Category Archives: S&P 500

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Minimize Risk Without Sacrificing Returns? Sven Tells You How


  • By dissecting the S&P 500 per valuation quintiles we see that only parts of the market are overvalued.
  • Historically, buying the lowest PE quintile stocks has increased annual returns by 360 basis points.
  • High PE stocks have large market capitalizations which force you to own more of them through index funds, increasing your risks and lowering your returns.

Introduction 

Beyond the top news stories about central banks increasing stimulus to fight the BREXIT or sluggish economic data with high hopes for the future, there is one recurrent theme that still flies under the radar. The recurring theme is that financial markets are overvalued.

As we all know, bull markets climb a wall of worry. Investors who sold everything in 2011 believing markets were overvalued were happy for a while, but are probably still crying now as, if they had not gotten back in the market, they missed a huge upside. We might be in a similar situation where selling now would mean losing much upside, but there is another option.

Figure 1 S&P 500 last 10 years
Figure 1: S&P 500 chart for the last 10 years. Source: 5yearcharts.com.

Today we are going to discuss the alleged market overvaluation and dissect it into overvalued and undervalued segments. This is possible as the market is currently all over the place. We are going to end with an example of potential irrational exuberance, social network stocks, and show how such investments can be avoided even when allowing for a high level of diversification.

Dissecting Market Overvaluation

The PE ratio of the S&P 500 is 25.24 if you calculate it by using S&P 500 earnings. By changing methodology, you can get to other averages, but we believe this one to be the most accurate as it looks at aggregate earnings and not stock PE ratios with a lot of negative inputs that skew the result. The average PE ratio for all S&P 500 stocks with negative ratios included ends up at around 19, so don’t get confused by the difference.

In any case, the expected returns with a PE ratio of 25.24 are below 4% per annum, and as corporate earnings are not growing we cannot expect much more. If you hold a diversified ETF or mutual fund that tracks the market, you can’t expect more than 4% returns in the long run, but you should be able to lower your risks and even increase your long term returns if you choose not to include irrationally overvalued companies in your portfolio.

Of course, complete S&P 500 diversification is then out of the question, but here is why. When buying an index, the most expensive stocks have the largest weights because as they get more and more expensive, their market capitalization increases and the fund manager is forced to buy more, which further increases the price and forces the asset manager to buy even more creating a vicious circle that leads into irrational exuberance.

But by looking at quartile valuations of expected forward PE ratios, we see that the market is overvalued only within the highest PE quintile.

figure 2 quintile expected forward PE
Figure 2: S&P 500 PE ratios by quintile. Source: Smead Capital Management.

As historically stocks with the lowest PE ratios have outperformed all other groups, we can limit the risks of a market downturn by shifting our portfolios towards low PE ratio stocks. Those who did that in the last 40 years achieved above market returns of 360 basis points (market average 11.7%, lowest quintile PE stocks 15.3%).

figure 2 PE ratio returns
Figure 3: Returns by valuation quintile. Source: Smead Capital Management.

To give some research aid, here are the 25 S&P 500 stocks with the lowest PE ratios. Be careful because low PE ratios don’t always mean high earnings. Special events like divestitures or future imminent costs can skew PE ratios.

CompanyTickerPE Ratio
Delta Air Lines Inc.DAL3.87
Noble Corp.NE6.44
Yahoo! Inc.YHOO6.64
Valero Energy Corp.VLO7.03
American International Group Inc.AIG8.91
AFLAC Inc.AFL9.26
Assurant Inc.AIZ9.42
Danbury Resources, Inc.DNR9.50
Unumprovident Corp.UNM9.59
Deere & Co.DE9.69
Travelers Companies Inc.TRV9.94
CF Industries HoldingsCF9.94
Lincoln National Corp.LNC10.04
Ford Motor Co.F10.23
Hess Corp.HES10.36
International Business Machines Corp.IBM10.39
Verizon Communications Inc.VZ10.48
Lyondellbasell IndustriesLYB10.52
Masco Corp.MAS10.55
Murphy Oil Corp.MUR10.69
Chevron Corp.CVX10.72
AT&T Inc.T10.88
Capital One Financial Corp.COF10.91
Allstate Corp.ALL10.92
Goldman Sachs GroupGS10.95
Figure 4: S&P 500 lowest PE stocks. Source: The Online Investor.

