A Bull Market Record that Doesn’t Feel Like It
NEW YORK – It’s a new record for stocks, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.
The biggest gainers in the past year are fuddy-duddy utilities. Investors are cowering for cover in gold. And the best they’re hoping for in the current earnings season is that profits don’t fall as much as they initially feared.
It’s the second-longest bull market in history, and its old age is showing.
Still, stocks have rewarded investors who had faith to hold on. With a new high for the Standard and Poor’s 500 index on Monday, it has tripled since its low in March 2009 during the financial crisis.
“This is one of my favorite days. There’s nothing like a new high,” says John Manley, chief equity strategist for Wells Fargo Fund Management.
No matter what you think of the stock market – love it, fear it – you’ve got to admire its resilience.
The market has been hit with a string of bad news in the past year. Plunging oil prices. Falling corporate earnings. Fear over rising interest rates. Slowing growth in China. The British vote to leave the European Union.
There were scary headlines, panic selling, big drops. But there was always another rush to buy.
And so it was in the last two trading days. Since Friday, the Standard and Poor’s 500 index has risen 39 points, or 2 percent, hitting 2,137.16. That is about seven points higher than the last record over a year ago.
For all its recent gains, though, the stock market isn’t showing great confidence in the future.
Among the 10 sectors of the S&P 500, utilities are up the most, soaring 18 percent since the last high on May 21 last year, according to research firm Bespoke Investment Group. They are mostly bought for their steady dividends payments.
The bond market is signaling trouble, too. Investors tend to load up on government bonds when they’re nervous, pushing yields lower. And yields on U.S. government bonds in the past week have fallen to their lowest levels ever.
Jonathan Corpina, senior managing partner at Meridian Equity Partners, thinks the bull market is fragile.
“There’s no real conviction behind the buying,” he says.
One reason is that companies have been struggling to increase their earnings.
For much of the bull market, companies have been able to compensate for slow growth in the U.S. by cutting costs to squeeze more profits out of each sale or ramping up exports to faster growing countries overseas.
But they’ve cut to the bone, and profits margins are falling now, not rising. What’s more, many of the overseas markets that helped in the past, particularly ones in the developing world, are slowing or stalling.
You could see this in the dismal profit reports over the past year. According to research firm S&P Global Market Intelligence, earnings per share for companies in the S&P 500 index have fallen for three quarters in a row, nearly unheard of outside of a recession.
Some widely respected gauges of stock market value are signaling trouble, too.
The so-called Shiller earnings ratio, named after Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller of Yale, compares the price of stocks to annual earnings averaged over 10 years. The measure is now 26, much higher – meaning more expensive – than the long term average of 18.
The good news is that the U.S. economy appears healthy.
The rally on Friday was set off by a surprisingly strong jobs report for June, suggesting that employers have been confident enough to hire. And more jobs mean more money for consumers to spend, who power 70 percent of U.S. economic output.
With Alcoa reporting results after the close Monday, the second quarter earnings season has unofficially begun. Earnings per share for the S&P 500 are expected to fall 5.4 percent. But there are signs of hope. The financial analysts who follow the companies expect the next two quarters after that will bring gains.
Wells Fargo’s Manley is optimistic.
“Consumers will finally start to feel good after being in a funk,” he says, “and the rest of the economy will open up.”