Category Archives: Earnings

Don’t Compare Stocks to GDP

 

Economics – the Dismal Science – is hard for most people. It’s even hard for economists who rarely agree on anything. But here’s an argument from Brian Wesbury of First Trust who thinks that the stock market is till under-valued.


The bull market in U.S. stocks, which started on March 9, 2009, gets little respect. Those who have been bullish, and right, are mocked as “perma-bulls,” while “perma-bears,” who have been repeatedly wrong, are quoted endlessly.

We don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times a recession has been predicted. Brexit, Grexit, adjustable rate mortgages, student loans, the election of Donald Trump, tapering, rate hikes, a 3% ten-year Treasury yield, Hindenberg Omens, Death Crosses, and two fiscal cliffs are just a few of the seemingly endless list of things that were going to end the bull market. (And the pouting pundits of pessimism are never held accountable for erroneously spreading fear.)

One staple of the bearish argument, and the one we want to discuss today, is that corporate profits have grown faster than GDP. This, the bears have claimed for years, can’t last. The argument is that there will be a reversion to the mean, profit growth will slow sharply and an overvalued market will be exposed. A close cousin to this argument is that stock market capitalization has climbed above GDP, signaling over-valuation.

Both of these arguments make fundamental mistakes: first, about the relationship between GDP and profits; second, about the correct measurement of GDP.

The economy is a combination of the public sector and the private sector. Most people think direct government purchases of goods and services, which were 17.2% of GDP last quarter, represents the full impact of government on the economy. But total Federal, State and Local spending (which adds in entitlement spending, welfare, and government salaries), as well as the cost of complying with government regulations, raises the number to 45% of GDP. And because the private sector pays for every penny of government spending, resources directed by the government are significantly larger than just purchases.

There is little doubt that the growth rate of productivity in the private sector is much stronger than in the public sector. In fact, it is probably true that productivity growth in the public sector is negative – directly, and indirectly – through the burden of regulatory costs. If 55% of the economy (private spending) experiences strong productivity, but 45% of the economy (the public sector) experiences negative productivity, overall GDP and productivity statistics are dragged down.

In other words, secular stagnation is a figment of the average – government has grown too big and is a drain on the economy. Yes, private sector growth (and profits) can grow faster than GDP. It’s not a bubble, it only looks like a bubble when looking up from the hole government has created.

The second important point is that GDP is a flawed measure of economic activity. It tracks final sales, but not “total” economic activity. A new car may cost $42,000, but the total amount of economic activity to build and sell that car (the total of all the checks written between businesses and consumers) is significantly more than the final cost of the car. Much business-to-business activity is not captured directly in GDP.

Mark Skousen has pushed for years for the Bureau of Economic Analysis to publish “Gross Output (GO),” which includes all economic activity. And in Q4-2017 GO was $34.5 trillion, nearly double the $19.7 trillion reading for GDP.

If you really want to compare the market cap of U.S. corporations to the correct measure of economic output, it is much more logical to compare it to Gross Output, not GDP. By that measure the market cap of the U.S. stock market is still well below overall economic activity.

The real issue here is that investors should care little about GDP. No one buys shares of GDP. Investors buy shares of companies, and profits are proof that productivity is strong in the private sector. Government distorts the picture, showing both a secular stagnation and “bubble” that don’t really exist.

 

 

 

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3% – Why It Doesn’t Matter

The stock market reacted negatively when the yield on the 10-year U.S. Government bond reached 3%.  There was a major one-day sell-off the first time that benchmark was reached.  Here’s what Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust has to say.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pouting Pundits of Pessimism were freaked out over the potential for the yield curve to invert. They’ve now completely reversed course and are freaked out over a 3% 10-year Treasury note yield.

All this gnashing of teeth is driven by a belief that low interest rates and QE have “distorted” markets, created a “mirage,” a “sugar high” – a “bubble.”

These fears are overblown. Faster growth and inflation are pushing long-term yields up – a good sign. And, yes, the Fed is normalizing its extraordinarily easy monetary policy, but that policy never distorted markets as much as many people suspect. Quantitative Easing created excess reserves in the banking system but never caused a true acceleration in the money supply. That’s why hyper-inflation never happened and both real GDP and inflation remained subdued. Profits, not QE, lifted stocks.

And our models show that low interest rates were never priced into equity values, either. We measure the fair value of equities by using a capitalized profits model. Simply put, we divide economy-wide corporate profits by the 10-year Treasury yield and compare these “capitalized profits” to stock prices over time. In other words, we compare profits, interest rates, and equity values and determine fair value given historical relationships. The lower the 10-year yield, the higher the model pushes the fair value of stocks.

Because the Fed held short-term rates so low, and gave forward guidance that they would stay low, they pulled long-term rates down, too. As a result, over the past nine years, artificially low 10-year yields have caused our model to show that stocks were, on average, 55% undervalued.

In other words, stocks never priced in artificially low interest rates. If they had, stock prices would have been significantly higher, and in danger of falling when interest rates went up.

But we have consistently adjusted our model by using a 3.5% 10-year yield. Using that yield today, along with profits from the fourth quarter, we show the stock market 15% undervalued. In other words, we’ve anticipated yields rising and still believe stocks are undervalued. A 3% 10-year yield does not change our belief that stocks can rise further this year, especially with our expectation that profits will rise by 15-20% in 2018.

The yield curve will not invert until the Fed becomes too tight and that won’t happen until the funds rate is above the growth rate of nominal GDP growth. Stay bullish.

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Market reacts to French election, tax cuts and earnings

The stock market had two back-to-back days with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) up over 200 points.  On Monday the market was reacting to the first round of elections in France.