Digging into such a list can give you companies that have stable businesses and low valuations despite any market whim.

High Valuation Example

Not taking anything away from Facebook (FB) or giving any investment analysis, we are going to use it as an example of how a high PE ratio stock can influence our long term investment.

FB’s current weight in the S&P 500 is 1.53% which means that the average Joe that only invests in the S&P 500 has 1.53% of his portfolio in FB. This might be a good thing as FB has had an extraordinary performance since its IPO, but it also means you are paying $125 a share for something that has a book value of $17.54 and EPS of $2.09.

FB will probably continue on its growth path in the future, but investors must understand such a situation carries more risk and the risk can be explained with the huge fall other social networking stocks have witnessed.

figure 5 FB LNKD
Figure 5: Facebook’s, Twitter’s and LinkedIn’s performances in the last 4 years. Source: Yahoo Finance.

LinkedIn has fallen from a price of above $250 per share at the end of 2015 to a price near $100 earlier this year due to lower growth. It was saved by Microsoft which bought it for $26.2 billion, or $196 per share.

Twitter didn’t find any suitors, so its price is still 55% below IPO.

Any change in FB’s growth trajectory, which is bound to arrive sometime as no corporation can grow forever, can have a LinkedIn effect on Facebook which will mean that half of the 1.53% of one’s portfolio would be wiped out.

Another example of high PE ratios and low returns could be Microsoft which bought LinkedIn despite the company not being profitable. Microsoft’s PE ratio is currently around 28 which puts it into the higher valuation quartiles. Microsoft’s weight in the S&P 500 is 2.41%.

Conclusion

The main message of this article is that you can choose where to be invested and you can minimize long term risk and, from an historical perspective, you do not even have to sacrifice your returns. By buying the stocks that are suitable to your investing goals you can achieve better returns and avoid the market risks you don’t like. Those can be social networking stocks, money-losing car makers, or oil companies. Because in order to have a well-diversified portfolio, you only need about 20 stocks.

figure 6 portfolio risk
Figure 6: Number of stocks needed in order to eliminate market risks. Source: Investopedia.

As index funds are created for long-term investors that want to be well diversified, if you want something other than that, you can lower your risk and achieve better returns by buying stocks that have higher earnings as in the long term, stock returns and earnings are perfectly correlated.

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Signs of Fragility in the Economy Point to an Impending Bear Market. What To Do Now To Protect Yourself.


  • The last jobs report was good news but it also indicates higher costs and full employment.
  • An “easy to hire, easy to fire” mentality is in the air.
  • Healthcare, cash or short term trades should be the best options in this situation.

Introduction

Last week the Nasdaq and S&P 500 reached yet another record high. Aggressive central bank stimulation pushes investors to disregard risks and look for any kind of yield or growth. Not looking at risk is the worst thing an investor can do, but they also shouldn’t fight the trend.

Even from a long term perspective the market is irrationally valued, and no one can know how long it will stay that way. Being in cash might seem logical but a 0.1% return looks much worse than the S&P 500’s 8.9% year-to-date return.

Today, we are going to analyze earnings as 86% of S&P 500 companies have reported them, but first take a look at Friday’s jobs report which sent mixed signals.

