With a little more than two months left to the year, few would deny that 2020 has been an unusual year. The turning point was the historic, unpredictable, and relentless spread of the COVID-19 virus from China to most other countries around the world. It is not the virus, but its aftermath that will have major repercussions for people, companies, and economic trends for years to come. Yet in the face of this challenge, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite Index reached new highs in September and the DJIA, SPX and Nasdaq Composite are currently 4.2%, 3.9% and 4.5%, respectively, from all-time highs.
Some believe the rally in equities reflects a disconnect between the stock market and reality. But as usual, investors face a mix of positive and negative factors. Today is no different, even when putting the political backdrop aside.
The current negatives are obvious. The spread of COVID-19 resulted in mandatory shutdowns of businesses around the world. In the US, some businesses learned to adapt, and this created a division between winners and losers. But the bottom line is that the shutdown put 22.2 million people out of work between February and April, and 10.7 million of those remained unemployed at the end of September. Another negative is a resurgence of the virus in Europe which is generating a new round of restrictions such as curfews and limits on gatherings. This resurgence places a European recovery in the second half of the year on hold. Together, these two events create a third negative which is an enormous pressure on corporate earnings and an increasing risk of small business bankruptcies. As a result, the S&P 500 index is close to peak valuations on a trailing earnings basis and even when based upon forecasted 2021 earnings valuation remains at nosebleed levels. Added to these problems is the fact that the government is challenging the power and influence of the biggest technology companies with concerted anti-trust action. This week the Justice Department sued Google (GOOG.O – $1555.93) for illegally using its market strength to fend off rivals with distribution agreements that gave its search engine prominent placement on phones and internet browsers. Anti-trust action may prove beneficial to consumers in the long run, but in the shorter run it could pressure the big cap technology stocks that represent a large percentage of the SPX’s market capitalization. In short, it could hurt market performance.
The artificial shutdown of most economies was quickly followed by a series of policy measures to keep economies afloat. In short, the positives must begin with the extraordinary stimulative fiscal and monetary policies put into place around the world. As we have noted in the past, the combination of fiscal and monetary ease announced by the US totaled $5.5 trillion ($2.55 trillion in three fiscal packages and a $2.99 trillion expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet). This $5.5 trillion represents 28% of nominal GDP ($19.53 trillion at the end of the second quarter), or 3.4 months of economic activity. This stimulus went directly to consumers and businesses and it provided a safety net for the broader economy. In addition, another fiscal stimulus package is on the horizon, it is simply a matter of time and politics.
Yet, the biggest positive for investors is how well the economy is doing, particularly the tremendous strength in housing and autos. As of September, the NAHB single-family housing environment survey has recorded three consecutive months of record readings. Homeownership rates are surging in all regions of the US and reached 67.9% in the third quarter. This represents the highest homeownership rate since the 69.2% seen in 2004. See page 3. Residential building permits recorded a 10-year high in September and existing home prices have been moving steadily upward all year. See page 4. September’s retail sales rose 5.2% YOY overall and 3.9% YOY excluding motor vehicles and parts. Autos have been the brightest part of retail sales rising 10.5% YOY in September. Plus, September’s retail sales data included many bright spots in the economy with the exception of clothing, electronics and food and beverage establishments. The best part of all these statistics is that it all bodes well for third quarter GDP. See page 5.
Benign inflation is another positive for the equity market since low inflation is favorable for monetary policy, PE multiples and consumers. In September, the CPI rose 1.4% YOY, PPI finished goods fell 1.2% YOY, final demand PPI rose 0.5% YOY, crude oil fell 26% YOY and the PCE deflator gained 1.4% YOY. The decline in energy prices and positive spread between CPI prices and PPI prices is a favorable one for corporate margins. See page 6.
And despite negative US headlines, there is good news regarding virus trends. On October 20th, The NEW YORK TIMES ran a story including charts that showed “new COVID cases” are trending higher in October, but due to the substantial increase in the number of tests taken and diagnosed since early September. Most importantly, US deaths per day have held steady since early September at around 700. See page 7. In general, this implies the spread of the virus and its deadliness is slowly fading. Moreover, therapies for the virus have advanced dramatically in the last six months and a vaccine is expected early in 2021. Overall, we believe all this good news outweighs the bad.
We have noticed that both consensus earnings estimates for 2020 have had unusually large increases in recent weeks. See page 10. IBES indicated that of the 66 companies that reported third quarter earnings to date, 86% beat expectations. Therefore, 2020 consensus forecasts are apt to move even higher. However, stock prices have ignored 2020 and for the last six months have been trading on 2021 earnings. Unfortunately, the 2021 outlook remains uncertain and this brings us to the biggest unknown of 2020 — the election.
With less than two weeks to go and with early voting taking place at a record pace, election results remain highly uncertain. The polls give former Vice President Biden a sizeable lead, but the race continues to narrow. Statista reports that 55% of Americans feel they are better off than they were four years ago and most Americans, particularly Democratic voters, feel this election matters more than previous years. This is an interesting, but inconclusive mix. See page 8. In terms of the election, the market’s 3-month performance is showing a gain in the SPX of 5.3% and a gain in the DJIA of 7.1% to date. In past election years gains have foretold of an incumbent victory. On the other hand, one cannot be sure that 2020 is a “typical” year. See page 9.
Last but far from least, the charts of the broad indices and technical indicators have turned increasingly bullish in the last two weeks. All the popular indices rallied from important support levels that equated to their 100-day or 200-day moving averages and in particular, the Russell 2000 index began to outperform large cap indices. The advance/decline line reached a record high on October 12 and the new high list continues to expand. Our 25-day up/down volume oscillator is yet to reach a fully overbought reading, but it did record its highest reading earlier this week since August 2020. These are all supporting the bullish case.
We continue to have a long-term bullish bias but would expect the market to be choppy and trendless prior to the election. If there is no clear winner on election night, the uncertainty is likely to create even more volatility. This implies investors should be somewhat cautious near term and focus on companies that will perform well despite the virus and despite an uncertain political backdrop.
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