The French election for President is often a two step process.  If a candidate gets over 50% of the vote in the first round of voting he or she is declared the winner and becomes President.  If no one gets to 50%, the two top vote getters face a run-off election which decides the Presidency.

In the first round that just ended, the candidates of the major French parties that had run the country for decades did not make it to the run-off.  Instead, Marine Le Pen (usually described as “Far Right”) and Emmanuel Macron (usually described as a “centrist”) were the two top vote getters.  They will face off on May 7th with the winner becoming President of France.

Macron, age 39, received 23.8% of the vote while Le Pen scooped up 21.4%.  Macron formed his own party, splitting off from the Socialists.  Macron is best known for marrying his teacher, a woman 25 years his senior.

It is generally assumed that Macron will win the next round with the French establishment uniting against Le Pen who wants to stop immigration and wants France to pull out of the EU.  The results of the balloting caused a relief rally in expectation that France will stay the current course and remain in the EU.

The Tuesday market action was driven by exuberance over the Trump administration announcement that they were proposing a reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%.  If this passes, next year’s corporate earnings would be higher.

On the earnings front some of the big names in the DJIA reported better-than-expected earnings.  Caterpillar, McDonald, Du Pont and Goldman Sachs were the biggest beneficiaries.

Stay tuned.

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The Plow Horse is Dead – Long Live the Race Horse

Race horse

We have referred to the economy over the last decade as the “Plow Horse Economy.”  There has been a huge increase in technology available to the economy over that period of time.  “Fracking” has unlocked huge oil and gas reserves in the energy sector.  The “Internet of Things” is tying our appliances together, automating our homes, even allowing us to control them with voice commands.  Self-driving cars are becoming a reality faster than I believed possible.  3D printing is revolutionizing production processes.  Yet despite this dazzling technological revolution, the economy is only managing 1.2% GDP growth.

Why?

Many analysts believe that if we compare the economy to a horse, we have a thoroughbred economy that’s plodding along like a Plow Horse.  The problem is that the rider is too heavy.    That rider is the government.  It’s holding growth down.  In the year 2000 government was 17.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In 2016 it was 21.1% of GDP, an increase of 20%.  That’s a big move from the private sector to the public sector.

Keep in mind that government doesn’t manufacture anything.

On top of that, government today regulates virtually everything, generating a hidden cost to producers and consumers.  Some analysts think it’s a miracle that the economy actually grew despite increased borrowing, taxes and regulation.

The incoming Trump administration has a staunchly pro-business agenda.  The focus on jobs and economic growth is front and center.  A new executive order instructs federal agencies to halt the issuance of more regulations, and the new President has indicated a desire to reduce them by 75%.   Another executive order has frozen hiring of federal employees, opening the door to replacing government employees with technology, something that has happened in the private sector.  Yet other executive actions advance the approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines – using American steel – creating new high-paying construction jobs and indicating an interest in making America energy independent.  Reducing tax rates, especially the high corporate tax rate, is another Trump administration objective.  It’s the carrot to encourage companies to build here, even as he waves the stick of high tariffs for goods brought in from overseas.  It’s getting a respectful hearing from otherwise skeptical business leaders.

These actions are not going to be enough, but they are indications that the new administration is determined to streamline government and incentivize private industry to grow.  According to Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust, the earning per share of the S&P 500 is estimated to be $130, an increase of 20% in 2017.  Growth in earnings of that magnitude can justify an increase in market valuations and add a few percentage points to the annual GDP.

To get back to our horse analogy, it looks as if the jockey riding the horse will be put on a diet.  If that happens the thoroughbred who was a “Plow Horse”  may become a “Race Horse.”

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Does the Bull Market Have Room to Run?

From time to time we share the thoughts of prominent stock market analysts.  As the markets reach new heights, we scour the headlines and find prophets of gloom and doom just about everywhere.  We are by cautious by nature, but not given to hyperbole.

Here is the market as viewed by Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust:

Now, the pessimists can’t stop talking about profits. Both S&P 500 reported earnings and the government’s economy-wide measure of corporate earnings are down 4.9% from a year ago.

In hindsight, corporate profits peaked in 2014, just like they did in 1978, 1988, 1997, and 2006. So, they say, a recession and bear market are on the way, just like the ones that followed those peaks in profits as well. It’s time to sell, again!

One problem with this theory is that it assumes the decline in profits is permanent. But profits have been hurt by the downdraft of energy prices, which crushed profits in that sector, while also hurting other related businesses. However, energy prices are rebounding while profits outside of energy are accelerating.

In addition, the ingredients for a recession are not yet there. Monetary policy is not tight, consumer and corporate balance sheets are healthy, and the recovery in home building has much further to go.

….

None of this means the stock market must go up today, or this week, or even in the year ahead. But it does bolster our case for a continuation of the bull market.

Quite an alternate view from many of the talking heads on CNBC.  If Wesbury is indeed right, the Bull Market has room to run.  In the meantime we’ll continue to invest with caution.  Like the Boy Scouts, we’re always prepared.  No one rings a bell when the market turns and we want to be positioned so that we will not be blindsided when it does.

If you are uncertain about what to do, contact us.  We’ll be glad to help.

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Norfolk Southern beats the street

From the AP:

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC) on Thursday reported first-quarter earnings of $387 million.

On a per-share basis, the Norfolk, Virginia-based company said it had profit of $1.29.

The results beat Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of 11 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of 97 cents per share.

The railroad posted revenue of $2.42 billion in the period, also surpassing Street forecasts. Three analysts surveyed by Zacks expected $2.4 billion.

Norfolk Southern shares have decreased slightly more than 2 percent since the beginning of the year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has risen slightly more than 2 percent. In the final minutes of trading on Thursday, shares hit $82.63, a decline of 19 percent in the last 12 months.

 

NSC shares rose 4.8% in after-hours trading.

 

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