Powerful Market Rally May Be Running Out of Steam

After a very surprising employment report this morning (payrolls declined ~350k versus expectations of ~525k), the market reacted well at first but sellers have emerged. The fact that the market is flat today tells me the rally is losing steam (normally that type of jobs report would mean 200 or 300 points on the Dow). We may be at a point now where slow economic improvement has been priced into stocks, and as a result, incoming data that supports that thesis may not give a huge jolt to equity prices going forward.

This is a perfect example of how the stock market discounts the future ahead of time. We have had an enormous move since early March (S&P 500 up 42% from 666 to 944) on expectations that the economy would begin to slowly improve. Now that it appears to be happening, the market is looking ahead at what might be next. The answer to that question is a lot less clear.

My personal fair value target for the S&P 500 remains 1,050 but I have been raising cash into this rally below that level because there are still risks to the economic recovery and I want to save some cash for the next market drop. Recovery has to be a foregone conclusion, in my view, for the 1,050 level to solely dictate my actions.

Not only that, but more and more strategists are looking for 1,000 on the S&P 500, whereas they weren’t even mentioning it as a possibility a month or two ago. As a contrarian, that makes me think it is getting less likely we will reach that level in the short term.

After Huge Rally, Market Digests Earnings Season and Bank Capital Raises

With most first quarter earnings reports having already been released, along with bank stress test results, the action in the market has died down considerably. After a 40% rally, the S&P 500 has been consolidating between 875 (a key technical support level) and 930 (the recent high). Such backing and filling is a strong sign. One would expect a pause after such a huge move, and despite the fact that the banks are rushing to issue billion of dollars in new shares, the market is absorbing that new supply fairly well (the stocks are down from their highs but they seem to be building a base and fear has subsided).

As for earnings season, first quarter results largely exceeded reduced expectations. Bulls and bears will continue to debate whether beating those low estimates was a positive or not, but merely stopping the earnings decline would serve to put a floor on stock prices. If the rate of decline in both the economy and corporate profits can decelerate, we could very well see sideways market action for a while. With the S&P 500 up from 666 to nearly 900, that would be welcomed by most investors.

The recent rally has been predicated on the idea that Q4 2008 and Q1 2009 will turn out to be the worst quarters for the economy. If GDP can rise sequentially throughout the year, and turn positive on a year-over-year basis by the fourth quarter, corporate profits will likely have hit a bottom. This scenario is priced into equities, so we really need it to play out that way for the S&P to hold the 900 area in coming months.

There are still plenty of people who are negative on the economy and either don’t think a rebound will occur later in 2009, or if it does, it will be short-lived and we will see even worse times in 2010. If that proves true, we could very well see a retest of the March lows, as the bears are expecting.

Where do I come down? I think there is a decent chance we do not see 666 on the S&P 500 again. By “decent” I mean, say, between 50% and 67%. The rest of 2009 could very well be rocky though, so we could certainly get a correction or two, especially after a 40% rally in the market. As a result, I am holding some cash (10-20% right now in many cases) in order to take advantage of any other leg down if we get it. That cash number will likely increase if the market rally continues and we approach my own fair value estimate (1000-1050 on the S&P).

In general, I think a solid path would be for the market to trade sideways for a while. Digesting the big move we have made, rather than simply seeing another large sell-off (which was the typical course over the last year or so) would send a signal that the worst may be behind us and we can slowly recover. I agree with many who believe an economic recovery will be neither particularly fast, nor violently strong, but simply muddling along with little or no GDP growth would go a long way to supporting stock prices at their current level and take the calls for 600 on the S&P off of the table.

Look For Swine Flu Related Opportunities

To me this swine flu outbreak looks a lot like avian bird flu; fairly contained and overhyped. Of course anything is possible, but as Wall Street frets about swine flu (Dow futures are down 150 this morning), investors should be on the lookout for investment opportunities. Worries over bird flu led to numerous bargains, especially in the poultry industry. We’ll have to see what stocks, if any, are adversely affected by swine flu worries. Chances are they will excellent investment opportunities just as were available when SARS and bird flu were the worries of the day.

