.S. dollar strengthened as a result of the productive economy, appreciating by more than 6% relative to a basket of major developed market currencies1. While the tense geopolitical landscape poses risks to the equity market, the earnings power of our portfolio holdings provides considerable valuation support. The portfolio trades at 10.8x our estimate of normal/sustainable earnings, a significant discount to the market average2.
Concerns about decelerating growth in emerging markets triggered a precipitous decline in commodities over the quarter. Crude oil, natural gas, precious metals, most industrial metals, and most agricultural commodities declined considerably—some by more than 10%. Consequently, sectors exposed to commodity price changes lagged the overall market. Energy, utilities, and industrials were the only three S&P 500 sectors that declined during the quarter. Healthcare, technology, and telecommunications were the top-performing sectors, rising +3% to +5%. Value underperformed growth for the quarter, largely because energy is a larger weight and technology a smaller weight in value indices as compared with growth indices. Small cap stocks lagged large cap stocks by a wide margin in the quarter3. As of one year ago (9/30/13), small cap equities had outperformed large cap equities by more than 50 percentage points since the market bottom in March of 2009. This resulted in a large valuation premium for small cap stocks relative to large cap stocks compared to historical averages—this premium has eroded over the past twelve months toward levels more typically observed because small cap stocks have since underperformed. Continue Reading »