The first week of 2017 is in the books and this is what we learned:
- Foreign stocks really like it when the U.S. dollar stops rising. Emerging markets especially. The dollar pulled back less than half of one percent last week, but that was enough to take pressure off foreign currencies, especially those in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Those areas have dramatically underperformed in dollar terms for many years. Last week was a little reminder of what is possible if currency markets stabilize at these levels.
- If the yield curve does not continue to steepen in a bullish way, then financial stocks might have overshot to the upside. Interest rates fell last week as skepticism grew about the nature of President-Elect Trump’s anticipated infrastructure program. With long rates falling more than short rates, the yield curve flattened. Smaller banks, which are more sensitive to yield spreads, were one of the few sectors not to gain last week. The more diversified money center banks posted a modest gain.
- Big growth stocks are apparently back in favor. Large cap growth outpaced large cap value approximately 1.81% to 0.27% last week. Facebook rose 5.61%, Amazon 5.62%, and Alphabet (Google) 2.55%. My best guess is that the big tech stocks are cash repatriation plays as investors bet that lower corporate tax rates bring a large amount of foreign-earned profits back home.
- U.S. consumers are not spending money on apparel or household items. This is hurting mainline retailers across the board. Instead, discretionary money is flowing more toward food, travel, and entertainment. This trend appears to be generational; it has persisted for several years among millennials who have so far defied predictions that they would soon begin having kids and buying homes in large numbers. This is positive news for apartment REITs but negative news for shopping mall REITs.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average came oh-so-close to breaking the 20,000 level last Friday afternoon (1/6/17). I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Friday, I did some valuation research to see how expensive the average stock was because index levels can be deceiving. Value Line estimates that the U.S. stock market’s appreciation potential on a 3-5 year basis is 30%. By way of context, I have used Value Line since 1987 and at no point has appreciation potential ever been lower. There have been times (2002 and 2009) where appreciation potential was well over 100%. The average stock is at or above their historical price-to-earnings and price-to-cash flow peaks. To find a cheap stock, I had to look at beat up consumer growth company like Garmin or GoPro.
Goldman Sachs cut Proctor & Gamble to Sell on Monday (1/9/17). The cut was instructive in that the analyst noted that unless a company has a high tax rate or substantial cash overseas such that it could benefit from tax changes (neither of which P&G has), there is no upside from here. How many other stocks are in the same boat? Elevated market valuations are concerning but momentum is clearly toward higher prices. At some point I believe that valuation will win that tug-of-war and revert to a more reasonable level, but I have no idea when.
We have had potential catalysts to take the market lower (Brexit, the U.S. election, rising interest rates) and they have all failed spectacularly to do so. This makes trying to forecast the next “black swan” incredibly difficult. If the Chinese credit market implodes, for instance, that would theoretically be a very bad thing. But who knows that investors don’t buy the sell-off? I remember the period from 1995 through 1999 in which valuations were completely ludicrous in a few sectors of the market (though quite reasonable in others). I felt it would end at some point but it lasted so long that I almost gave up on the notion of value ultimately being restored. I believe the market is in a similar quandary today. I’m not selling stocks and bonds yet but I am creating hypothetical portfolios with sizable alternatives exposure so that we will be ready if and when this all rolls over.