By Roy C. Smith
Well its October, and that’s when the stock markets’ worst selloffs occur. With the change of seasons there comes an effort to rethink the year ahead. Stock prices, after all, are meant to reflect the future, not the past.
We had a selloff at the beginning of this year, a reality check on some of the Trump tax-cuts-and-deregulation euphoria, but the market turned around and found new highs by September. This was supposed to be because strong second and third quarter growth and corporate profits and other economic fundamentals were strong enough to justify stock price increases. The Economist now predicts US GDP growth for the year to be 2.9%, with unemployment at 3.7%.
A few weeks later, market went into correction mode, driving prices down 10% from the most recent highs. Did the fundamentals change all that much in a month?
Fundamentals are fundamental so they don’t change very fast. After a decade of strong stimulus from low interest rates, easy money, quantitative easing, increased government spending and some deregulation, all boosted by a late in the game tax cut, the economy gradually dug itself out from the wreckage of the Great Recession and saw annual GDP growth rates approach the 3.0% level for the first time since 2005. Things were looking quite good compared to the past decade, but the long-term average US GDP growth rate is 3.5%, so even 3% is well below average. And, most economists are forecasting lower growth over the next two years. The Federal Reserve for example, is predicting GDP growth of 2.5% in 2019 and 2.0% for 2020.
Economists will tell you that the fundamentals are actually in trouble. The labor force is not growing fast enough to sustain 3% growth - the Department of Labor predicts average annual growth in the US labor force of 0.2% for 2015-2025, down from 1.2% from 1980-2015. Total Factor Productivity, which is now less than 1%, averaged 1.9% growth from 1947 to 1970. Inflation has risen to about 3% in 2018, from 0.76% in 2014, a long-term decline in interest rates has been reversed (10-year Treasury bond yields have increased to 3.1% from 1.6% in 2016), and domestic capital investment is flat from a year ago.
US corporations have skillfully managed around some of these obstacles by globalizing their complex supply chains, importing skilled workers from Europe and Asia, and locking in low cost debt. Foreign companies have helped with major investments in manufacturing and distribution facilities to serve markets in the US, but they too face the problems of sagging fundamentals. Twelve-month revenue growth of the S&P 500 companies declined from 7.9% in July 2018 to 6.6% in September 2018. Much of the corporate profits growth was from the lower tax rate and the Trump trade and immigration policies will likely slow growth and increase inflation further in the years ahead.
Periodically, market dynamics have more to do with stock prices than fundamentals. These dynamics essentially reflect the changing supply and demand for stocks. They involve everything from changes in asset allocation into or out of stocks, changes in foreign funds flows (foreigners now own 22% of the US equity markets after a recent two-year buying spree), the appeal of growth stocks relative to value (the price differential between the two is the greatest since the tech bubble in 1999), corporate stock repurchases and mergers, changing sectoral concentrations in market indices (the technology sector now accounts for 21% of the S&P 500 index), and changes in the portion of the markets represented by ETFs and passive funds (now about 40%).
After 2009, when the long bull market began, investors significantly increased allocation to stocks to avoid low bond yields. Foreign investors did too, but also to avoid lower growth rates at home and enjoy the stronger dollar. The “momentum” in the markets has been highly focused on tech stocks, despite a doubling of price-earnings ratios since 2009, just as it was in 1999 when Alan Greenspan called it “irrational enthusiasm.” After the 2017 tax cut, corporations increased their purchases of own-company shares to record levels, expected to be about $1 trillion in 2018. Merger activity and a slowdown in IPOs reduced the number of public companies in America and therefore the supply of different stocks available for purchase. And, every time someone buys shares in the popular S&P 500 index fund (SPY), the fund has to buy additional shares of 500 companies. Once such changes start to stir in a global equities market of $80 trillion (US share, $32 trillion), money can move quickly into and out of things, and liquidity flows have their own price effects.
Market dynamics had a lot to do with providing much better returns than could be explained by economic growth in the US after January 1, 2009. From then until now, US annual economic growth has averaged only 2.04%, but the total return (including dividends) of the S&P 500 index fund, after adjusting for inflation, averaged 13.4% for the same period. It is hard to imagine how the value of 500 of the largest companies in America can have increased six and a half times faster than the growth rate of the economy these companies principally serve.
But as we learned in October 1929, 1987 and 2008, market dynamics can suddenly take away some of what it had so generously provided in preceding years. But these dynamics have their own fish to fry – retirement, insurance, endowment and other institutions and wealthy investors still need to own stocks, and yields on ten-year Treasury bonds after inflation and taxes are still close to zero. US companies, sweetened by a lower tax rate, are performing well, and everything is relative. Would you rather have all your money in Europe or Japan, or China?