With Negative Sentiment Soaring, We Might Be Starting A Bottoming Process

One of the stranger things about 2007 was the huge discrepancy between different areas of the U.S. stock market. Despite widespread problems, the stock market didn’t fare badly unless you looked under the hood. The S&P 500 finished the year up 5%, hardly indicative of the issues we are facing. In fact, of the market’s ten major sectors, only two of them trailed the S&P 500 index’s return last year. Financial services (-21%) and consumer discretionary (-14%) stocks were correctly pricing in a recession (or something that feels like one) but the other eight sectors just kept humming right along.

Well, it appears we are now getting a more realistic reaction in the market to the economic challenges we are dealing with. We’ve dropped 10% in less than 3 weeks, and the selling has been much more widespread. Realistically, we were due for this type of action. That said, the negative sentiment in the market right now is deafening. We won’t know how bad things really are until fourth quarter earnings reports and first quarter outlooks are given out over the next 2-3 weeks, but stock prices are starting to price in some really bad stuff. Many contrarian sentiment indicators are signaling we could be starting a bottoming process.

Since nobody can predict when the market will stop going down, I’m not going to waste my time (or yours) hazarding a guess. I will say this, however. Investors should pay close attention to this month’s earnings reports and conference calls. Stock prices are now being driven by fear, and I think many of them are not reflecting what is likely to happen as we navigate through 2008. We could certainly fall another 5%-10%, after all things are not good and I’m not trying to say they are, but we should still be getting ready to pounce.

Personally, I am not going to be doing any meaningful buying until I see these earnings reports and listen to quarterly conference calls. But after that, I think it might be time to dip a toe in the water with cash positions. Even if we keep heading lower short term, a year or two from now I think it will pay off in spades.

Earnings Estimates for 2008 Appear Overly Optimistic

Although fourth quarter earnings reports just started to trickle in, consensus estimates call for 2007 S&P 500 profits to be essentially flat with 2006. Given the huge year-over-year declines in the financial sector, the largest piece of the index, this is not very surprising.

What is surprising is that analysts are projecting 2008 earnings to grow by more than 15%. We all know that analysts are rarely spot on with their forecasts, but the possibility of this number being accurate seems even less likely than normal. While the market’s P/E using the current forward estimate (less than 14) is not high by any means, bullish investors hoping for a solid market gain this year (at or above historical averages) likely need strong earnings growth to make the case.

Given the economic backdrop right now, a less impressive year in the market (more in line with last year) seems like a more reasonable expectation. As far as the economy goes, 2008 probably will be more of a “sorting out” year than a “snap back” one. As a result, I think the return of double digit earnings growth for the S&P 500 likely won’t return until 2009 at the earliest.

Third Time’s A Charm?

Earnings season officially kicked off this afternoon, with Alcoa (AA) reporting fourth quarter numbers. Given the worries about the economy, these profit reports obviously carry as much as weight as anything in determining market direction, but they also come at a time when the S&P has once again dropped down to a support area between 1350 and 1400. Since I am not of the belief that the Fed can cure all of our ills on its own, the next few weeks are crucial to whether or not we can maintain these levels again, or if a wider bear market (not just in financials and consumer discretionary stocks) awaits us.

Putting the Correction in Perspective

November has been the worst month for stocks in several years. The S&P 500 is now negative for the year, and sits 10% below its high and 8.5% lower this month alone. Not only do long term investors like myself take a multi-year outlook of the future when investing money, but it also helps to put things in perspective by looking back at where the markets have come from in a multi-year scenario. Much like a student who gets a C on a tough exam might be in fine shape if previous grades in a semester have been all A’s, investors need to realize that markets don’t go up all the time, just as good students can’t possibly ace every test.

Stock prices rise, on average, 75 to 80 percent of the time in any given year. After four magnificent years of gains in the market, we are overdue for some poor performance. We might finish down this year, or next year, or both, but regardless, take a look at how far we have come over the last five years:

We can’t possibly expect gains like this to continue indefinitely. Even a pullback to something like 1,300 on the S&P 500 index would simply be a normal, healthy retracement after extremely large gains. Perspective like this is important when markets are rattled, as they clearly are right now. I don’t know how long the correction will last, or how low we will ultimately go, but I will remind people that these types of moves are normal, and are required to maintain a healthy marketplace.