The Jobs Report

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an increase in total non-farm payroll employment of 255,000 in July. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9 percent which is great news for the economy but not so much for investors because it indicates that we are close to full employment. The unemployment rate has stabilized at 4.9% and wages have started to increase (2.6% over the year). Higher wages mean higher costs which have a negative effect on margins and earnings.

figure 1 unemployment rate
Figure 1: Unemployment rate. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Apart from the reach of full employment and higher wages, the fact that businesses prefer to hire more than to invest in equipment signals that corporations are not so optimistic about the future. They easily hire but know that they can fire with the same ease, if necessary. If you buy equipment, you are stuck with it in most cases.

figure 2 employment equipment
Figure 2: Lower equipment spending in favor of labor. Source: Bloomberg.

The “easy to hire and fire” effect is even more pronounced by the increase in the number of people forced to work part-time for economic reasons, which rose from 5.84 million to 5.94 million.

All of the above means that job numbers are fragile and can quickly shift in the opposite direction. This, along with slow GDP growth, will probably keep the FED on hold or result in minimally increased rates to hold off inflation.

S&P 500 Earnings

The second quarter of 2016 is the fifth consecutive quarter with a decline in earnings.

figure 3 earnings growth
Figure 3: S&P 500 earnings growth rate. Source: FACTSET.

The S&P 500 reported sales were flat in comparison to Q2 2015 which means that the increased hiring does not create growth but is necessary to merely keep up with the competition.

Analysts have postponed expected earnings growth to Q4 2016, which doesn’t mean much as they had expected earnings growth for this and for the next quarter. So, as always, analysts’ expectations have to be taken with a grain of salt.

From a sector perspective, consumer discretionary was the best performer with earnings growth of 10.7% which is logical seeing that consumer spending is the only growth segment of the U.S. GDP. But as consumer discretionary is not essential, any kind of bad news or tightening credit might quickly turn this trend around.

For investors interested in not taking on much risk if a bear market hits us, the healthcare sector continued its good news. Healthcare earnings grew 4.9% and revenue grew 9%. As we know that the global population is getting older, especially in the developed world we can expect demand for healthcare to stay stable, or fall the least in a recession or bear market. Therefore, finding good healthcare investments is essential for a defensive portfolio that is still open to growth in this bull market but limits the potential downside if things take a turn for the worse.

figure 4 sector
Figure 4: S&P 500 Earnings growth by sector. Source: FACTSET.

All other sectors are exposed to negative volatility because consumers are going to save on all things except for food and healthcare. With oil prices around $40 we cannot expect an earnings pickup in the energy sector.

The most important factor for long term investors is valuation. Lower earnings and higher prices have brought the current S&P 500 PE ratio to 25.25. If the FED is forced to increase rates due to high employment rates, corporate earnings will be further pressured downwards by the high debt levels and tightening credit will lower consumer spending.

figure 5 multpl
Figure 5: S&P 500 PE ratio continues to grow. Source: Multpl.

Conclusion

We are in a situation where the S&P 500 is consistently breaking new highs while there have been 5 consecutive quarters of declining earnings, slow GDP growth, lower productivity and where bank credit, the main factor for GDP growth, is about to tighten due to increased interest rates and full consumer indebtedness.

We cannot know for how long such a surreal situation will last, but as smart investors we have to be prepared for the worst and still try to grasp the benefits of the upside. As Warren Buffett has $66 billion in cash on his balance sheet, we might to also want think about having cash on hand just in case a bear market comes that will enable us to buy the bargains. As earnings yields are at 4%, that would be the opportunity cost for holding cash but we can hold cash for 5 years and still break even if a bear market comes along. It is difficult to mentally accept such a strategy as we are in the 7th year of this bull market, but some returns have to be sacrificed in order to lower risks.

Another option for diversification is to use a part of your portfolio for well-placed short term trades. The S&P grew minimally in the last two years but in the meantime it gave great trading opportunities. With stop losses and by knowing what you are doing, you can limit the time you are invested, thus lower the risk of being caught in a bear market while still creating healthy returns on the liquid part of your portfolio.

