The new year began with a US drone strike at the Baghdad airport which killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had greeted him at the airport. To the extent that Iran retaliates and whether this is the start of an escalating conflict in the Middle East is a huge unknown. But it certainly could become the overriding issue of 2020. Still, it is important to note that history shows that stocks have performed surprisingly well during military conflicts. For example, equity prices rose in 1991 even though the US began a military operation – Operation Desert Storm – in January to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. (An interesting connection between 1991 and the current operation is that Muhandis had been labeled a terrorist and sentenced to death by a Kuwaiti court for the 1983 bombings of the American and French embassies in Kuwait.)
Another significant factor to consider with regard to the Middle East is that the US has recently become the world’s largest energy producer. In 2018 the US delivered 18% of the world’s total oil production exceeding Saudi Arabia’s 12%. In November, the US had a petroleum trade surplus of $0.8 billion, the highest on record. This is an important difference between 1991 and 2020 since the US is now a greater force in global energy production, has become a more energy efficient economy and currently benefits economically from the rising price of oil. A rise in oil prices could also increase corporate earnings for energy companies and boost S&P 500 earnings. All of this could explain why the US equity market has performed better since the drone attack than many would have expected.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
Although the geopolitical landscape is quite different today from when we published our 2020 outlook in December, there is little that we would change in our forecasts. The SPX is trading at 20 times trailing operating earnings this week, the same multiple as seen in mid-December. Our earnings forecast of $184 is likely to be too conservative, particularly if energy sector earnings rebound more than expected in 2020. And in turn, we believe our SPX price target of 3300 (PE multiple of 17.9 times) could prove to be too conservative. However, given the uncertainty that the Middle East now poses, it is possible that the SPX 3300 level will be a hurdle in the intermediate-term, or at least until the risk of conflict subsides. Conversely, sell offs related to the Middle East should be viewed as longer-term buying opportunities. As we go to print there are reports that there are rocket attacks on multiple US facilities in Iraq and US equity futures are down 1%.
ASSESSING ECONOMIC STRENGTH
The majority of recent data releases indicate that economic activity is improving. November’s trade data pointed to a goods-only trade deficit that declined 5.8% to $63.9 billion and a total trade deficit that fell 8.2% to $43.1 billion. Both of these monthly figures are the lowest deficits recorded since October 2016. The petroleum surplus mentioned earlier, contributed to the declines in deficits. Most importantly, the trade deficit as a percentage of GDP is ratcheting lower which means it could be less of a drag on GDP in future quarters. Last but far from least, trade with China continues to decline and Mexico and Canada remain our number one and two trading partners. See page 3.
One of the most promising segments of the US economy is housing. Pending home sales – a leading indicator of single-family home, condo and co-op sales – rebounded in November despite a shrinking 2222
level of available inventory. This report was accompanied by large jumps in building permits and housing starts, which are now at their highest levels in twelve years. See page 4. Since pending home sales are based upon signed real estate contracts, November’s report suggests that existing home sales and prices should rise in the first quarter of 2020. See page 5.
Given this housing backdrop it is not surprising that home builder confidence is also rising. In November, the NAHB housing market index was approaching levels last seen in 1999. This is good news for the stock market. Housing is an important part of the US economy and the trickle-down effect from new and existing home sales is influential to many other parts of the economy. Therefore, it is not surprising that the NAHB housing market index and the SPX are strongly correlated. As seen on page 6, with the exception of 2006 and 2007, homebuilder confidence has moved in close step with stock prices. In fact, the weakness in the NAHM index in 2006-2007 was an excellent, although early, predictor of the mortgage crisis that led to the financial crisis in 2008.
In our OUTLOOK FOR 2020 (December 18, 2019) we outlined the strengths we see in the household sector which included a healthy job market, solid gains in real wages, record household net worth, homeowners’ equity of 64% (the best since 1991), and debt service ratios that remain at or near 40 year lows. Recent data on personal income and personal expenditures also point to a strong consumer base. In November, personal income grew 4.85% year-over-year and personal disposable income rose 4.6% year-over-year. And despite the increase in the CPI from 1.8% to 2.1% in November, our calculation for real personal disposable income showed an increase from 2.4% to 2.5%. In short, purchasing power continues to improve. The cyclicality in personal consumption is another encouraging factor for the US economy. As seen on page 7, PCE tends to decline and hit a low every two to four years. There were cyclical slumps in personal consumption in 2009, 2013, 2015 and in 2019. However, the slump in 2019 is now a good omen for 2020 since it implies there should be a rebound ahead.
Not everything is bright for the US economy. The ISM manufacturing index fell from 48.1 in November to 47.2 in December, recording its third consecutive decline and its fifth consecutive reading below 50. The manufacturing sector continues to be in the doldrums. Conversely, the ISM nonmanufacturing index rose from 53.9 to 55.0 in November. The employment survey in each ISM series edged lower in December but since the unemployment rate is low, we are less concerned about these employment indices than we were. More importantly, the nonmanufacturing employment index was 55.2 in November, a level that indicates expansion. Keep in mind that nonmanufacturing represents 80% of the US workforce. See page 8.
TECHNICAL INDICATORS REMAIN BULLISH
One of the most bullish indicators we monitor is the 25-day up/down volume oscillator. This indicator is an excellent barometer of underlying buying and selling pressure and it helps us determine if a bull or bear market is strong, getting stronger or running out of steam. The oscillator is currently 2.84 and neutral this week but it was in overbought territory for 7 of 8 consecutive trading sessions at year end. This represented the sixth consecutive overbought reading (without an intervening oversold condition) in 2019 and is distinctly bullish. The cumulative advance decline line made an all-time high on January 6, which confirmed the new highs seen in the indices on January 2. And since the equity market has been setting a series of record highs, we plan to monitor sentiment indicators more closely. Sentiment indicators tend to be an early warning system for extended bull market cycles since extreme bullishness usually accompanies bull market peaks. The good news today is that sentiment indicators are not recording high levels of optimism. The AAII bullish sentiment reading for January 1 was 37.2%, down 4.7% from the previous week. Bearish sentiment rose 0.3% to 21.9% in the same week. The ISE Sentiment index edged toward positive territory but was also in neutral territory this week. In sum, there are no extremes in the technical arena that would suggest that the bull market advance is over. All in all, this suggests that future market weakness should provide investors with a favorable buying opportunity.
Regulation AC Analyst Certification
I, Gail Dudack, hereby certify that all the views expressed in this report accurately reflect my personal views about the subject company or companies and its or their securities. I also certify that no part of my compensation was, is, or will be, directly or indirectly related to the specific views contained in this report.
“Overweight”: Overweight relative to S&P Index weighting
“Neutral”: Neutral relative to S&P Index weighting
“Underweight”: Underweight relative to S&P Index weighting
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