After an 11% decline in the first six weeks of 2016, the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index recovered to gain 1% for the first quarter. Stocks rebounded in the face of a sharp cutback in energy capital spending, slowing world growth and wildly volatile currency swings that weighed on export volumes. These setbacks largely offset the positive material savings from declining prices in natural gas, heating oil, diesel and gasoline. Regions with heavy in-migration like the Pacific Northwest are showing very strong economic growth, while those tied to coal and oil are suffering. Historically, sharp drops in energy inputs have led to strong growth (1986 and 1998) as our economy is 85% service oriented. Indeed, my recent visits with executives in construction trades—both housing and commercial—suggest there are serious ongoing shortages in welding, plumbing, electrical framing—you name it, especially in the West.
The quality businesses we favor have typically enjoyed price/earnings multiple expansion in times of sharp commodity and energy crashes. Conversely, when energy prices tripled during the 1970s, price-to-earnings ratios compressed to a rock-bottom 10 times earnings or less. Today, the US is being hampered by higher domestic debt (over 300% of GDP) as US nonfinancial debt rose 3.5 times faster than GDP last year. Therefore, we have continued to seek out and hold businesses that have consistently strong demand, nominal mandatory capital spending and ample cash flow to fuel expansion. Earnings and revenue growth have been challenging as many industries are faced with supply gluts. An example: too many physical retail stores as online commerce grows. We try to closely monitor the long term supply/demand relationship in each industry before investing. We want enduring franchises with moral leadership that will survive the harshest economic challenges. Growth in free cash flow—not stated dividends—is a critical metric that allows for the financial flexibility necessary to flourish during challenging environments. If a company’s cash flow is higher ten years out, that company’s share value should track. Continue Reading »