Quarterly Commentary 1st Quarter 2018

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Volatility is back! This year’s first quarter broke a nearly two year pattern of historic stock market calm. Before February’s sharp but brief decline, the market had completed 311 sessions without even a 3% dip and 405 sessions without a 5% decline. In a normal year, investors experience three 5% declines. In recent years, the confidence that central bankers would prevent any significant price damage led to a buy-the-dip approach that effectively eliminated all but the smallest declines.

Since volatility picked up in early February, every day has held the potential for real adventure in one direction or another—often both. The first quarter saw eight 300-point declines in the Dow compared to just one in all of 2017, and we experienced two more in the first week of April. Because dramatic up days were also common in the first quarter, the S&P 500 ended the quarter with a loss of just 0.8%.

As volatility accelerated, it became increasingly clear that trading volume on many days resulted from computers trading with other computers. Algorithms dominated. A perfect example unfolded on February 5. With slight rounding and counting only moves of 100 Dow points or more, the day unfolded as follows: -360, +180, -100, +270, -120, +120, -310, +100, -280, +170,  -1280, +810, -260, +340, -130, +100, -320, +170, -220, +110, -170. All that activity took place in a single 6 ½ hour trading session, on average more than three big moves every hour. The Dow was down about 1600 points at its trough and closed down more than 1100.

While the market’s moves were violent, there was no clear trend. Prices bounced up and down, ending down a little for the quarter. By my rough count, on 33 of February and March’s 40 trading days, the Dow Jones Industrials opened in the first few minutes of the day up or down by triple digits from the prior day’s close. Such a pattern made it clear that short-term traders were dominating true investors.

The fixed income markets were far less violent, yet even less friendly to investors, as interest rates rose over the year’s first three months. The broad Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index lost 1.5% for the quarter.

One advantage of the rise in interest rates, however, is the increased return on assets waiting to be invested in longer term securities at more attractive valuations.

The stock market volatility in early 2018 has done nothing to improve the extreme overvaluation that has characterized the U.S market in recent years. A composite of all the major measures of valuation remains at the second most extreme level of overvaluation in U.S. history. Current levels trail only those of the dot.com era, which preceded declines that left the market more than 50% lower nine years after the turn-of-the-century peak.

Market bulls point to the expected jump in 2018 corporate earnings as strong justification for markets’ potential to perk up again during the rest of this year. For that view to prevail, however, enthusiasm for stocks will have to overcome several fundamental hurdles. Even if the most optimistic earnings estimates are realized, stock prices will remain overvalued at a level that has seldom rewarded equity investors.

While lower corporate tax rates will boost earnings, there is little expectation that the domestic and international economies will grow strongly. Thanks to benevolent central bankers, the current economic expansion is the second longest on record in this country. At the same time, however, it has been the slowest advance in 70 years. And while the Federal Reserve expects the U.S. economy to grow by about 3% this year, it expects the rate of growth to decline in 2019 and 2020. The Fed’s estimate of the economy’s long-term growth potential is a mere 1.9%, virtually its lowest estimate ever. For a broader economic outlook, the World Bank’s view is that global growth may have peaked. They see growth in advanced economies slowing from 2.3% last year to 2.2% in 2018 and 1.7% by 2020. Declining growth in investment and total factor productivity over the past five years underlies the World Bank’s pessimistic outlook. It is unlikely that corporate earnings can continue to grow if such forecasts are realized.

Compounding the problem of slow and declining growth over the next several years is an unprecedented and growing volume of debt worldwide. Rapidly growing levels of debt have been tolerable in recent years because major central banks have pressed interest rates to, or in some places, below the zero bound. With the Federal Reserve and other central banks now in the process of reversing their essentially “free money” policies or planning to do that within the next year or so, servicing the world’s massive debt load will become increasingly more difficult as interest rates rise. In this country, we are already seeing the pressure on lower quality credits as, according to the FDIC, banks are writing off an increasing amount of credit card and consumer loans. In the first quarter, the U.S. corporate debt-to-GDP ratio hit an all-time high. The number of defaults by highly leveraged companies could rise significantly as central banks tighten their monetary policies.

We’re seeing heavy borrowing for stock ownership as well. Margin debt relative to GDP has also reached an all-time high. Such borrowing can be a powerful force that pushes stock prices higher, as it has done, but it simultaneously raises risk levels. It is instructive to note that the last two instances in which that ratio even approached current levels marked the two peaks that preceded 50% and 57% market declines in the first decade of the 21st century.

Weak economic forecasts, historic levels of debt and overvaluation and rising interest rates are accompanied by the threats of trade wars and of nuclear confrontation with North Korea. Stock prices could continue to rise, however, if nine years of positive momentum overcomes recent market volatility. On the other hand, if markets respond to the above mentioned negatives as they typically have for more than a century, prices could retreat dramatically. At some point, stocks will again represent attractive value, but it likely will occur at significantly lower levels.

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