There has been much to celebrate during 2009 as the stock market ended its’ free-fall and set off on one of the biggest single year gains since the Great Depression. We have seen continued improvements in many economic indicators and their second derivatives such as temporary hires, corporate earnings, initial unemployment claims, and even the more comprehensive measure of U-6 unemployment registered a slight improvement in November. However, the improvements have been very slow coming and I do not anticipate any radical improvements in the near term that would justify additional sudden upside in equity markets.
Despite the improving flow of news, I remain cautious because of many structural issues carried over from the last few years that remain to be dealt with and because of the significant caveats that apply to much of the good news we have had. For example, the big recent fall in initial unemployment is to be expected at the end of the year because companies usually try to avoid the bad PR of laying off employees going into the holidays. Also, the slight improvement in U-6 unemployment during November is more likely to be a statistical blip than the emergence of a new trend considering that it is still above the reading from September and December’s reading ticked higher as well.
At the end of the fourth quarter, the S&P 500 was sitting at the 50% Fibonacci retracement line from the July 2007 market highs to 2009 lows following more than a 64% move from the March bottom. At 19.9, the projected 2010 price/earnings ratio of the market is certainly above the historical average of approximately 16 but it is still well within normal ranges during the beginning of a recovery. Although I do not feel that the market is significantly over-valued at current levels, I see few catalysts for significant additional gains and after pouring over historical data, I believe there is a relatively high likelihood that the market will correct moderately to the downside as the previously mentioned issues play out and the following headwinds begin to manifest themselves:
Tepid Employment Outlook
Although the initial unemployment claims number has been declining recently, a disturbing trend in the data has been emerging in which continued unemployment has been rising in an almost inversely proportional way. This indicates that a growing number of people have been and are being disconnected from the labor market for almost a year. These people will lose their unemployment benefits soon, depressing their ability to contribute to the economy while also subtracting from the spending power of those people who remain employed because many people are now using discretionary income to support family members and friends who have fallen on hard times.
To make matters worse, many of the jobs that have not yet come back (such as manufacturing, financial services, automotive, etc.) are not likely to return to pre-crash levels of employment and sectors that are growing such as health care are not hiring as much as they normally would be because of persisting uncertainty regarding regulation in the sector. Also, the longer someone stays out of the labor market, the more their skills become obsolete, diminishing their long term productivity and earnings potential. I’m also beginning to factor in a slight chance of a double dip recession similar to 1937 if the Government and Fed are forced to begin withdrawing stimulus and liquidity before the labor markets can fully stabilize.
Withdrawal of Monetary and Fiscal Support
A large part of the recent rally has been due to strong fiscal and monetary policies enacted over the past two years that I mentioned previously in my October 20th Buffett vs. Bullion post. However, these will be disappearing relatively soon as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) expires in 2010 and liquidity is withdrawn from the market by the Government and Fed to prevent inflationary pressures from building into another asset bubble. The U.S. Government hasn’t even come close to issuing all of the debt that is required to fund its’ growing deficits but now that a complete financial meltdown is off the table, investors are already demanding higher yields to make purchasing the treasuries worthwhile considering the balance sheet problems facing our country. If yields continue to rise, it will eventually put serious pressure on an already strained credit market and economy.
Hobbled Banks and Declining Credit
Commercial banks are the backbone of the worlds’ credit markets and they have been badly injured over the past few years by and are still being held together by unprecedented levels of legislative (termination of mark-to-market), monetary (lowering Federal Funds Rate below 0.25%) and fiscal (TARP) support. The banks are still being hobbled by a multi-year build up of toxic “assets” and unprecedentedly high default rates on a wide range of consumer and commercial loans which has significantly curtailed the ability of banks to loan out new funds in the market which would spur further economic growth.
In recent past recoveries, credit has always continued to expand and the savings rate has continued its’ long term downward trend. However, the most recent recession seems to have fundamentally changed things. The weakened banks can no longer increase the credit they give (in fact, credit has been contracting), and Americans have begun rejecting their debt-loving nature sending the national savings rate average above 4.5% in 2009 for the first time since 1998. The markets rejoiced and rallied on the news that many of our nations’ major banking institutions had returned to profitability. Unfortunately, the opposite reaction could take place when/if investors realize that the return to profitability was heavily aided by taxpayer support and that normalized bank earnings will be lower in the near future because of the previously mentioned reasons and lower levels of lending.
Persistent Market Uncertainty
Certainty in and of itself is not necessarily a good or bad thing, however a lack of certainty is the breeding ground of volatility in the stock market which tends to reduce realized returns over shorter time frames. There continues to be a great deal of uncertainty concerning the Federal Funds Rate over the next several years and Government intervention in the market as we mentioned in our newsletter from the Third Quarter. There are also other issues which have been temporarily swept under the rug which could come back to haunt during 2010 such as health care reform, regulation of the financial industry, changes to the tax code and taxes on greenhouse gases. I feel that these are important issues which must be tackled comprehensively and in a timely manner. This will almost ikely continue to be a challenge for the current Congress and could become even worse following the 2010 midterm elections. Every day that goes by without there being solid laws on the books is another day that executives will delay hiring or expenditures because of uncertainty over what the business and economic landscapes of the U.S. will look like five years from now.
For example, (1.) Should healthcare companies hire more people to meet growing demand from regulation that would increase the pool of customers, OR should they fire people because the industry might get regulated to death instead? (2.) Should financial institutions begin putting money back to work in the economy, OR should they be divesting certain assets because of a possible return of Glass-Steagal? The answer barely matters in this case; CEO’s just need to know what the rules of the game will be so they can plan for it. (3.) Should employers like General Electric continue to take advantage of our skilled labor force as well as our great technical and legal infrastructure, OR should they relocate to a more fiscally responsible country for fear of draconian tax rates being employed to sustain Congress’ out of control spending habits? (4.) Should companies continue investing in green and other sustainable technologies to improve our planet, OR should they shut down because they won’t be cost competitive with fossil fuels unless carbon emissions are taxed appropriately?
Maybe Congress could answer these questions for us when they are done squabbling over who gets the most pork barrel money.
All this being said, I continue to maintain a positive long term outlook because there are still many exciting areas which I feel offer favorable risk/reward fundamentals and will take advantage of longer term shifts in the global economy. I will continue to revisit my investment thesis regularly throughout the next quarter and I am very interested to hear what executives will have to say about their outlooks on the conference calls during the upcoming earnings season which Alcoa (AA) just kicked off.
We have just emerged from one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression and I use this comparison because of the great similarities between then and now. The Great Depression began in 1929 when the market fell steeply following years of greed and financial excess (sound familiar?). Market sentiment quickly recovered and stocks experienced one of their greatest runs in history over the next several months as investors covered short positions and began to anticipate a strong recovery (sound familiar?). The rally took the market all the way to the half-way back point (right about where we are now) but investors began taking profits as they waited for the projected fundamental economic improvements to materialize and the market proceeded to dive, not truly bottoming until almost four years later in 1933.
Mark Twain once said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” and with this in mind I plan on returning to a more defensive posture than I was in the beginning months of 2009 when prices as well as expectations were much lower.
Words of Wisdom for 2010
“Look at market fluctuations as your friend rather than your enemy; profit from folly rather than participate in it.”
– Warren E. Buffett
“The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities — that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future — will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.”
– Warren E. Buffett
Happy 2010 everyone!