With Corporate Recovery in Full Swing, Some Market Distortions Emerge

Kurt Hoefer, CFA

With Corporate Recovery in Full Swing, Some Market Distortions Emerge image

Q2 2021 Quarterly Commentary – July 1, 2021

Stock and bond markets delivered positive returns again in Q2 2021, fueled by the continued reopening of the economy. Through June 2021 a total of 326 million vaccinations had been administered in the United States (Johns Hopkins estimates), and over 3 billion doses had been administered globally (Bloomberg News from multiple sources). In response, consumer confidence has shown signs of recovery, industrial production has resumed, and the service economy has rebounded.

At this point, a Bloomberg News survey of 75 economists forecasts that the U.S. economy will expand by 6.6% in 2021, a further 4.3% in 2022 and 2.3% in 2023. Moreover, analysts are forecasting a meaningful rebound in corporate earnings. According to a Bloomberg analyst survey, S&P 500 earnings are forecast to grow by 35% in 2021 over a Covid-impacted 2020, and to continue their growth trajectory with gains of 11.7% in 2022 and 10.5% in 2023. Corporate cash balances are up and net indebtedness is down, as corporations used the economic pause to rein in spending and mend their balance sheets. In response to the positive economic news and in anticipation of further economic recovery, the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average and NASDAQ Composite increased in the quarter by 8.6%, 5.1% and 9.7%, including dividends. Foreign stocks also rose, with the MSCI ACWI ex-USA Index rising by 5.6%, including dividends, during the quarter.

Notwithstanding the low absolute yields earned on investment grade bonds, the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index returned a respectable 1.8% for the quarter ended June 30, 2021. While we have seen signs of inflation in recent months, the same Bloomberg News survey reported forecasts of inflation in 2021 and 2022 of 3.7% and 2.7%, respectively. These levels of inflation are elevated to where they were prior to the monetary and fiscal stimulus enacted over the past year, but not enough to lead the monetary authorities to meaningfully restrain credit or remove liquidity from the financial system. In fact, the Federal Reserve kept the benchmark Fed Funds rate on hold during its June 16th meeting and indicated that it did not expect to change this policy until 2022 at the earliest.

With this as a backdrop it is understandable that investors have placed their bets on U.S. and global stocks and bonds, as they have with other “risk assets” like real estate and commodities.

Our job of course is to capture upside when markets allow and to posture your accounts for growth. Our other key duty is to protect your wealth as best we can, drawing on our experience as security analysts and market observers. We have operated through numerous economic cycles and have found that it is best to operate with a degree of caution, particularly when the consensus is optimistic. The economists and investment strategists who provided the forecasts of strong economic growth, reasonably-subdued inflation and robust earnings power might simply prove wrong. Therefore, we apply our own set of assumptions and forecasts when we consider the futures of the businesses we hold. We have our eye on a couple of factors that could spell trouble for the overall markets, as we will describe below. This is not to say that we’re worried of imminent problems in the market, but it underscores the importance of paying close attention to the individual stocks and bonds that we own, and the companies that issued them.

One factor that has our attention is the level of “real” interest rates. This is the yield on bonds, minus the level of inflation in the economy. Today, real interest rates on government and other high-grade bonds are negative. This means a bondholder’s purchasing power declines over the life of the investment, i.e., the interest earned does not compensate for the decline in the purchasing power of the money promised to the investor when the bond matures. The massive liquidity injected into markets by the government (ours and foreign governments alike) to combat the economic and financial shock that accompanied Covid-19, as well as the continued bond buying programs by the Fed, have helped to maintain this unhealthy distortion. Negative real interest rates are not only a tax on savers, but they have driven capital to search for return in riskier assets, like stocks, junk bonds and real estate, and as a consequence have driven up valuations across the markets for these riskier assets.

Source: Bloomberg. The left chart presents the level of interest earned on the 10-Year U.S. Treasury note over time, minus the prevailing inflation rate. The real interest rates on these securities has been below zero throughout the Covid crisis and into the current recovery. The right chart shows the price level of the S&P 500 divided by analyst estimates of earnings over the succeeding 12-month period, according to a Bloomberg survey of analysts. While P/E is but one measure of valuation and an imperfect one particularly in a time of economic change as we are experiencing, the market’s forward P/E ratio is at levels that we have not seen in decades.