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Euphoria & Denial Point to the Last Days of the Bull Market


  • Risks are cumulating and getting bigger.
  • U.S. GDP growth is slower than expected, earnings and oil prices continue to decline.
  • Japan is unable to grow while BREXIT risks are still unfolding.

Introduction

It is difficult to find good news lately. The last really good news was the June jobs report when 287,000 jobs were added. Since then, most of the news seems dismal, however, it has yet to have a negative impact on financial markets. It’s as though investors are just hoping for something good to happen in the future. As hopes are an immaterial human feeling, they should not be the base for investment decisions.

In this article we are going to analyze what’s pushing the S&P 500 to new highs. Are we in a state of euphoria about stocks or are the valuations and price increases rational?

GDP News

The U.S. economy was expected to grow 2.5% in Q2 2016, but it only grew 1.2% (seasonally adjusted). U.S. economic growth for 2016 is currently at 1% which is the weakest start of a year since 2011. Saving the economy from a recession is consumer spending which increased by 4.2%.

Low interest rates create cheap money which fuels two trends, growth in both consumer spending and the S&P 500. Consumer loans have increased at a faster pace than consumer spending which makes it clear that spending growth is fueled by debt.

figure 1 consumer loans
Figure 1: Consumer loans at all commercial banks (blue) and consumer spending (green). Source: FRED.

Anyone who has studied economics will tell you that the economy works in credit cycles, when money is cheap and prospects good, people take on credit and spend it. But one can only take on so much credit, and all banks want their money back sooner or later. When sentiment shifts, a credit contraction arises and consumer spending falls. As this is inevitable, the only justification for the current hope of increased GDP growth can be explained with the most dangerous words for investors: “this time is different.”

figure 2 credit cycle
Figure 2: Credit cycle. Source: Loomis Sayles.

As we are in the expansion part of the credit cycle, a recession is going to hit us as soon as we reach the downturn part of the credit cycle because consumer loans are the only thing still boosting growth.

figure 3 gdp contributors
Figure 3: Contributions to Q2 economic growth. Source: Wall Street Journal.

If it wasn’t for consumer spending fueled by cheap loans, the U.S. economy would most likely already be in a recession.

The S&P 500

With economic growth largely missing expectations you would assume the S&P 500 would tank, but that’s not what happened Friday when the economic data was released. On the contrary, the S&P 500 reached a new intraday high at 2177 points. The main reason for the new S&P 500 high is hope of future economic growth, the same economic growth that didn’t realize itself in this quarter.

Another reason stocks have continued to rise has been the Q3 2016 expected corporate earnings growth, but that also vanished like the above described economic growth. As most companies have issued negative guidance we cannot expect higher earnings in Q3 2016.

figure 4 positive guidance
Figure 4: Q3 2016 earnings guidance for the S&P 500. Source: FACTSET.

The FED

It would appear the FED is also somewhat in denial about the true state of the U.S. economy and S&P 500 earnings, and is holding on to the hope of increasing interest rates as soon as the economy shows signs of strength, be we’ve been hearing the same story for a while now.

Last week the FED left the door open for interest rate increases as the economy seemed to be improving, but this was before Friday’s GDP debacle. With growth being lower than expected, the FED will probably continue with its status quo policy. As we now know that the only thing pushing the economy higher is consumer spending fueled by consumer debt, any interest rate increases would be detrimental for the economy and push it into the downturn part of the cycle because higher interest rates would increase the cost of debt.

Data on jobs, consumer spending and inflation will be available before the FED’s next meeting in September so we will closely watch that in order to see if the FED will eventually move, highly unlikely after the latest GDP debacle.

Global Situation

The BREXIT had only a short-term effect on markets as investors soon focused on other things and hoped that it would not have any long term effects. But any BREXIT effects won’t be seen in economic data for a few years as it will take the UK at least two years to exit the EU, if not four.

figure 5 brexit
Figure 5: Soon forgotten BREXIT. Source: Google.