Q1 2009 Earnings Exceeding Estimates So Far

Are you surprised that the market is acting as well as it has lately, especially with earnings season having begun? Still waiting for that overbought correction after six weeks of gains in stocks? Me too. Why the relative strength? Well, according to Bespoke Investment Group first quarter earnings are coming in well above estimates so far (20% reporting):

“A fifth of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported earnings for the first quarter, and so far earnings are down 16.6% versus the first quarter of 2008. While down, this is much better than the -37.3% expected at the start of earnings season. When comparing actual earnings versus estimates, Consumer Discretionary, Financials, and Energy are leading the way. On the downside, the Industrial sector is the only one where actual earnings have come in weaker than expected. Earnings season still has a long way to go, but the fact that growth has come in better than expected thus far has been one factor driving the market higher.”

How The Financials Are Greatly Masking the Market’s Earnings Potential

Some people are making the case that the stock market can rally meaningfully even without the financial sector recovering. I disagree simply because earnings are being negatively impacted so severely by loan losses and mark to market writedowns at the large financial institutions that investors won’t get a clear picture of what a reasonable expectation for S&P 500 earnings are until financial sector earnings at least stabilize, if not climb back toward breakeven.

Jeremy Siegel, well known Wharton finance professor and author of “Stocks for the Long Run” (an excellent book) had an opinion-editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal recently that was titled “The S&P 500 Gets Its Earnings Wrong” (subscription only — get 2 free weeks here if you are not a WSJ online subscriber) that made some interesting points about the currently depressed level of earnings for the S&P 500.

Dr. Siegel explains that while the S&P 500 is market value weighted (larger companies are weighted more heavily in the index than the smaller ones), Standard and Poor’s does not use the same methodology when calculated the index’s earnings. Instead, a dollar of profit from the smallest stock is treated the same as a dollar earned by the largest. As a result, the losses being accumulated by a small portion of the index are negating the profits being generated by the majority, which is making the S&P 500’s earnings look overly depressed.

Consider the data below, taken from Siegel’s column:

Siegel is suggesting that the absolutely abysmal financial performance of the market’s worst stocks last year (mostly from financial services firms, of course) is giving the appearance that corporate profits have absolutely fallen off a cliff in every area during this recession. He is quick to point out that 84% of the largest 500 public companies in the U.S. (420 out of 500) are actually doing quite well. That fact is going unnoticed because $1 of earnings from the smallest stock in the S&P is treated the same as $1 of earnings from the largest component, even though an investor in the S&P 500 owns 1,300 times more of the largest one than the smallest.

I’m not sure if Siegel is suggesting that they should actaully go ahead and change the way they calculate S&P 500 earnings (and if so, I’m not sure I would even agree with him), but I do think this data is very helpful in seeing just how much the financial sector is masking corporate profits from other sectors.

My personal estimate right now for S&P 500 fair value is around 1,050 (14 to 15 times normalized earnings of between $70 and $80). I came up with those estimates before reading Siegel’s article, but the data he provided give me comfort in the estimate. After all, if you assume the bottom 80 companies get back to breakeven and the other 420 companies maintain their 2008 profitability (both are conservative assumptions when the recession ends in my view), we see that S&P 500 earnings would range from $67 (if you use GAAP earnings) to $81 (if you use operating profits)

As you can see, any relief for the financial sector with respect to mark-to-market accounting principles could temper the writedowns going forward. Even getting the financial sector to breakeven by 2010 would reduce the negative earnings impact from the bottom 6% of the S&P 500, clearing the way for earnings to rebound pretty quickly from the $40-$50 level analysts are projecting for 2009.

Why Fair Value For The S&P 500 Is Not 440

Barry Ritholtz, market veteran and blogger over at The Big Picture postulated today that fair value for the S&P 500 might be 440. He got there by taking trailing 12 month GAAP earnings of $28.75 and applying a 15 P/E ratio to them.

Personally, I expect more from Barry given how strong much of his market and economic analysis has been over the years, but there are glaring flaws in this valuation methodology. First, I don’t know very many market strategists who believe fair value on the S&P 500 should be based on the earnings produced by the index’s components in the depths of a deep recession. Most people agree that fair value should be based on an estimate of normalized earnings, not trough (or near-trough) profit levels.

Imagine you owned a Burlington Coat Factory retail store. You are ready to retire and have a business person interested in buying your store. What would your reaction be if this person took your store’s profit for the month of June, multiplied it by 12, and based his offer price on that level of projected annual profits. Clearly that figure does not give an accurate representation of how much money your store earns in a year because June is probably one of your worst months of the year for selling coats!

The same flaw exists in valuing the stock market based on current earnings. Doing so implies that earnings today represent a typical economic climate, which is clearly not the case.