As for how to approach new investments in this type of environment, I don’t think meaningful changes need to be made. When fear of the unknown grips markets in the short term, as is happening right now, long term investors simply need to ignore the short term noise and focus on long term fundamental stories. Investment themes need to be able to weather your view of how the world will look five years from now, not five hours from now. If you invest in a company that has a bright long term future, and pay a very reasonable price for it, the odds are in your favor that you will make good money over time. And that fact won’t change based on anything that happens today, next week, or even in 2008.

The Implications of Negative Earnings Growth

Undoubtedly, the underlying driver of the U.S. stock market in recent years could be summed up in two words; earnings growth. Equities now face a hurdle, however, as third quarter profits for the S&P 500 could very well decline year over year for the first time in five years. The implications for the market are pretty important.

At the outset of the year, market forecasters were calling for low to mid double digit returns for the market, supported by rising earnings and slight multiple expansion. It was my view that multiple expansion was unlikely (due to a lack of low P/E ratios to begin with, coupled with decelerating economic and earnings growth rates), so market returns would more likely track earnings advances, which would put us up in the mid to high single digits for the year. The S&P 500 is slightly above that pace right now, but it will likely be an uphill battle from here.

The reason is that without multiple expansion or earnings growth, there is no way for the market to advance meaningfully, by definition. The end result is likely to be a range-bound market as judged by the major indices. In fact, as the chart below shows, we have already begun to see this scenario take shape.

S&P 500 Index – Last 6 Months

From an investor perspective, this infers that stock picking will be all that more crucial to achieve investment gains. Not surprisingly, I would suggest focusing on individual situations where either multiple expansion or earnings growth are largely assured. The ideal investment candidate would be set up nicely for both, which would allow for solid gains regardless of whether or not the overall market advances meaningfully in coming months.

Examining Dualing Market Outlooks

Does anyone else find it pretty strange that two people can look at the exact same set of data and reach two dramatically different conclusions? I’m speaking of market strategists who try and determine if the overall equity market is overvalued or undervalued. The bulls think we are 20 or 30 percent undervalued and the bears see the exact opposite scenario. How can people differ that much on the outlook for the domestic stock market? It’s not like we’re are trying to value a single company, where I could understand widely varying outlooks. The stock market as a whole can’t be overvalued and undervalued at the same time.

The key to analyze this dichotomy is to look at the S&P 500 P/E ratio, which is the most widely used metric to value the overall market. This isn’t as simple as it sounds though. You arrive at different numbers depending on if you use the trailing twelve month (TTM) P/E or the forward P/E. Personally, I use forward P/E ratios when valuing stocks, because equities are claims on future earnings, not profits already earned. However, the most bearish market strategists use trailing numbers because doing so results in higher P/E ratios, which imply higher valuations. For the purpose of this piece, I’ll use TTM P/E ratios, mainly because historical data is easier to find.

Another point of contention is which earnings calculation to use. The two most commonly cited are operating earnings and GAAP earnings. Operating earnings are meant to gauge how much cash a firm’s operating businesses are generating, whereas GAAP numbers are really more of an accounting standard and don’t always reflect true profitability. For instance, one of the biggest contributors in GAAP earnings is stock options expense. Accountants insist that companies issue GAAP income statements that place a value on expenses incurred by issuing stock options, even though no economic cash cost is incurred.

Currently, the P/E on the S&P 500 index is anywhere between 15.4 (forward operating earnings) and 18.0 (trailing GAAP earnings) depending on which of the four measures (forward vs trailing/operating vs GAAP) you use. I don’t think we need to agree on which P/E to use to analyze whether or not the market is wildly overpriced or underpriced. For the most part, the bears think P/E ratios should be lower, or will be lower shortly. The bulls think if P/E multiples do anything, they should go up, not down.

Keep in mind, I am referring only to those people who think the market is meaningfully mispriced right now, say by 20 percent or more in either direction. I fully understand that this is only a subset of all market pundits. I’m simply interested in looking at the dichotomy that exists between them.