News from Japan was also not that good. As economic targets have not been reached, the Bank of Japan decided to double the annual amount it uses to buy exchange traded funds, from ¥3 trillion to ¥6 trillion ($57 billion). This is only a modest increase to Japan’s easing policy, measured in hundreds of trillions, and brings us to the conclusion that Japan is out of monetary policy ammo. Even with constant increases in monetary easing, Japan has experienced a 0.5% deflation in June and slower consumer spending. This should be a warning sign for the U.S. as it is clear that easing has its limits.

Conclusion

All the above indicates that we are currently in the denial phase of a stock market cycle. We have had a bull market for 7 years now and no one wants to look at the above data as it indicates a turn in the credit cycle, lower business spending and earnings, a strong dollar and global uncertainties with the UK, Japan and China. We will analyze the situation in China soon as it requires a special article.

figure 6 stock market cycle
Figure 6: Stock market cycle. Source: The Gold and Oil Guy.

Not to mention oil prices coming close to $40 dollars per barrel, which will push energy earnings down, again.

All of the cumulating risks we’ve discussed send a strong message. Investors have to start thinking about risks and rewards. In the late stage of a bull market, many are overweight stocks, which means they can expect a beating if any of the above mentioned risks trigger a bear market. The options are to increase one’s cash in order to have liquidity when a market decline comes, or to own more uncorrelated asset classes. I’ve written more on this in our recent article on Ray Dalio’s strategy.

For stocks, simply ask yourself, how much are you willing to risk for a 4% long term expected yield?

 

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Corporate Earnings of the S&P 500’s Top 10: Why It Is Important for You


  • Corporate earnings and fundamentals are variable, pick the stocks that best suit you.
  • There are low PE ratio stocks, high growth stocks, and high dividend yielders – anything you might want.
  • But be aware: some companies engage in buybacks that are detrimental to shareholders’ value.

Introduction

When you add up the top ten companies by weight, they account for 17.7% of the total weight of the S&P 500. For investors who are heavily invested in the S&P 500, following the earnings of its top ten companies is essential in order to understand the risks and rewards of being invested in the index. In this article we are going to assess the current market situation by looking at what has been going on with the 10 biggest companies in the S&P 500 index.

Apple

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) reported earnings after hours on Tuesday. Q2 2016 revenue declined 14.4% year-over-year and earnings per share declined 27% to $1.42 from $1.85. Those results were better than expected, and AAPL jumped 7% in after-hours trading.

AAPL isn’t a standard company, its revenue is highly dependent on iPhone sales which fell due to customers awaiting a new generation iPhone to be announced in September. If the same trend holds true as it has in the past with new iPhone generation sales, AAPL’s sales will increase when it releases the new phone. In the meantime, perhaps the most important thing from this earnings report is the fact that AAPL returned $13 billion to investors through dividends and repurchases.

The dividend yield is 2.38% annually but when we add in the repurchases, it comes to a staggering 2.3% quarterly yield, making AAPL’s dividend yield quite a bit higher than the S&P 500 average of 2.05%.

In total, the S&P 500 buybacks were $161 billion in Q1 2016,—interestingly, Apple alone makes up about 8% of this total— second only to Q3 2007 when the buybacks reached $172 billion. The most important thing with buybacks is the question: is buying your own stock the best use of cash at that point in time? Yes, companies protect and increase their share prices, but at what cost? We all know what happened in the two years after Q3 2007 when repurchases reached record highs…

Another company that is strong in repurchases in Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT).

Microsoft

MSFT also saw its revenue decline, by 6%, and earnings per share declined 23% (GAAP results), but nevertheless returned $2.8 billion in dividends and $3.6 billion in repurchases, giving a dividend yield of 2.54% and a 3.1% indirect yearly repurchase yield.

The decline in revenues and earnings further exacerbates the above mentioned buyback issue, but even more alarming is the fact that MSFT is buying its stock despite their PE ratio of 27.7, while AAPL’s is at 11. This is where alpha kicks in because good stock picking can make you avoid such bad cash investments.

