China trade war, impeachment hearings, Brexit negotiations, changing Federal Reserve monetary policy, Turkish-Kurd battles in Syria, global slowdown fears, and worries over an inverted yield curve. Do these headlines feel like a conducive environment for stock market values to break out to new all-time, record highs? If you answered "no", then you are not alone - investors have been scared silly despite stocks experiencing a sugar high.
For the month, the S&P 500 index climbed another +2.0% and set a new monthly-high record. The same can be said for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which also set a new monthly record at 27,046, up +0.5% from the previous month. For the S&P 500, these monthly gains contributed to what's become an impressive 2019 total appreciation of +21%. Normally, such heady gains would invoke broad-based optimism, however, the aforementioned spooky headlines have scared investors into a coffin as evidenced by the hundreds of billions of dollars that have poured out of stocks into risk-averse bonds. More specifically, ICI (Investment Company Institute) releases weekly asset flow figures, which show -$215 billion fleeing stock funds in 2018-2019 through the end of October, while over +$452 billion have flocked into the perceived safe haven of bonds. I emphasize the word "perceived" safe haven because many long duration (extended maturity) bonds can be extremely risky, if (when) interest rates rise materially and prices fall significantly.
Besides the data showing investors fleeing stocks and flocking to bonds, we have also witnessed the risk-averse saving behavior of individuals. When uncertainty rose in 2008 during the financial crisis, you can see how savings spiked (see chart below), even as the economy picked up steam. With the recent spate of negative headlines, you can see that savings have once again climbed and reached a record $1.3 trillion! All those consumer savings translate into dry powder spending dollars that can be circulated through the economy to extend the duration of this decade-long financial expansion.
Source: Dr. Ed's Blog
If you look at the same phenomenon through a slightly different lens, you can see that the net worth of consumer households has increased by 60% to $113 trillion from the 2007 peak of about $70 trillion (see chart below). This net worth explosion compares to only a 10% increase in household debt over the same timeframe. In other words, consumer balance sheets have gotten much stronger, which will likely extend the current expansion or minimize the blow from the next eventual recession.
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit
If hard numbers are not good enough to convince you of investor skepticism, try taking a poll of your friends, family and/or co-workers at the office watercooler, cocktail party, or family gathering. Chances are a majority of the respondents will validate the current actions of investors, which scream nervousness and anxiety.
How does one reconcile the Armageddon headlines and ebullient stock prices? Long-time clients and followers of my blog know I sound like a broken record, but the factors underpinning the decade-long bull market bears repeating. What the stock market ultimately does care about are the level and direction of 1) corporate profits; 2) interest rates; 3) valuations; and 4) investor sentiment (see the Fool-Stool article). Sure, on any one day, stock prices may move up or down on any one prominent headline, but over the long run, the market cares very little about headlines. Our country and financial markets have survived handsomely through wars (military and trade), recessions, banking crises, currency crises, housing crises, geopolitical tensions, impeachments, assassinations, and even elections.
Case in point on a shorter period of time, Dr. Ed Yardeni, author of Dr. Ed's Blog created list of 65 U.S. Stock Market Panic Attacks from 2009 - 2019 (see below). What have stock prices done over this period? From a low of 666 in 2019, the S&P 500 stock index has more than quadrupled to 3,030!
For the majority of this decade-long, rising bull market, the previously mentioned stool factors have created a tailwind for stock price appreciation (i.e., interest rates have moved lower, profits have moved higher, valuations have remained reasonable, and investors have stayed persistently nervous...a contrarian positive indicator). Investors may remain scared silly for a while, but as long as the four stock factors on balance remain largely constructive stock prices should continue experiencing a sugar high.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
This article first appeared on GuruFocus.