Let’s take a look at an interesting chart that should shed some light on this debate. The graphic below shows the historical trailing P/E of the S&P 500 index (blue) along with a five-year moving average (black).

As you can see from the chart, the stock market typically trades at a P/E of between 10 and 20. Depending on which number you use, we are currently either right smack in the middle of that range, or on the upper end of it. If you are using P/E ratios as your yardstick, you really can’t make a compelling argument that stock prices are dramatically too high or too low.

The real question in this analysis, if we assume the historical range is a pretty good guide to stock market valuation, is whether we should be closer to 10 or 20. How much investors are willing to pay for equities can depend on many variables, but the most important ones are interest rates and inflation. Don’t take my word for it though, both logic and historical statistics back up this assertion.

Since stock prices reflect future earnings discounted back to present day values, there is a negative correlation between interest rates and stock prices. When rates are low, investors are willing to pay higher multiples of earnings, and vice versa. Inflation measures have the same effect on demand for equities. When inflation is high, the “real” (net of inflation) return on stocks goes down or becomes negative, which crimps investor demand for equities, lowering multiples.

Since the economic backdrop is crucial in determining the appropriate valuation level for stocks, the fact that the United States currently is operating a growing economy in a low interest rate, low inflation environment sheds a great deal of light into where stock prices might trade. The middle or upper end of the historical range is not only not unrealistic, but it makes a lot of sense.

Making the argument that P/E ratios should be dramatically higher is simply not prudent given the historical data. Defending a P/E toward the low end of the range also isn’t very compelling given the current economic backdrop. As a result, I think a simple look at history, coupled with a basic overview of current economics, shows that the market is neither wildly overvalued, nor wildly undervalued.

Post-Vacation Thoughts

Wow. What a week and a half to take a vacation. Either it was a great time to miss, or it was the opposite. Obviously I’m biased, but I’d have to go with the former. Sometimes the daily volatility of the market sends investors on more of an emotional roller coaster than anything else, and that isn’t usually helpful. After all, roller coasters end up right where they started for the most part.

It looks like the S&P 500 traded in a 8.9% intraday range during the 8 trading days I missed, from 1370 all the way up to 1503. Despite that, when all the dust settled, stock prices dropped only 2 percent during my time away, so really my trip (I was in Boston and Cape Cod) saved me some emotional highs and lows.

I haven’t had a lot of time to catch up yet, but one thing did get my attention, so I thought I would share. I don’t know if it got a lot of airtime or not (likely not given it was pretty eventful with the Fed moves, etc), but the market finally got the long awaited 10 percent correction (at least on an intraday basis — 11.9% — it was only 9.6% on a closing basis).

Now, normally this would be unimportant enough that I might not even mention it, but there are a couple reasons why I think it is notable this time around. First, there were tons of people who were refusing to jump in with excess cash until we got that “official” drop. It sounds silly, but when investment strategists think the market is overbought, as many had for several months as the S&P crossed 1400 and then 1500, they need a significant sell-off to be convinced some excesses are removed. I have no doubt that market players who were waiting for a 10% down move are beginning to put some cash to work slowly.

Normally, a 10 percent correction is no big deal. We expect them to happen. I don’t have any statistics handy, but I’d guess we see one every year or so on average. They are normal and very healthy. Amazingly though, we had gone four and a half years without a full 10 percent drop in the S&P 500 index. This worried a lot of people because it was the longest streak ever without a sizable market drop. I don’t think it signaled the end of the world or anything to anybody, but when you go that long, you are due for a fall, and while nobody knows exactly when it will happen, it still prevents investors from getting overly bullish and firmly committing investment funds. The streak, in the eyes of many, was simply a symbol of the times, an overbought market that was being powered by many things, including the private equity M&A boom, which appears to be normalizing.

As I comb through the individual company news times of interest from the last week and a half, I’ll be sure to share anything that catches my eye that would have otherwise been posted had I been in the office. Feel free to let me know if there is anything you would like me to write about in coming days. It’s good to be back, and thanks for your patience during my vacation time.