Exxon Mobil

The consensus earnings per share for Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) is $0.64 for Q2 2016 which is 34% below the earnings per share in the same quarter last year.

XOM’s share repurchase program is another crazy example of ill-timed purchases. In February, XOM stopped its buyback program after spending $210 billion over the last decade. The craziness lies in the fact that the company has stopped buying back stocks despite the price being at multiyear lows.

figure 1 xom buybacks
Figure 1: XOM’s stock price movement in the last 2 years. Source: Yahoo Finance.

This falls perfectly in line with what usually happens as managers time buybacks poorly. When stocks are cheap, management doesn’t buy them. When they are expensive, buybacks explode, eroding shareholders’ value.

figure 2 total buybacks
Figure 2: Quarterly share repurchases and number of companies repurchasing shares. Source: FACTSET.

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) is continuing on its wonderful ascent despite revenues and earnings per share not growing since 2014. JNJ has a $10 billion share repurchase program that is being financed by debt. The current enthusiasm is of course backed by global monetary easing which pushes future expectations higher.

General Electric

General Electric (NYSE: GE) has survived terrible times in the last 7 years. GE’s revenue is currently just 64% of its 2008 revenue, but the company finally managed to increase earnings and revenue in the last quarter. The PE ratio is still high at 24, and J.P. Morgan warns that GE will face bad times again due to the volatility in the economy and other internal issues.

Amazon and Facebook

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) have the growth that the companies discussed above are missing, but it comes at crazy valuations.

AMZN’s PE ratio is 303, while FB’s PE ratio is 74.5. We cannot know if AMZN will manage to grow its earnings by more than tenfold in order to reach a more normal valuation or if it will forever stay the mega growth company.

Holding the S&P 500 gives you diversification, the unfortunately you gain exposure to companies after their initial growth cycle has passed. AMZN’s weight in the S&P 500 was only 0.46% in 2009 when its price was about a tenth of its current price.

Berkshire Hathaway

Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, BRK.B) hasn’t yet release its earnings but what is significant and different from the above companies is that buybacks are limited. BRK will buy back its own stocks only if the price falls below 1.2 times book value. Warren Buffett believes that buying back the company’s own shares above book value is a disservice to shareholders. This might be one of the reasons why BRK has by far outperformed the S&P 500 in the last 30 years.

figure 3 brk vs sandp
Figure 3: BRK vs the S&P 500. Source: Yahoo Finance.

AT&T

AT&T (NYSE: T) doesn’t have comparable earnings as it recently acquired DirectTV, however it is a company that keeps on growing, has a high dividend yield of 4.53%, and has had minimal share repurchases when compared to other companies in the last 4 quarters.

JPMorgan Chase & Co

The last company on our list is JPMorgan Chase & Co (NYSE: JPM). JPM reported revenues up by 4% and net income up by 5%, and has a PE ratio of 10.87 with a price to book ratio of 1.0, making it the company with the best fundamentals on our list and a great introduction to our conclusion.

Conclusion

Most great investors would advise the average investor to hold the S&P 500 for the long term, but the analysis of the 10 companies we’ve discussed and the variety of their revenue growths, earnings, and management buyback policies suggest something different.

Being long the S&P 500 just because that’s what everyone else does means also having managers destroy shareholder value by excessive and poorly timed buybacks, or it means paying high valuations for companies with no growth or exorbitant valuations for growth companies. On top of that, the risks of just owning the S&P 500 are increasing as its valuation is higher and is at levels only seen twice historically, in the dotcom bubble and just before the 2009 crisis.

figure 4 s&P 500 pe ratio
Figure 4: S&P 500 PE ratio. Source: Quandl.

Investors should assess their own needs and financial requirements. There are plenty of relatively safe high dividend yielders on the market, value companies, growth companies and declining companies from which to build your portfolio.