It’s no surprise to anyone paying attention to financial news that the stock market, as measured by the S&P 500 index, closed at an all-time high last Friday. It was one measly point away from the all-time intra-day high set on September 21, 2018 (2940.91). The technology heavy NASDAQ indexes have already surpassed their all-time 2018 highs.
You’d think at new all-time highs, the masses would be euphoric and pouring money into the stock market hand-over-fist. But alas, that’s not the case at all. The rise from what I like to call the “Christmas Eve Stock Market Massacre of 2018” has been one of the most distrusted and hated rallies I’ve ever seen in my over forty years of following the stock markets. Ironically, that’s what might keep the market from falling over and moving higher, at least temporarily.
I’ll be the first to admit that I personally haven’t fully embraced the 24% rally from the Christmas Eve bottom. It’s been a torrent advance that has given latecomers (as well as early sellers) very few low-risk opportunities to jump in. That’s to say, pullbacks since Santa Claus came calling have been shallow and fleeting. Bull markets tend to be that way. Virtually every portfolio manager and investor I talked to was over-invested going into the 4th quarter 2018 swoon, and under-invested during the 1st quarter 2019 relentless advance.
Such is life investing in the stock markets.
Pundits would say that it was the Federal Reserve Chairman’s walking back talk of planned interest rate hikes in 2019 as the proximate cause for the rally. Markets love low interest rates (cheap money) as companies borrow even more money to buy back their own stock. Lower interest rates for longer have always meant corporate earnings can grow a bit faster with less drag from servicing (paying down) debt and financing expansion plans.
If the promise of lower interest rates for longer is the proximate cause for the rally, then recent positive economic news might cause the “data dependent” federal reserve to rethink the interest rate pause. A federal reserve board meeting is scheduled for this week, though the chance of an interest rate hike announcement at this meeting is virtually nil.
Just this past Friday, what was widely forecast as a coming dismal 1st quarter 2019 gross domestic product figure (under 1%), turned out to be more than thrice as good, coming instead at 3.2%.
Also this past week, while existing home sales came in 4.9% below expectations, new home sales came in almost 4.5% above expectations. In addition, durable goods orders also came in much better than expected. Finally, weekly jobless claims continue to be low. The March monthly jobs report will be announced on Friday May 3.
Expected to be dismal as well, first quarter 2019 corporate earnings reports have also continued to surprise to the upside. So far, 230 of the S&P 500 have now reported Q1 2019 earnings, and the reported Earnings Per Share (EPS) growth rate for the index is up about 2%. Granted, when companies lower expectation ahead of time, beating them becomes the norm (games companies play!)
So should we throw caution to the wind, set aside all hedges and invest all idle cash since so little seems to derail this charging bull market (e.g., the still unsettled trade wars, the Mueller Report, rising debt levels, the never-ending Brexit debacle, slower global growth, higher gas prices, etc.)?
In a word, no.
While it appears that the markets will continue to move higher in the near term, the risk-reward ratio at these levels does not favor heavy deployments of capital. Getting to a previous market high doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to smash through those old highs and rally another 5-10% immediately. After all, there are many regretful buyers from the 2018 highs who can’t wait to get out at even-money if given that opportunity (exclaiming the famous phrase anyone unexpectedly caught in a nearly 20% stock market drop “never again!”).
That incoming supply of shares from regretful buyers will likely cause a long battle around last year’s highs, making for a pause in the upward momentum. Besides, after a nearly 25% run, the market is way overdue for a break.
A Wall of Worry?
In addition to the still unresolved trade wars and ongoing Brexit discussions, we have the following worries on the table (acknowledging that the market likes to climb a wall of worry):
- Recession Fears: an inverted interest rate curve, where short term rates are higher than longer term rates, has historically been a warning flag for the economy, though the lead time to a recession has been 11 months on average. In fact, there has been only one instance where the yield curve inverted without a U.S. recession, in January 1966. It is worth noting, however, that there was still a bear market during that period, which began just one month after inversion.
- Inflation Fears: as inflation indicators have eased since the middle of 2018, investors and economists alike have pushed this all-important economic barometer to the back of their minds. However, inflationary pressures, in the form of wage hikes, could reemerge in the near future, forcing the Federal Reserve to again take action when they least want to do so.
- Corporate Debt: over the course of this economic cycle, business debt has skyrocketed as U.S. corporations have issued record amounts of debt. Non-Financial Business Debt as a percentage of GDP is close to an all-time high, and well in excess of the levels reached at the beginning of the last three recessions. If the economy slips into recession, marginally profitable companies will be unable to pay back interest on their debt, let alone the principal.
- Small Business Optimism: both small business owners and CEOs are not as enthusiastic as consumers or investors. Small business confidence fell sharply in the closing months of 2018 and has shown little propensity to recover. Corporate CEO confidence experienced an even bigger hit, with the same inability to rebound from these depressed levels. Business owners are most likely feeling the pressures of a tight labor market, rising wages, and squeezed profit margins. That could spell trouble for earnings and business spending ahead.
So What To Do Now?
The economy is stable and employment is strong. At this point, blue chip indexes have surpassed or are very close to surpassing their previous highs, tempting investors to climb aboard for another potential leg upward. But should you?
The financial planning answer to that question is that it depends on your goals, time-frame and risk tolerance. But the more realistic answer is that it really depends on your current investment level and your confidence that we’re just going to sail higher. While in the long run the market trends higher, no one I know of is a fan of investing at a potential top.
I suggest that you think back to how you were feeling in December of 2018, and if you felt that you were over-invested, or were surprised or uncomfortable reading the balances on your year-end account statements, take this gift the market has given you and reduce exposure to the markets. Even if you weren’t, ask yourself this: should I be taking some profits off the table? This is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything; only you and your financial planner can make that decision (we can help!)
I’m personally not so confident we’re going to just continue to rally without a near term pullback, and therefore I continue to position client and my personal portfolios with a defensive tilt. Mind you, I see nothing in the price action to tell me that a pause is imminent, but severe downside action can change that and repossess weeks’ worth of gains in a matter of a day or two. This, however, should be meaningless to investors with a long-term investing horizon.
While we have participated robustly in this rally since 2018, I believe that the market’s ability to achieve notably stronger gains from here is somewhat questionable. And from a safety-first strategy viewpoint, the longer-term outlook is more ominous.
The recent inversion of the yield curve is a classic warning flag, regardless of whether it remains inverted over the intermediate term. And the simmering wage inflation pressures are not going to subside anytime soon, especially when initial claims for unemployment are hitting 50 year lows. That means the Federal Reserve might have to renege on their “no rate hike” promise before this year is over. Few on Wall Street are anticipating that the Fed might take away the low interest rate punch bowl again.
As Jim Stack of InvesTech Research warns, “One of the most difficult aspects of negotiating the twists and turns of a late stage bull market is keeping one’s feet objectively planted on firm ground. It’s hard to argue against positive economic reports, except with the historical knowledge that bull markets peak when economic news is rosiest. And with consumer confidence near the highest levels of the past 50 years, one would have to think that we are approaching a peak. That inherently leaves a lot of room for potential disappointment.”
Even if it means leaving a few dollars of market profits on the table, my safety-first approach leaves me cautious/defensive with an abundant level of cash and hedges for the time being. Now is a good time to take stock of your investment level, and decide for yourself whether you’re prepared for the next downturn.
If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.