Over the past week, the stocks of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airlines were up 77%, 51% and 35% respectively. In addition, the stocks of Norwegian Cruises, Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises were up 43%, 37%, and 34% respectively.
But none was more bizarre than the stock of Hertz Car Rental, which was up a whopping 157% on the week. Now it’s not unusual for a cheap stock trading for $1.00 a share to double or triple in a week. But it is unusual when the company has already declared bankruptcy, meaning that stockholders will likely receive nothing in the reorganization.
In what I can only describe as a bit of overexuberance in a world where many don’t plan to get on an airplane in the next 12 months, and others who say they’ll never step foot on a cruise ship in their lifetimes again, can I say that the recent rally is getting a little “bubblelicious”?
That’s all to say that I cannot remember a time when I’ve seen such a widespread disparity between what is happening in the economy and what is happening in the stock market.
Let’s take a few moments to briefly outline the situation using hard data.
- The unemployment rate soared to a post-depression high of 14.7% in April, while the survey of businesses by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed a loss of 20.5 million jobs in April, the worst monthly reading since records began in 1939.
- In a single month, nearly all of the jobs created after the financial crisis disappeared, at least temporarily.
- Then on Friday we got the May Jobs report and we were surprised that the economy had created 2.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate had actually declined to 13.3%. While 13.3% unemployment is a “depression-like” number, it was far better than numbers projected by economists: a loss of 7.5 million jobs and a 20% unemployment rate. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: “forecasting is hard, especially when it’s about the future”.
- April’s 11.2% drop in industrial production, a metric the Federal Reserve has tracked since 1919 – is the biggest monthly decline on record. Furthermore, consumer spending in April fell 13.6%, the biggest decline ever recorded (U.S. BEA, data back to 1959).
- The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Manufacturing Index and the ISM Services Index both showed a slight improvement in May; however, both segments remain deep in contraction territory.
- Record layoffs continue, with the number of first-time claims for unemployment insurance topping 40 million over a 10-week period ending May 23. Put another way, nearly one in four working Americans have experienced a job loss.
If there is any good news, it is that the number of first-time filings has been declining, and the number of individuals who re-certify on a regular basis in order to continue receiving jobless benefits is about half the number of first-time filings.
This would suggest that the economic injury disaster loans and payroll protection program loans are kicking in, and re-openings are encouraging businesses to recall furloughed workers.
Let’s Back Up Again for a Moment
- In April, in just a three-week period, the number of first-time claims for jobless benefits totaled an astounding 17 million. For perspective, during the 18-month-long 2007-2009 recession…first-time claims totaled 9.6 million.
- Yet the Dow Jones Industrial Average added 2,107 points over the three Thursdays when the massive number of new claims were released.
- Since then (April 9), the Dow has added 3,600 points, or 15.0%. It is up 49% since its near-term March 23 bottom.
- The broader-based S&P 500 Index eclipsed 3,000 by the end of May and has rebounded nearly 46% from its March 23 low to near 3,200.
- Meanwhile the tech-heavy NASDAQ Composite has added 48%, is back above 9,800, and has already surpassed its all-time high.
Simply put, economic activity is falling with depression-like speed, but the major averages are in the midst of an historic rally.
Here’s one more piece of performance data:
- During the financial crisis, the S&P 500 Index lost nearly 57% from its October 2007 peak to the bottom in March 2009. This year, in about one month, the S&P 500 Index shed 34% before hitting a near-term bottom on March 23.
The adage “stocks climb a wall of worry” has never been more appropriate amid economic devastation and an outlook that remains incredibly murky.
A Closer Look at the Wall Street/Main Street Disconnect
A combination of factors has fueled the rally since late March.
The response by the Federal Reserve has far outpaced its 2008 response, which has lent a tremendous amount of support to stocks. The same can be said of government fiscal stimulus.
Investors are also keeping close tabs on state re-openings, which will re-employ furloughed workers, help stabilize the economy, and set the stage for a possible economic rebound later in the summer. Talk of possible vaccines has also helped.
You see, investors don’t simply look at today’s data, which in many cases is backward-looking. Instead, they are forward-looking as they attempt to price in economic activity, the level of interest rates, corporate profits, and more over the next 6–12 months.
An Approaching Dawn
If we look at what is called “high-frequency economic data” (daily or weekly reports), we are starting to see signs of stability.
Daily gasoline usage has rebounded (Energy Information Administration), daily travel through TSA checkpoints is up, hotel occupancy is off the bottom, and the same can be said of weekly box office receipts (Box Office Mojo).
In addition, the weekly U.S. MBA’s Purchase Index (home loan applications) registered its fifth-best reading over the last year (as of May 22), suggesting that low-interest rates and some confidence that the U.S. economy is set to recover are lending support to housing.
