After the stock market raced ahead to about a +30% gain last year, it became clear this meteoric trend was not sustainable into perpetuity. Correct investing should be treated more like a marathon than a sprint. After dashing ahead by more than +100% over the last handful of years, 2014 stock prices took a breather by spending the first quarter jogging in place. Like a runner on the treadmill, year-to-date returns equated to a -0.7% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average index, and +1.3% for the S&P index. Digesting the large gains from previous years, despite making no discernable forward progress this quarter, is a healthy exercise that builds long-term portfolio endurance. As far as I’m concerned, nothing in life worthwhile comes easy, and the first three months of the year have demonstrated this principle.
As I’ve written in the past (see Series of Unfortunate Events), there is never a shortage of issues to worry about. The first few months of 2014 have been no exception. Vladimir Putin’s strong armed military backed takeover of Crimea, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s unwinding $30 billion of the $85 billion of its “Quantitative Easing” bond buying program (i.e. tapering) have contributed to investors’ nervousness. When the “Fairy Godmother of the Bull Market,” Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, hinted at potentially raising interest rates in about 12 months, the mood soured further.
The unseasonably cold winter back east (a.k.a., Polar Vortex) has caused some additional jitters due to the dampening effects on economic conditions. More specifically, economic growth as measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is expected to come in around a meager +2.0% rate during the first quarter of 2014, before picking up later in the year.
And if that isn’t enough, best-selling author Michael Lewis, whose books include Money Ball, The Blind Side, and Liar’s Poker, just came out on national television and sparked a debate with his controversial statement that the “stock market is rigged.” (read and listen more here)
But as always, not everything is gloom and doom. Offsetting the temporary price fatigue, resilient record corporate profits have supported the surprising market stamina. Like a runner’s high, corporations are feeling elated about historically elevated profit margins. As you can see from the chart below, the reason it’s prudent for most to have some U.S. equity exposure is due to the clear, upward multi-decade trend of U.S. corporate earnings.
Source: Calafia Beach Plundit (gray areas are recessions)
While the skeptics wait for these game-ending dynamics to take root, core economic fundamentals in areas like these remain strong:I didn’t invent the idea of profits impacting the stock market, but the concept is simple: stock prices generally follow earnings over long periods of time (see It’s the Earnings, Stupid). In other words, as profits accelerate, so do stock prices – and the opposite holds true (decelerating earnings leads to price declines). This direct relationship normally holds over the long-run as long as the following conditions are not in place: 1) valuations are stretched; 2) a recession is imminent; and/or 3) interest rates are spiking. Fortunately for long-term investors, there is no compelling evidence of these factors currently in place.
The employment outlook received a boost of adrenaline last month. Despite the slight upward nudge in the unemployment rate to 6.7%, total nonfarm payroll jobs increased by +175,000 in February versus a +129,000 gain in January and an +84,000 gain in December. Not only was last month’s increase better than expectations, but the net figures calculated over the previous two months were also revised higher by +25,000 jobs. As you can see below, the improvement since 2009 has been fairly steady, but as the current rate flirts with the Fed’s 6.5% target, Chair Yellen has decided to remove the quantitative objective. The rising number of discouraged workers (i.e., voluntarily opt-out of job searching) and part-timers has distorted the numbers, rendering arbitrary numeric targets less useful.
Source: Barron’s Online
Housing Holding Strong
In the face of the severe winter weather, the feisty housing market remains near multi-year highs as shown in the 5-month moving average housing start figure below. With the spring selling season upon us, we should be able to better gauge the impact of cold weather and higher mortgage rates on the housing market.
Source: Barron’s Online
Even though stock market investors found themselves jogging in place during the first quarter of the year, long-term investors are building up endurance as corporate profits and the economy continue to consistently grow in the background. Successful investors must realize stock prices cannot sustainably sprint for long periods of time without eventually hitting a wall and collapsing. Those who recognize investing as a marathon sport, rather than a mad dash, will be able to jump off the treadmill and ultimately reach their financial finish line.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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