Our 3.5 billion year old planet has received a temporary reprieve, at least until the next Mayan Armageddon destroys the world in 2012. Sex, money, and doom sell and Arnold, Oprah, and the Rapture have not disappointed in generating their fair share of advertising revenue clicks.
With 2 billion people connected to the internet and 5 billion people attached to a cell phone, every sneeze, burp, and fart around the world makes daily headline news. The globalization cat is out of the bag, and this phenomenon will only accelerate in the years to come. In 1861 the Pony Express took ten days to deliver a message from New York to San Francisco, and today it takes a few seconds to deliver a message across the world over Twitter or Facebook.
The equity markets have more than doubled from the March 2009 lows and even previous, ardent bulls have turned cautious. Case in point, James Grant from the Interest Rate Observer who was “bullish on the prospects for unscripted strength in business activity” now sees the market as “rich” and asserts “nothing is actually cheap.” Grant rubs salt into the wounds by predicting inflation to spike to 10%.
Layer on multiple wars, Middle East/North African turmoil, gasoline prices, high unemployment, mudslinging presidential election, uninspiring economic growth, and you have a large pessimistic poop pie to sink your teeth into. Bearish sentiment, as calculated by the AAII Sentiment Survey, is at a nine-month high and currently bears outweigh bulls by more than 50%.
The Fear Factor
I think Cullen Roche at Pragmatic Capitalism beautifully encapsulates the comforting blanket of fear that is permeating among the masses through his piece titled, “In Remembrance of Fear”:
“The bottom line is, stay scared. Do not let yourself feel confident, happy or wealthy. You are scared, poor and miserable. You should stay that way. You owe it to yourself. The media says so. And more importantly, there are old rich white men who need to sell books and if you’re not scared by them you’ll never buy their books. So, do yourself a favor. Buy their books and services and stay scared. You deserve it.”
Here is Cullen’s prescription for dealing with all the doom and gloom:
“Associate with people who are more scared than you. That way, you can all sit in bunkers and talk about the end of days and how screwed we all are. Think about how much better that will make you feel. Misery loves company. Do it.”
All is Not Lost
While inflation and gasoline price concerns weigh significantly on economic growth expectations, some companies are taking advantage of record low interest rates. Take for example, Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) recent $3 billion bond offerings split evenly across three-year, five-year, and ten-year notes with an average interest rate of 2.3%. Although Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has languished relative to the market over the last year, the market blessed the internet giant with the next best thing to free money by pricing the deal like a AAA-rated credit. Cash-heavy companies have been able to issue low cost debt at a frantic pace for accretive EPS shareholder-friendly activities, such as acquisitions, share buybacks, and organic growth initiatives. Cash rich balance sheets have afforded companies the ability to offer shareholders a steady diet of dividend increases too.
While there is no question high oil prices (NYSE:USO) have put a wet towel over consumer spending, the largest component of corporate check books is labor costs, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of corporate spending. With unemployment rate at 9.0%, this is one area with no inflation pressure as far as the eye can see. Money losing companies that go bankrupt lay-off employees, while profitable companies with stable input costs (labor) will hire more – and that’s exactly what we’re seeing today. Despite all the economic slowing and collapse anxiety, S&P 500 (NYSE:SPY) operating earnings, as of last week, are estimated to rise +17% in 2011. Healthy corporations coupled with a growing, deleveraged workforce will have to carry the burden of growth, as deficit and debt direction will ultimately act as a drag on economic growth in the immediate and intermediate future.
Fear and pessimism sell news, and technology is only accelerating the proliferation of this trend. The good news is that you have another 18 months until the next apocalypse on December 21, 2012 is expected to destroy the human race. Rather than attempting to time the market, I urge you to follow the advice of famed investor Peter Lynch who says, “Assume the market is going nowhere and invest accordingly.” For all the others addicted to “pessimism porn,” I’ll let you get back to constructing your bunker.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in securities referenced in this article.
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