If equity valuations are elevated, should we be worried? Not necessarily, because corporate earnings, we believe, are ultimately the driver of value in the equity markets, and corporate earnings tend to grow over time. Whatever the valuation of the market today, the companies that underlie the market will grow their earnings to justify this valuation at some date in the future. If our time horizon is long enough, then we believe we will be fine. While this line of reasoning may be true, it is not totally comforting. As we have mentioned many times before, our approach is to invest in assets whose economics justify the valuation today. The S&P 500 is comprised of 500 individual companies. We feel no compulsion to invest in all 500, but rather seek to concentrate our investment in those companies whose business fundamentals are most sound and which trade at valuations that are justifiable. Further, we favor those businesses that can weather adverse economic and inflationary conditions over those that likely cannot. Similarly, not all bonds react the same way to changes in interest rates. We seek to manage our exposures in a way that can allow us to take advantage of these changes as they occur. We also need to keep in mind that volatility in markets is normal and is actually critical to the healthy functioning of those markets. Knowing this, it is most important for investors to keep their wits in the face of volatility.

At times of generally elevated valuations across risk assets, one should take stock of where they have concentrated exposures and consider the possibility of diversifying that risk. The comment above about rising earnings tides lifting a broad market index like the S&P 500 over time does not necessarily apply to any single stock that is a component of that index. Consider another period when the broad indexes traded at an elevated valuation, March of 2000. Shares of Cisco Systems and Intel still trade today below the levels they reached over 21 years ago. It is obvious today that these companies have lost the competitive edge that they were perceived to have had in 2000, but hindsight is 20/20. Both companies are far more profitable today than they were in 2000, but the market values these businesses very differently today.

Q2 Portfolio Changes

It is at this point that we usually discuss new holdings in our core equity portfolios and describe the reasons for key sales in these accounts. In the second quarter of 2021, we made no changes to client portfolios beyond minor shifts in security weightings. It is fairly rare that we make no material changes over a three-month period, but it should be taken as a sign that we remain confident in what we own.

Organizational Changes

We do have some changes in our personnel during the second quarter to share with you. We are pleased to report that Ben Feiner, Archana Turaga and Samantha Hipple have taken important roles with Summitry, and Lisa Morabe has shifted responsibilities. In addition, our longtime friend and colleague, Diane Johnson, has chosen this time to enter retirement.

Ben Feiner joined Summitry in April as a Client Service Specialist, Ben received dual B.A. degrees, Cum Laude, in Economics and Sociology from U.C. Santa Cruz. After his graduation, Ben joined First Republic Private Wealth Management as an Advisor Onboarding Associate. The skills he gained in that job have translated seamlessly to his new role. Ben was no stranger to us, however. He thoroughly impressed us in 2016 when he held an internship with our firm, providing support to our Financial Advisor team. We’re glad to have him back in a full-time role. Ben lives in San Francisco with his fiancé.

Archana Turaga joined the firm in May, taking the role of Financial Planning Associate. Archana has held roles at top-tier wealth management firms since 2015 and comes to us with a strong familiarity of financial planning, investments, tax planning, tax preparation, life insurance planning, estate planning and other areas critical to the management of our clients’ wealth. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from University of Mumbai, and Executive Certificate in Financial Planning from SF State, and is working toward her CFP. Archana has also helped in the preparation of tax returns in her native India. We are very excited to tap this vast experience for our clients’ benefit and are thrilled that we’ve found someone so caring as she to add to the team. Archana lives in Milpitas with her husband and two-year-old son.

Samantha Hipple is our new Office Administrator and Receptionist, replacing Lisa Morabe who has been promoted to a role with our Business Development team. Samantha comes to us from a Burlingame-based financial services company, where she was an Administrative and Marketing Assistant. Prior to that, she worked in the hospitality industry at a couple of popular East Bay establishments. We were taken by her customer-first mindset. Samantha has an Associate Degree from Chabot College and is studying for her B.A. in Liberal Studies at Cal State East Bay. Samantha lives in Hayward.

It is with mixed emotions that we learned of Diane Johnson’s plans for retirement. Effective July 1st, Diane has departed Summitry to enjoy her life as it is meant to be lived. Diane worked hard since she came to this firm in 2007 to ensure that our clients are prepared financially for this important step that she is now taking herself. We are thrilled for her and her husband, Brad, and know that she has certainly earned it. Thank you for everything, Diane.

We look forward to speaking with you, please contact us today!

The securities identified and described do not represent all of the securities purchased, sold or recommended for client accounts.  The reader should not assume that an investment in the securities identified was or will be profitable.

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Demia Edwards

Client Service Specialist