The second issue with Barry’s analysis is the use of “as-reported” GAAP earnings. The reason GAAP earnings have fallen so fast is that they include non-cash charges such as asset impairments. It is common these days for companies to report cash earnings of $1 billion but a GAAP loss of $5 billion due to a $6 billion asset impairment charge. In such a case GAAP earnings (which include the non-cash charge) are understated by a whopping $6 billion. Why should asset impairments be excluded? A stock’s value is based on the present value of future free cash flow. Since cash flow is what matters to investors when valuing the market and specific stocks, non-cash accounting adjustments (such as asset impairments) don’t really play a role in fair value estimations.

The interesting thing is that you don’t have to take my word for it on this topic if you don’t want to. The very fact that the market is trading about 50% below its all-time high and yet still trades at 29 times trailing GAAP earnings (S&P 500 at 834 divided by 28.75) is excellent evidence that using GAAP earnings during a recession will not result in an accurate estimate of fair value in the eyes of most investors.

Economy Continues to Deteriorate, But Stock Market Treads Water

Market strategists call it a “bottoming process” or “building a base.” The chart below shows the S&P 500 over the last three months and you can see what they are talking about. Earnings estimates keep dropping, job cuts keep pushing up the unemployment rate, GDP continues to contract, but the S&P has been going sideways in a range between 750 and 950, even in the face of three months of bad news. No rally has been sustainable, but the market isn’t getting significantly worse.

Some think this trend is a good thing, others would like to see the market rising in the face of bad news, but it is too early for the latter. There is no doubt that it is a positive sign that the market seems to have come to grips with the reality that job losses will continue, corporate profits in 2009 will stink, and the unemployment rate is headed well over 8% this year (from 7.2% currently). Since the market discounts future events ahead of time, current market prices appear to have priced in the consensus economic forecasts for 2009. Of course, we don’t know if those assumptions will prove accurate or not. Only time will tell on that front.

For those looking for a large market advance, we likely won’t get one that is sustainable until the economy shows signs of stabilizing. Just like stocks hit bottom before the economic statistics got worse, stocks will begin to rise before the economy begins to grow again, but we are likely facing months of stagnation before that happens. As a result, the last three months of sideways market action makes sense. Things might not get too much worse than most are expecting, but a recovery is going to take time.

Fourth Quarter Earnings Will Be Horrible, But We Already Know That

Aluminum giant Alcoa (AA) kicks off fourth quarter earnings season after the closing bell today and there is little doubt that they will be the first in a series of profit reports over the next few weeks that will be absolutely brutal. Fortunately, most investors already know that, so the market’s reaction is unlikely to mirror the dramatic sell-off we saw in October and November. The fourth quarter could prove to be the weakest quarter of the entire recession in terms of GDP growth (a 5 or 6 percent decline is both possible and probable), which would imply that corporate profits have no chance of exceeding expectations this quarter.

The key, however, is not what the numbers are but rather how the market reacts to them. With sentiment so negative on the earnings front, there will be instances where stocks actually do not drop, or even rise slightly after poor profit reports are announced. Since the stock market is forward looking, a company reporting a lousy number, if no worse than expected, will actually bring smiles to investors’ eyes because it alleviates the concern that things could be even worse than many believe they are.

How the market reacts during this earnings season will be very telling for the near-term dynamics of Wall Street. If numbers come in weak as expected, but not a lot worse than the already low expectations, technical analysts will be quick to point that out as a positive sign. This would be a key signal that the market has reached a short term bottom. Such action would tell me that the market is truly looking ahead to possible economic stimulus and other actions that could help make the fourth quarter the worst quarterly GDP reading we ultimately see.

Conversely, a poor market reaction to these profit reports could mean a retest of the November lows. The market has done pretty well in recent weeks as it looks ahead to an Obama administration, but its patience will certainly be tested over the next couple of weeks. Personally, I think we will see a modestly negative reaction over the short-term, only because we have already seen a decent level of bargain hunting prior to earnings season.

Full Disclosure: No position in Alcoa at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

No, It Is Not A Bull Market

I have heard it twice on CNBC already this morning, and the market has not even opened yet. For some reason people are claiming that since the market is up more than 20% from its lows that we have entered a new bull market. This idea that any rise of at least 20% constitutes a bull market is just plain silly. If a stock falls from $10 to $1 and rebounds to $1.20 it’s a new bull market? Oh, please! Sorry folks, but there is no bull market in stocks, or oil, or anything else that has been crushed in recent months but has recouped a small portion of the losses.