The stock market is close to record highs, and given how well everything seems to be going, they should have blasted through those records. Consider this:
- The latest quarterly GDP growth release was the highest since 2014.
- Initial jobless claims as a percentage of total civilian employment are at an all-time low.
- Interest rates are still hovering around the low end of a 100-year range.
- The percentage of companies reporting positive earnings per share surprises is the highest since Standard and Poors started tracking that metric 10 years ago.
- Company repurchases of their own stocks and cash dividends per share are at record levels
Despite these excellent conditions, stocks have been unable to rise above the January highs. Unless they do it soon, it may be time to consider whether stock prices have reached a cyclical peak.
What is keeping stocks from going higher? The only reasonable answer is that the market does not believe today’s conditions are sustainable. Here are some possible reasons:
A global trade war
According to a great number of observers this is probably the biggest threat to global growth. It started when the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese imports in late January, and it has escalated since then between the U.S. and China, but eased between the U.S. and other partners in the West, like Canada and the European Union.
Data, however, does not show any negative effect from the trade tensions. Research company FactSet compared second-quarter earnings growth for companies that generate more than 50% of sales outside the U.S. against those that generate more than 50% of sales domestically. The first group (with more global exposure) had 32% larger growth (29.4% to 22.2%). Revenue was even more lopsided, with the first group showing 57% larger growth (13.5% to 8.6%). This is not, however, some kind of proof that trade sanctions are actually a boon for global trade. Rather, it could mean that, anticipating escalation, global companies tried to squeeze through more activity during the second quarter in case tensions get worse later on.
The U.S. Federal Reserve has remained firm in its intention to raise rates twice more this year and three times in 2019. This, in turn, has strengthened the U.S. dollar by more than 9% since January – a side effect that is likely to deepen the U.S. trade deficit and exacerbate trade tensions that are already running high. It will also increase the cost of consumer debt such as mortgages.
Waning global growth
The global economy is slowing down. According to the latest IMF World Economic Outlook, “Growth projections have been revised down for the euro area, Japan, and the United Kingdom, reflecting negative surprises to activity in early 2018.” Emerging markets have been hit hard in the last few months, in particular Turkey, whose currency plunged this week, and Venezuela, which is struggling with runaway hyperinflation running at 83,000%.
The political landscape remains complicated. The U.S. midterm elections in November have the potential of changing the policy outlook significantly if, as some predict, the Democratic Party takes control of the U.S. Congress. Additionally, a report on Russian interference in the U.S. elections that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to release in the coming month will certainly weigh on sentiment. Since the investigation has been shrouded in secrecy, any announcement will come as a surprise and has the potential to move markets.
These are just some of the most obvious concerns, but there are others, such as mounting public debt and ballooning fiscal deficit, and a slowdown in real estate sales due to combination of higher home prices, higher mortgage rates and stagnant wages.
Stocks, therefore, are caught up between excellent conditions today and worries about next year’s outlook. This being the case, even if current economic data continues to excel, any break above the record stock prices of January may prove to be short-lived unless the medium-term outlook improves substantially.