Hedge Funds Can Just Freeze Redemptions… Must Be Nice

Maybe it’s just me, but is anyone else amazed that when hedge funds run into trouble (as many have recently by investing in mortgage-backed securities) and investors ask for their money back, the fund can simply say no? This is astonishing to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Managers can run their funds any way they want. Typically, fund rules stipulate that investors can withdraw money only during certain windows (quarterly and annually are most common). That makes sense, as it can be tough to put on positions if people can just come and go as they please. But how about when you ask for your money back during a pre-approved window and the hedge fund comes back and says “Sorry, but we have frozen redemptions.”

Bear Stearns (BSC) did this with their recent funds that ultimately went bust and are being sued right now because of what they allegedly told investors regarding the riskiness of the portfolios when they tried to get their money out.

Why on earth would anyone invest in a hedge fund that gave you no guarantee that you could take your money out if you wanted to? How can hedge funds get away with simply denying one’s request? Do any readers out there invest in hedge funds? Are you worried about wanting to get your money out at some point and being told you can’t? Seems risky to me…

Full Disclosure: No position in BSC at the time of writing

Why Would a CEO Stick with Quarterly Guidance?

I read an interesting take on this question today and I think it has a lot of merit. While many of us would prefer public companies abandon quarterly guidance, there are reasons why a CEO would keep giving it out. One reason might be to make them look good, and therefore enhance their job security.

If you are an active investment manager (whether for personal assets or professionally) you have likely observed in recent years that a pattern has developed during earnings season on Wall Street. Companies tend to beat estimates for the most recent quarter and guide estimates lower for the current and/or future periods. The end result is that most quarters finish with earnings coming in ahead of estimates on the whole.

While stock prices might dip in the short term because investors care more about future guidance than earnings already booked, this practice sets the bar very low. By keeping expectations meager, it maximizes the odds that the company will beat numbers next quarter, and that makes management look good. Under-promise and over-deliver (“UPOD” as Jim Cramer calls it). It works, and it’s what public companies should do in general (although maybe less often than every three months).

I think this is a great explanation for why many companies will keep playing the guidance game. It sets the bar low, makes them look like they’re doing a good job running their companies, and boosts their job security. If you don’t give guidance at all, the analysts could set the bar too high, forcing you to miss numbers and get an earful from investors.

How can investors play this growing trend? Buy stocks after a post-earnings sell off due to a guide down. After the company sets the bar low, investors adjust their valuations accordingly. Over the next couple months, Wall Street will realize the numbers are too low and the stocks will get a boost as strong performance is priced in again. Use that strength to pare off positions before the next earnings report if you think they might be lackluster or conservative.

That seems like the best way to trade the ever-growing trend of beating earnings and guiding lower for future quarters.

Seagate Adopts Baffling Policy on Financial Guidance

I am sitting here listening to the second quarter conference call hosted by Seagate Technology (STX), the world’s leading provider of hard disk drives for the consumer electronics industry, and I just had to write a post with the audio going in the background. Seagate CEO Bill Watkins has just announced that his company is changing their policy on company guidance.

I have written on this blog before that financial guidance is very overrated. Many companies have abandoned giving guidance completely (kudos to them) and others have at least stopped giving quarterly projections. So, I was expecting STX to either cease quarterly guidance and give only annual projections, or to halt guidance completely. Wrong on both counts!

Seagate will now give only quarterly guidance. Are they kidding? The whole point of stopping quarterly guidance is to focus management on the long term and not put them in a situation where they might take actions just to hit a number in the short term. Now they are embracing three-month projections?

I understand them not wanting to give out annual projections. The disk drive business is very hard to predict, as it is largely a commoditized market. Supply and demand, and therefore pricing, is tough to gauge over long periods of time. Essentially, STX management is saying they have no idea what they will earn in fiscal 2008 (which began on July 1st).

If you are going to ditch giving guidance, then stop giving guidance! It seems very strange that they say they are focused on the long term, but yet are still going to predict sales and profits every three months. They should have just stopped guidance altogether.

Full Disclosure: Some Peridot clients have positions in STX, but those positions are under review