Of course, these are highly unconventional measures of economic activity and are industry-specific. Outside of the Purchase Index, each remains well below previous highs, but the turnaround suggests we may be seeing some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Any given level of a major stock market index represents the collective wisdom of tens of millions of stock market investors. It is not simply an opinion, but an opinion with money behind it. That’s an opinion worth listening to.
When stocks were in a free fall in March, investors were anticipating a devastating blow to the economy. Tragically, the data did not disappoint.
But has the rally been too much, too quickly?
Even in the best of times, economic forecasting can be difficult (refer to earlier Yogi Berra quote). Today, the outlook is clouded with a much greater degree of uncertainty.
- Will the virus lay down over the summer?
- How will re-openings proceed?
- How quickly can a readily available vaccine and treatment be developed?
- What might happen to COVID-19 next fall and winter?
- How quickly will consumers venture back in public and resume prior spending patterns?
These are difficult questions to answer.
I don’t expect a return to a pre-COVID jobless rate anytime soon. But investors are betting that an economic bottom is in sight or has already occurred.
I understand the uncertainty facing all of us and I don’t underestimate the enormous amount of work that has to be done or the difficulties we’ll encounter in getting back to “normal”. We are grappling with an economic and a health care crisis, not to mention recent civil unrest. It’s a combination none of us have ever faced.
A New Bull Market or the Most Epic of all Bear Market Rallies?
For our clients’ portfolios, I know that I will spend years analyzing the last few months and scrutinizing our moves. I’m pleased that we entered 2020 with a defensive stance that served us well. I’m also pleased that we followed our rules in further reducing portfolio risk and increasing hedges as we saw fit as the decline kicked into high gear. I’m very pleased that we held firm with our core holdings, never wavering from our belief that our core assets would ultimately be just fine, dividends would continue to accrue and that the foundation of our portfolios remained intact.
As we moved through the crash methodically with a steady hand and calm head, I’m also pleased that not a single client panicked, and those that stuck with their investment plans and did not decide to tinker with their portfolio risk “on the fly” fared the best among our clients. Those that paid attention to the media (who regularly try their best to scare us witless), and who insisted on reducing their risk near the bottom and not follow their own investment plan still fared OK but cost their portfolios dearly.
So I guess I’ll say it again: Neither they, you, or I know what’s going to happen next, no matter how smart we are. All we can do is watch the price action, put probabilities in our favor, and pay heed to risk. Ultimately, we’re in the risk management business, not the prediction business.
What I’m not as pleased about is that we didn’t more aggressively buy the panic that ensued in the market. Of course, this is easy to say in hindsight. It was my plan to do so, but the bounce proceeded too quickly and the shallow pullbacks did not allow for the necessary low-risk entries that I was planning for. While we bought some investments lightly on the way down and also on the way up, with the benefit of hindsight, we could have more aggressively reduced hedges and ramped up buying.
I’m also not pleased that I underestimated the power of the Federal Reserve and found myself being overly moderate. Of course, the next few months could prove my current sentiment to be completely wrong and the gains quickly reverse. As it stands, it is my plan to increase our overall investment levels based on the “quality” of the next pullback.
Towards that end, if this is truly a new bull market, and the recession turns out to be one of the shortest ones on record, then the next pullback should be of the 5%-10% variety, and will give us a low-risk way to increase stock market exposure further. If instead, this has been the “mother” of all bear market rallies, then our continued defensive stance will serve us quite well. Only time will tell.
Short-term, the market is a bit overheated, so a pullback could ensue any day now. For those who are phasing back into the market, or who need to rebalance their portfolio, it may be advantageous to wait for the pullback.
As we move forward from here, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have no idea how this all plays out into the remainder of 2020. From the coronavirus, we have now moved to national demonstrations and riots which are affecting cities all across America. In just a few months we’ll be heading directly into a presidential election. If that’s not a recipe for elevated volatility for the rest of the year, I don’t know what is.
On the investment horizon, I can tell you that this bust/ boom cycle we’ve just witnessed has solidified, more than ever, just how important it is to have a portfolio diversification not only in different asset types, but also across time-frames (i.e., short term, medium-term and long-term investments). It has solidified the idea that a client’s risk tolerance is much more important than age-based risk tolerance, and that I plan to spend more time in client meetings making sure that clients truly understand and accept their overall risk. As a firm, we’ll continue looking to do more of the things that have worked for us and less of the things that didn’t.
Fueled by record amounts of stimulus in both monetary and fiscal policy, stocks have continued to move higher in spite of the ongoing economic damage. This disconnect between the economy and the stock market has confounded many analysts due to the fact that there is typically a tight link between the two. And while it’s key to understand the additional dynamics which affect the stock market, this divergence (between the economy and stock market) represents a high degree of risk which continues to warrant a defensive portfolio stance.
As always, I’m honored and humbled that you’re devoting time to read what I’m writing and/or given me the opportunity to serve as your financial planner/advisor. If you have any questions or would like to discuss any financial matters, please feel free to give me a call.
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.