Exit Stage Left

Jason Norris of Ferguson Wellman by Jason Norris, CFA Executive Vice President of Research

Exit Stage Left Wednesday’s release of The Federal Reserve’s meeting minutes raised more of a hawkish tone. On the surface, the minutes may be viewed as negative; however, due to an improving labor market and an indication of a better growth environment we would welcome an increase in the Federal funds rate next year. As expected, the Fed did formally end its quantitative easing (QE) program with its final active purchase of mortgage-backed securities and government bonds. This is a positive sign for the equity markets and the U.S. economy at large. Coincidentally, U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data was released this week showing a solid 3.5 percent growth rate, which was better than most expectations. Our forecast has been for the U.S. economy to pick up steam throughout the year, and this data has confirmed that call. This information has supported stocks, yet it has a minimal effect on the bond market with the 10-year treasury yielding 2.3 percent.

Signals Third quarter earnings reports have reinforced our belief of continued economic growth. Seventy percent of the companies in the S&P 500 index have reported earnings to date and the results have shown year-over-year earnings-per-share growth of nine percent and revenue growth of four percent. Healthcare and technology companies have led the way with higher reporting of 11 percent and nine percent top-line growth, respectively. These are two sectors we favor in our equity strategies. These positive earnings reports have enabled stocks to reclaim their footing in this bull market. From the recent all-time high in September, the S&P 500 fell 10 percent over the subsequent four weeks. However, in the last two weeks we have seen a nice snap back with equities sitting just below the record of 2020 set on September 19, 2014. At current valuations (the market is trading 15.5x forward earnings) and with the strong earnings we are witnessing, we continue to favor stocks over bonds.

Different Stages The quarter’s earnings season has not been friendly to the higher growth, momentum stocks. Last week Amazon “cautioned” investors that they are going to reinvest more money into “growth”. Historically, this wouldn’t have been viewed very negatively but it seems investors may be getting impatient for their return on investment as the stock declined by almost 10 percent. Over the last 10 years, Amazon’s profit margins have fallen from six percent to under one percent, while the stock has been a stellar performer. It looks like investors are shortening the leash. Twitter suffered a similar fate this week. Twitter’s growth metrics (advertising, users, etc.) were disappointing, resulting in a 20 percent decline this week. The overall growth of the company is still strong, but investors may be getting anxious when they are paying over 100x future earnings. While many of us are big users of both of these companies’ services that does not make the underlying stock a great investment. Investors need to make sure that the price they are going to pay for future cash flows allows them to earn a competitive return. We just don’t see that in these two names at this time.

Our Takeaways for the Week: 

  • U.S. economic growth is improving which will lead to the Fed raising the funds rate earlier rather than later
  • Third quarter earnings growth is healthy which supports a reasonably valued equity market