Last week we outlined eight factors that typically identify a stock market bubble and discussed where we believe the current market stands in regard to each. One important and obvious characteristic of an equity bubble is that prices disconnect from valuation. Yet as we noted last week, while current valuation levels are rich, they are not at the inane levels often recorded at a bubble peak. We quote: “In short, fundamentals may be stretched today, but interest rates are low which means a 20 PE for 2021 is within our model’s fair value range. It will not be a surprise if valuations get even more stretched in coming months. All in all, equities are disconnecting from fundamentals, but this may continue for a time.” (US Strategy Weekly “And if it is a Bubble” January 27, 2021)
What is currently in the market’s favor is that this year’s consensus earnings estimate for the S&P 500 Composite is on the rise. According to Refinitiv IBES, to date, of the 203 companies in the S&P that reported fourth quarter earnings, 84% have beaten expectations. This is well above the long-term average of 60.5%. The blended earnings estimate for the fourth quarter now shows a decline of 1.2% YOY versus the decline of 10.3% YOY expected on January 1. Excluding the energy sector, IBES estimates fourth quarter earnings should actually rise 2.4% YOY, which would end three consecutive quarters of negative earnings comparisons for the S&P. In addition, energy sector earnings are expected to rebound sharply in 2021 and this should give an added boost to 2021 results.
At the end of last week IBES estimated 2020 consensus earnings were $138.71 and due to differences in accounting standards, S&P Dow Jones estimated earnings of $121.37. With only two more days of fourth quarter earnings results, IBES raised its 2020 estimate to $139.21. All told, fourth quarter earnings have been a pleasant surprise for investors.
Fourth quarter results are also a positive catalyst for 2021 earnings forecasts. At the end of last week, IBES estimated 2021 S&P earnings to be $171.55, but after two more days of earnings results, their estimate increased to $172.05 this week. S&P Dow Jones forecasted $169.39 for S&P 500 2021 earnings in their regular report at the end of last week. What is important about these various increases in earnings is that if one applies a 20 PE multiple to the current IBES estimate of $172.05 it equates to a price target of SPX 3441. Although this is 10% below current prices, the good news is that this does not represent an extreme overvaluation given the current low level of inflation and interest rates. Thus, any correction should find support around the SPX 3400 level. Conversely, stock market bubbles tend to end with ridiculously high PE multiples. In sum, if equities are forming a bubble market, it may continue for a time.
Adjusting our Earnings Estimates for 2020 and 2021
The S&P earnings results for the fourth quarter, and for 2020 generally, are much as we expected. So, with the annual earnings season nearly complete, we are adjusting our 2020 earnings estimate to match the S&P Dow Jones estimate of $121.87. This reflects a decline of 22.8% year-over-year versus our expectation of a decline of 20% to 25% in 2020. We are also raising our 2021 estimate from $166.60 to $168.60, representing a 39% increase this year. See page 19. But more importantly, we would not be surprised if this earnings estimate proves to be too conservative over time, particularly as the drag from the energy sector abates and the productivity improvements seen in 2020 help to drive the bottom lines for many companies in 2021.
Real GDP grew in the fourth quarter at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 4%, which means that economic activity in the full year of 2020, contracted 3.5%. This 2020 contraction followed gains of 2.3% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018 and 2.2% in 2019. To our surprise, despite the 2020 recession, GDP grew at an average pace of 1.94% during Trump’s four years in office which was precisely the midpoint between the 1.89% rate for Obama’s eight years and 1.99% for GW Bush’s eight years. See page 3.
Economic growth in the fourth quarter was driven primarily by personal consumption of services and gross private investment. This shift in economic activity toward the service sector was a welcomed change since most of 2020’s economic activity was supported by personal consumption of durable goods, particularly housing and autos. The gains in gross domestic investment in the fourth quarter were primarily in residential structures. In fact, residential fixed investment hit a record $983.5 billion in the quarter which was an 18.3% gain year-over-year. This represented the strongest year-over-year rise in residential investment since the third quarter of 2013. See page 4. And as a percentage of real GDP, residential activity rose to 4.58%, the highest since the third quarter of 2007. This is strong but just slightly below its long-term average of 4.6% of GDP. See page 5. In sum, housing continued to be a major driver of economic activity at the end of 2020. But this may not continue in 2021. Ironically, as residential investment rose in the fourth quarter, homeownership levels declined rather markedly. See page 6. Total homeownership in the US fell from 67.4% of all households to 65.8%. The greatest decline was seen in the South where the homeownership rate fell from 70.8% at the end of September to 67.7% at the end of December. The Northeast was the only region in the US to experience a gain and rose from 62.0% to 62.6% in the fourth quarter. In terms of age groups, the 35 to 44 years old segment underwent the biggest decline in homeownership from 63.9% to 61.0%. Given the anecdotal evidence of households fleeing the Northeast and California to Texas, Florida and the Carolinas, this data seems illogical. However, the fourth quarter could be a transition phase as households move from states where restrictions have closed most institutions and establishments to states where schools and businesses have been open. Or it could be more ominous. The contraction of jobs in 2020 may have forced households to sell homes and move to apartments. Time will tell. However, we do believe economic growth in 2021 could disappoint investors if the federal government does not focus on stimulating job growth.
In December, personal income grew 4.1% YOY and real disposable income rose 3.2% YOY. However, a more revealing statistic is real personal income, which excluding current transfer payments fell 0.5% YOY in December. It also declined 0.45% in November. In short, government assistance, not economic activity, is propping up incomes and the economy. See page 9. And while personal income rose 4.1% in December, personal consumption declined 2.1%. Moreover, consumption has been negative in every consecutive month since March. This reveals the weak underbelly of the US economy and it is unlikely to change until the job market improves. See page 10.
Technical Indicators Little has changed in the technical arena. Our volume oscillator remains in neutral territory, the 10-day new high list has dropped from the record 492 hit on January 20th (breaking the previous record of 489 recorded in January 2000) to a more normal 259. Sentiment indicators are also surprisingly benign despite the headlines of individual traders driving volatile meme stocks. However, it is worth noting that at the end of the year stock market capitalization relative to nominal GDP was 2.1 and higher than the prior record of 1.82 set in March 2000. A similar Wilshire 5000 ratio was 1.83, exceeding its peak of 1.43 set in March 2000. These high ratios are signs that equity valuations may be outperforming the economy. See page 4. Expect 2021 to be a wild roller coaster ride and invest accordingly.
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