Equities have wobbled a bit at the start of the month, but unless they lose the plot in coming weeks, it is fair to say that Q1 will be everything that Q4 wasn’t; decent and calm. Indeed, the finer details reveal an even more striking dichotomy with the calamity that culminated in the rout at the end of last year. Between June—when the PE multiple peaked at just under 21—and the low for the S&P 500 in the final weak of December, EPS rose by 13%, but the index fell by 10%. In other words, the multiple crashed, a story which was repeated across almost all key DM and EM indices. By contrast, the story so far in Q1 is the exact opposite. By my calculation, trailing EPS for the S&P 500 and MSCI World are down 0.5% and 2.1% year-to-date, respectively, but both indices have rallied smartly. This can only mean one thing; multiples have expanded, and they have indeed, by about 14% in both cases since the end of December. I am confident that the tug-of-war between multiple expansion and deteriorating earnings will determine the fate of many equity investors in 2019.Read More
I am short on time this weekend, so I am doubling down on the story I told last week, with two more charts and some additional comments. The first chart updates picture of the startling spread between price change in S&P 500 and its multiple. As of last week, the U.S. large cap equity index was down 0.2% on the year, but trailing earnings were rising just under 22%. The only way to square these two headlines is to note that the P/E multiple has crashed, from a high of nearly 23 in January to 18 today. The silver lining is easy to spot. The market is now about 20% cheaper than it was at the start of the year, a significant re-rating.
The flip side is that paying 18 times earnings for the S&P 500 is not egregiously cheap. If growth in earnings roll over, a further decline in multiples would, at best, lead to stagnation; at worst, it would drive prices much lower. That’s certainly a significant risk if you consider that this year’s impressive jump in earnings, at least in part, have been driven by tax cuts, which won’t be repeated next year. It gets even worse if we start to change the assumptions around share buybacks, another important support for earnings growth via its denominator-reducing effect on the share count in the EPS calculation.Read More
As sell-side strategists parse the entrails of positioning data, and update their greed & fear models, to guess whether markets are due a rebound, investors should not forget the big picture. The conditions for further weakness remain in place. On the macro-level, the sharp slowdown global liquidity has been warning for a while that global—more specifically U.S.—equities had been rallying on borrowed time. Closer to the ground, the sell-off suggests that the multiple-crushing rise in bond yields and oil prices finally got the better of risk assets. The perma-bears will tell you that this is the drawdown to end all drawdowns, dragging global equities down to the netherworld of 2008 and 2009 price-levels. They have absolutely no justification for making such a call, but it won’t stop them peddling this narrative. Prudence suggests that we keep a close eye on liquidity in the credit market and, more specifically, signs of illiquidity in corporate bond funds and ETFs. The short-run is anybody’s guess, but if the recent past is a guide, it’ll go something like this: The market will rebound, eventually, retracing about half of the initial plunge. It will then roll over again, making a new low—the classic double-bottom—which can be bought aggressively.Read More
Churn is probably the best way to describe equity markets at the moment. Inter- and intra-day volatility have increased, which is great news for the traders—and investment banks, apparently—but it isn’t much help to the rest of us. It reduces the signal-to-noise ratio, which has already been stung by the persistent cloud of political uncertainty, the threat of trade wars and related themes. Everyone likes to talk about this, but these events have, so far, been of no consequence whatsoever to markets as far as I can see. All that moaning notwithstanding, I am happy to report that the portfolio had its first decent month of the year in April. I was beginning to wonder whether I could be that bad at picking my horses. My confidence is now restored slightly, although I am still behind the mighty Spoos. Also, the next calamity is never far away. Equity strategists are now telling me to worry about another thing: The multiple-crushing rise in oil prices. Looking beyond the idea that a higher oil price ought to result in divergence between energy and the rest of the market, the idea is simple. A sharp rise in oil prices drives up inflation expectations and bond yields, both of which are poison for valuations. Multiple-expansion turns into contraction, and equities struggle.Read More