How does a favorable bullish uptrend become an unfavorable bearish downtrend? Does the transition happen overnight? Do commentators, analysts, money managers and market participants simultaneously concur that the environment for risk-taking is exceptionally poor?
The transition from “good times” to “bad times” is far more gradual than many realize. Granted, prices on the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 Index may fall apart in a matter of days, changing the narrative from “no reason to worry” to “don’t panic.” That said, there are a wide variety of indications that forewarn mindful investors six to twelve months in advance, including consecutive quarters of corporate profitability declines, economic deceleration, and waning participation in price gains across the majority of assets and asset types.
1. Corporate Profits Have Been Breaking Down For Quite Some Time. Peak profitability for the S&P 500 occurred with the third quarter results of 2014 (9/30). Operating earnings that exclude “non-recurring” charges like one-time losses and loan write-downs came in $114.5; reported, or actual earnings, came in near $106. Not only will operating earnings decline for two consecutive quarters on a year-over-year basis for 12/31/2015, but reported earnings will decline for three consecutive quarters on a year-over-year basis (i.e. Q2, Q3 and Q4 in 2015).
An earnings recession – two consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines is a bad omen regardless of the earnings type that one looks at. According to one researcher, Keith McCullough, two consecutive quarters of declining profits always result in bearish price depreciation for the S&P 500 in the subsequent year.
Similarly, I have pointed out in past articles that a relationship between a manufacturing recession via erosion of the Institute for Supply Management’s PMI strongly correlates with declining earnings per share (EPS). In other words, as much as cheerleaders look to play up ex-energy (EPS) or the 65%-70% service-oriented (ex-manufacturing, ex industrials, ex transports) economy, overall S&P 500 profitability weakness goes hand-in-hand with overall economic weakness.
The last two bear markets tell the tale. Back in 2000, bulls continued to push the idea that consumers were resilient and forward earnings projections (ex tech) looked phenomenal. They missed the bearish turn of events entirely. Back in 2008, bulls opined that forward earnings estimates (ex financials) were attractive, and that manufacturer health was irrelevant. They missed the housing bubble as well as its subsequent bursting.
Here in 2016, bulls are confident that the U.S. can shake off $30 oil, energy company stock/bond woes, a manufacturing recession and a sharp global economic slowdown without a 20% drop for the Dow or S&P 500.
Unfortunately, there’s more to the story.
2. The U.S. Economy Continues To Slow And The Global Economy Is Getting Worse. In 2014, I talked about the best way to participate in a late-stage bull market. In June of 2015, I advocated lowering one’s overall allocation to riskier assets. Bearish? Cautious would be a more appropriate description for downshifting from 70% equity exposure to 50% equity exposure.
One of the key reasons for reducing risk had been the consistency of the downtrend in the global manufacturing. Here is a chart of JP Morgan’s Global Manufacturing PMI that I described in numerous pieces in the summer of 2015.
It should not come as a surprise that U.S. corporate earnings peaked near the top of the PMI Index level in September of 2014. Since that time, a super-strong dollar strangled profits as well as U.S. exports. Meanwhile, Fed “de facto” tightening via tapering asset purchases throughout 2014 coupled with its direction shift in overnight lending rates in late 2015 have strained gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
Even worse, Russia and Brazil are fighting off nasty recessions. Japan is there as well. China’s slowdown may be accelerating. Oil producing nations are close to falling apart on $30 oil. And expectations for Europe continue to sink, as debts pile up and international trade diminishes. Indeed, it’s not difficult to spot the pattern on global nominal year-over-year GDP. When it’s negative, market-based asset prices, including those in the U.S., are more likely to deteriorate.
What about the constant drumbeat that sensational U.S. job growth proves that the domestic economy is healthy? Not only are the majority of new jobs low-paying, part-time positions, but the erosion of 25-54 year-old workers from the labor force – from 83.5% in 2008 to 81% in 2016 – represents millions of non-retirees who are not being counted.
What about the notion that the U.S. consumer is resilient? According to a wide range of resources, including data at Federal Reserve web sites, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) is the primary measure of consumer spending on goods and services in the U.S. economy. Some would say that PCE accounts for nearly two-thirds of domestic spending, which would make it a significant driver of economic growth.
Here’s the problem. Year-over-year percent growth in PCE has been declining steadily since May-June on 2014, which is roughly in line with more significant reductions in the Federal Reserve’s asset buying program (QE3).
3. Weakness in Breadth Of U.S. Stock Market As Well As Majority Of Asset Types. By May of 2015, when the S&P 500 hit its all-time record (2130), investors had learned that reported profits had declined on a year-over-year basis – 3/31/2015 ($99.25) versus 3/31/2014 ($100.85). In the same vein, by May of 2015, investors were privy to significant deceleration in Global PMI, U.S. manufacturer woes as well as dissipating personal consumer expenditures (PCE).
Yet there was more. The NYSE Advance/Decline (A/D) Line seemed to have peaked in late April. From late April through the August-September correction, the number of declining stocks outpaced the number of advancing stocks. In fact, in late July, market breadth had grown so weak, the A/D Line fell below its 200-day moving average for the first time since the euro-zone crisis – four years earlier. What’s more, less than 50% of S&P 500 stocks could claim bullish uptrends. Equally disturbing, SPDR Select Sector Industrials (XLI), the iShares DJ Transportation Average (IYT) as well as small caps via iShares Russell 2000 (IWM) had already entered corrections; all had dropped below respective long-term trendlines. In other words, market breadth was extraordinarily weak.
Obviously, a great many folks believed that an October snap-back rally had terminated the volatile 12% correction that occurred in the summertime. Not only did the S&P 500 fail to recover the highs from May of 2015, but virtually all asset types never made it back. And now, most of those assets are actually lower than they were at the August/September lows.
Take a look at the widespread carnage that extends far beyond the S&P 500 or the Dow. U.S. small caps in the Russell 2000 (IWM) reside near 52-week lows. The same holds true for commodities via the DB Commodity Tracking Index Fund (DBC), Europe via Vanguard Europe (VGK) and emerging markets via Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets (VWO).
Still choose to believe that rapid deterioration across asset types as well as within U.S. stocks themselves is irrelevant? Perhaps some data from the wildly popular Bespoke Research team might provide additional perspective. Internally, the average stock in every U.S. stock classification has already fallen more than 20% from a 52-week high (through 1/11/2016), meaning the average stock is in a bear market.
Think this is a mathematical slight of hand because of energy stock depreciation? Wrong again. Every stock sector with the exception of consumer staples and utilities – safer haven assets less tied to economic cycles – is down more than the 20% bear market demarcation line.
Is it possible for Amazon (AMZN), Alphabet (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), Home Depot (HD) and a host of influential companies to keep market-cap weighted S&P 500 ETFs like the SPDR S&P 500 Trust (SPY) from sinking 20%? It’s possible. Is it likely? Not unless the Fed has a change of heart on the direction of its monetary policy and not without unanticipated improvements in both corporate profits and the global economic backdrop.
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