Is the Probability of Higher Long-Term Stock Market Returns Improving?
“Mr. Market is a mischievous but captivating fellow who persistently teases investors with gimmicks and tricks such as surprising earnings reports, startling dividend announcements, sudden surges of inflation, inspiring presidential announcements, grim reports of commodities prices, announcements of amazing new technologies, ugly bankruptcies, and even threats of war.”
How has Mr. Market been stealing investors’ lunch money? The process really hasn’t been that difficult for him, once you consider how many times investors have been heaved into the garbage can over the last decade, forced to deal with these messy events:
• 2001 technology bubble beating
• 2006 real estate collapse
• 2008 – 2009 financial crisis and recession
• 2010 “flash crash” and soft patch
• 2011 debt ceiling debate and credit rating downgrade
With this backdrop, investors are dropping like flies due to extreme bully fatigue. Over the last four months alone, approximately $75 billion in equities been liquidated, according to data from the Investment Company Institute – this is even more money withdrawn than the outflows occurring during the peak panic months after the Lehman Brothers collapse.
The Atomic Wedgie
Mr. Market understands the severity of these prior economic scars, which have been even more painful than atomic wedgies (reference Exhibit I above), so he opportunistically is taking advantage of fragile nerves. Introducing the following scary scenarios makes collecting lunch money from panicked investors much easier for Mr. Market. What is he using to frighten investors?
- A potential Greek sovereign debt default that will trigger a collapse of the Euro.
- Slowing growth in China due to slowing developed market economic activity.
- Possible double-dip recession in the U.S. coupled with an austerity driven downturn in Europe.
- Lack of political policy response to short and long-term economic problems in Washington and abroad.
- Impending deflation caused by decelerating global growth or likely inflation brought about by central banks’ easy monetary policies (i.e., printing money).
- End of the world.
Bully Victim Protection
Of course, not all of these events are likely to occur. As a matter of fact, there are some positive forming trends, besides just improving valuations, that provide protection to bully victims:
- Not only is the earnings yield (E/P – 12-month trailing EPS/share price) trouncing the yield on the 10-year Treasury note (~8% vs. ~2%, respectively), but the dividend yield on the S&P 500 index (NYSE:SPY) is also higher than the 10-year Treasury note yield (source: MarketWatch). Historically, this has been an excellent time to invest in equities with the S&P 500 index up an average of 20% in the ensuing 12 months.
- Jobs data may be poor, but it is improving relative to a few years ago as depicted here:
- Record low interest rates and mortgage rates provide a stimulative backdrop for businesses and consumers. Appetite for risk taking remains low, but as history teaches us, the pendulum of fear will eventually swing back towards greed.
As I say in my James Carville piece from earlier this year, It’s the Earnings Stupid, long term prices of stocks follow the path of earnings. Recent equity price market declines have factored in slowing in corporate profits. How severely the European debt crisis, and austerity have (and will) spread to the U.S. and emerging markets will become apparent in the coming weeks as companies give us a fresh look at the profit outlook. So far, we have gotten a mixed bag of data. Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) acknowledged slowing coal demand in Asia and FedEx Corp. (NYSE:FDX) shave its fiscal year outlook by less than 2% due to international deceleration. Other bellwethers like Oracle Corp. (NASDAQ:ORCL) and Nike Inc. (NYSE:NKE) reported strong growth and outlooks. In the short-run Mr. Market is doing everything in his power to bully investors from their money, and lack of international policy response to mitigate the European financial crisis and contagion will only sap confidence and drag 2011-2012 earnings lower.
Punching Mr. Market
The warmth of negative real returns in cash, bonds, and CDs may feel pleasant and prudent, but for many investors the lasting effects of inflation erosion will inflict more pain than the alternatives. For retirees with adequate savings, these issues are less important and focus on equities should be deemphasized. For the majority of others, long-term investors need to reject the overwhelming sense of fear.
As I frequently remind others, I have no clue about the short-term direction of the market, and Greece could be the domino that causes the end of the world. But what I do know is that history teaches us the probabilities of higher long-term equity returns are only improving. Mr. Market is currently using some pretty effective scare tactics to bully investors. For those investors with a multi-year time horizon, who are willing to punch Mr. Market in the nose, the benefits are significant. The reward of better long-term returns is preferable to an atomic wedgie or a head-flush in the toilet received from Mr. Market.
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 FDX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in ANR, ORCL, NKE, or any other security referenced in this article.