Stocks performed well in 2021, but while gains were widespread, it was not easy to outperform some of the indices. The best performing index in 2021 was the Dow Jones Transportation Average which rose 31.8% for the year. The SPX was second with a gain of 26.9%, followed by the Wilshire 5000 index which rallied 22.8%.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average had an 18.7% gain in 2021 and in most years, this would have been an exceptional performance, but for last year it made the index a laggard. The Russell 2000 index rose roughly half of the SPX at 13.7% for the year and performed just slightly better than the Dow Jones Utility Average which rose 13.4%. However, on a total return basis, the Dow Jones Utility Average clearly outperformed the Russell small cap index.
One might wonder about the amazing outperformance of the Dow Jones Transportation Average given the weak performance of the airlines during the pandemic, but airlines were offset by strong performances in some unexpected components like Avis Budget Group, Inc. (CAR – $202.53), and the various shipping and freight components such as, Expeditors International of Washington, Inc. (EXPD – $130.06), C. H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. (CHRW – $110.38), J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. (JBHT – $207.66), or the marine shipping company, Matson, Inc. (MATX – $91.15). Despite the angst about transportation logjams and the disaster at the Port of Los Angeles, many transportation stocks performed well last year.
However, for most individual investors and many money managers, 2021 proved to be a challenging time to outperform the SPX. The reason for this is the emergence of a few stocks that are beginning to dominate the cap-weighted benchmark indices like the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. In our December 15, 2021 weekly (“Monetary Policy Shift Ahead”) we displayed a table of the eight stocks that represented 63% of the total market capitalization of the Nasdaq 100 at that time. These stocks are Apple, Inc. (AAPL – $179.70), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT – $329.01), Alphabet Inc. Class C (GOOG.0 – $2888.33), Alphabet Inc. Class A (GOOGL.O – $2887.99), Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN – $3350.44), Tesla Inc. (TSLA – $1149.59), Meta Platforms, Inc. Class A (FB – $336.53) and Nvidia Corp. (NVDA – $292.90). This week, as Apple, Inc. approached an historic $3 trillion market capitalization, S&P wrote that a mere five stocks currently represent 26% of the market weight of the SPX (AAPL, MSFT, GOOG, AMZN and FB).
It is noteworthy that with a $3 trillion market capitalization, Apple would singularly represent 7.8% of the S&P 500 index. This market cap dominance easily exceeds the 6.4% weighting seen by International Business Machine (IBM – $138.02) in 1985. There are many theories about what happens to a stock when it becomes a dominant part of the index, and most theories suggest that dominance is not long-lived. However, there is another important aspect to the fact that a small group of stocks are driving the SPX. Particularly those money managers pegged to the SPX, the fact that AAPL is 7.8% of the SPX market capitalization, you risk underperforming your benchmark if you are not similarly weighted in AAPL. If you are not, this equates to a large bet against AAPL doing well. We expect there was a lot of portfolio adjustments going on at year end.
What we find disturbing about the dominance of a few stocks driving the major benchmark indices is that it reminds us of the Nifty Fifty era that preceded the top in 1970. The nifty fifty stocks included companies like Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, Digital Equipment and S.S. Kresge (Kmart), Sears and Roebuck, and Xerox (XRX – $23.76). Most of which do not exist in their previous form. It is also similar to the dot-com bubble that led to the 2000 peak. Global Crossing was part of the dot-com bubble. It was a telecommunications company founded in 1997 that reached a market capitalization of $47 billion in February 2000 before filing bankruptcy in January 2002. In both of these previous cases the momentum of the market was driven by a relatively small number of popular growth stocks that represented the future to most investors. They were the disruptors of their era. But over time, if a few stocks are driving market performance, fundamentals and valuation models are replaced by momentum models. Momentum models simply drive more investors into a small group of outperforming stocks. We do not believe we are currently in a bubble; but having lived through the aftermath of both the 1970 and 2000 tops, the seeds of a bubble do exist, in our view. If we are on the verge of a bubble, 2022 may be the decisive year. Many indicators point to a correction that is greater than 10% over the next twelve months. But if this does not materialize, it is quite possible that a new set of investors, who have never lived through the humbling experience of a bear market may continue to follow momentum and drive stock prices higher.
The last three years have been good to investors. The SPX has had consecutive annual gains of 28.9%, 16.3% and 26.9%. The Nasdaq Composite has been even stronger with gains of 35.2%, 43.6% and 21.4%. The DJIA has not quite kept up, yet in the last three years it has had gains of 22.3%, 7.2% and 18.7%. History has shown that three consecutive years of double-digit gains in the indices has been followed by a negative year. Since 1901 there has been only one exception to this pattern: the five double-digit up years that lead into the 2000 peak. See page 3. However, as we noted, 2000 was a bubble peak and March 2000 was followed by three consecutive years of losses.
In sum, 2022 is apt to be a pivotal and defining year. A down year should be expected and it would be stabilizing for the longer run. But if stocks continue to advance strongly, it would be a likely sign of an emerging bubble. Fundamentals do not work in a bubble, but technical indicators are helpful. The NYSE cumulative advance decline line peaked in late 1997, yet the indices continued to move higher for more than two years. This was a massive two-plus year divergence. We have found that the divergence between the advance decline line and the indices is a simple way of gauging future downside risk in the marketplace. At present, the NYSE cumulative advance decline line made its last record high on November 8. This 8-week divergence is not unusual, and it suggests a correction of 10% or more. But the longer the divergence persists, the more the downside risk in the market grows as seen in 2000.
One of the warning signs that a bubble is reaching its peak is a surge in leverage. Massive borrowing against stocks is what will produce an eventual selling surge as leverage is unwound. For this reason, we are keeping a watch on margin debt growth. But total margin debt fell $17.3 billion in November to $918.6 billion. See page 4. As a percentage of total market capitalization margin debt was unchanged at just under 1.8%. This is a high ratio but not a record. November’s 2-month rate-of-change in margin debt was a modest 1.7% and compares to a 1.4% gain in the Wilshire 5000. Prior to market peaks margin debt can rise to 15.3% or more, yet barely move equity prices higher. From this perspective, the equity market appears to be in good shape. Earnings are expected to increase 8% to 9% this year, but we fear inflation could erode this more than expected. The Santa Claus rally implies 2022 could be a good year and the first five trading days of January is off to a good start. The early January market has had an accuracy rate of 79% of predicting the annual trend. See page 5. We will follow up on this next week but overall, a diversified portfolio is the best way to manage through what may be a tumultuous year. Our favorite sectors for diversification are technology, financials, energy and staples — a mixture of growth, value, and yield.
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