With the stock market at its current level, a recurring question many investors have is when will we reach the top, or are we there already? In answer to this question, we believe the market will continue to climb. Consumer confidence continues to be strong and the data can be validated across multiple data sources, like the level of voluntary separation from employment (which is at levels not seen since the early 2000's), the savings rate (which has dropped, typically indicating a higher level of confidence in the economy and in one's ability to earn money), and survey data showing small business optimism to be near its 30 year high. Also, the Philadelphia Fed's survey of Future Capital Expenditures recently hit its 30 year high, indicating business leaders continue to expect expansion.1
Even more interesting (and encouraging) to us, is it appears the market may have gotten here while taking a path of lower risk than in previous cycles. US corporations are currently operating at historically low levels of corporate debt to profits.1 High levels of debt to profits increase a business's financial risk, and therefore make the business more sensitive to economic forces (especially negative ones). Perhaps the relatively low levels of debt to profits are why the market didn't skip a beat during the earnings recession that began in Q3 of 2015 and ended in Q4 of 2016. This may also help explain the historically low levels of volatility.
We would further point out that many times markets reach their peak when investors are no longer rational about their investments. Examples of this are the valuation and expectations for tech stocks in the late 1990's, for oil stocks in 2007, and for housing and bank stocks in 2008. The expectations of these sectors drove them to unreasonably high valuations (bubbles), paving the way for a prolonged market correction (recession and bear market). Today's market, in our opinion, looks very different from what it looked like during the Tech Bubble, Oil Bubble, or the Housing Bubble.
To give some historical context, at the peak of the tech bubble, Microsoft traded at 254% of its current Price to Earnings ratio. Intel traded at 1,140% of its current Price to Earnings ratio, and Cisco traded at 1,266% of its current Price to Earnings ratio.1 In bank stocks prior to the bursting of the debt bubble, we saw large increases in leverage. Two examples of large US banks that were levered up are Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Bank of America's leverage (debt to total capital) prior to the bursting of the housing bubble was 136% of its current value, and Wells Fargo's peaked out at 121% of today's current leverage ratio.1 In energy, we saw strong earnings growth fueled predominantly by oil reaching prices of $140 per barrel (an increase that was not well explained by demand, growth or supply). When the price of oil came back to fair value (the oil bubble burst), so fell the price of the oil companies.
Returning to where we started, we don't see today's market as a highly over-valued market. Leverage ratios look reasonable, commodity prices look fair, and price multiples in relation to earnings and assets appear to be rational; and because we expect to experience synchronized global growth, we believe equities have the opportunity to climb higher. We've heard numerous times, "This bull market is the most hated bull market of all time," and we're inclined to agree. That doesn't mean that it's not a legitimate bull market. And by removing emotional factors and focusing on fundamentals, we believe investors can get a better view of the opportunities and risks in the market. We continue to monitor the markets and watch for shifts in fundamental data and investor sentiment.
1. Source: Thomson DataStream
Categories: Monthly Market Commentary