I like to think of the stock market as the ultimate soap opera. It can bring emotional highs and lows. A news event can act like a major plot twist. And many stocks share similarities to an identical twin in a coma.
But that’s only if you treat the market’s daily swings as though they’re important. They’re not. On a daily basis, the market generates nothing but noise. It’s on par with the worst of social media—the constant, self-absorbed claptrap of someone else’s daily life. A stock might run up on a rumor of an imminent buyout. Another stock might miss earnings and take a dive, before coming out with forward guidance that looks great.
So what matters? Beyond the noise is what’s known as the signal. For investing, the signal tells us whether stocks are broadly going up, down or sideways.
Now that we’ve entered July, the year is half over. That makes it a good time to look at how the market has performed, and what we can expect going forward.
Looking at the first half of the year, the S&P 500 gained 2.75 percent. That’s the signal. It tells us that the bull market that started at the end of the financial crisis is still with us.
It’s easy to see how that signal might have gotten lose in the noise. To get that 2.75 percent return in the first half of 2016, markets had to shrug off a near-10 percent loss at the start of the year that lasted through late February. That’s the third such selloff since the fall of 2014.
With these periodic, but not severe pullbacks, markets are understandably jittery.
Valuations are high. Expectations are low. Investors see the maul of a bear market around the corner.
But here’s the thing: bull markets don’t just slow down and stop like a car running out of gas. Quite the opposite. Bull markets end because investors try and play chicken with a freight train.
The last two major bull moves in the market ended with exuberance. In the case of the financial crisis in 2008, it seemed as though real estate would never go down. While not everyone was getting a realtor’s license or flipping a house, at least one friend or family member was. And let’s not forget the one person we know who quit their job following a lucrative IPO back in the go-go 1990’s tech boom. Their new life of day trading came to an abrupt end in early 2000.
I also like to think about where markets are at anecdotally in terms of how friends, family, and coworkers are acting. I remember getting to a work meeting early in 2007, and sitting through a lecture from some coworkers on the companies they were buying.
It wasn’t quite the level of day trading, but when you start bravado and bragging from people who have no investment expertise, valuations are getting a little lofty. I haven’t heard any such bragging lately, but sooner or later I will.
The point is, there’s no rush for people to invest or work in any specific sector today. It’s easier to day trade since the 1990’s—Internet connections are faster, commissions are even lower, and the borrowing cost of leverage is much cheaper.
No, today’s bull market doesn’t have individual investors playing chicken with a freight train. Many investors are still on the sidelines following the one-two punch of the tech and housing bubbles. That means, despite the fears out there, that stocks are still the best game in town.
We might be starting to see the initial moves into dangerous territory, though.
Why? The same, overriding factor that’s helped keep the bull market going since 2009: ultra-low interest rates. When central banks keep rates near zero, at zero, or even negative (a newer trend globally since the start of the year), socks look a lot more attractive.
Yes, there’s risk in buying a company like AT&T (T). Shares could fall just as they could with any stock. But it has a 4.4 percent yield, and government bonds don’t. A 30-year Treasury bond yields about 2.31 percent, or about half the cash return as AT&T shares.
And with a bond, your payment is fixed. At least AT&T has a history of raising cash payouts.
It’s no wonder that defensive, high-dividend stocks like telecoms and utilities have led the market year to date. I’m surprised that trend has lasted as long as it has. Other contenders for the “I need to get paid now” investor include consumer goods companies and insurance firms. It’s harder and harder to find quality names in those spaces trading at reasonable prices, but it’s not impossible.
These ultra-low interest rates are also why precious metals have started to show signs of life. Gold has been one of the best performers year-to-date. The SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD) is up 14.4 percent since January first. Silver recently traded for over $20 earlier in the week.
I expect the metals to continue to do well, although perhaps at a slower pace in the second half of the year.
Of course, gold pays no dividend. But in a world of zero or negative interest rates, that’s no longer a concern. What’s more, it can’t be printed up at whim like money or government bonds. The drive for hard assets has been driven by a few major factors such as the recent Brexit uncertainty, the continued push to keep interest rates low, and a reversion to the mean after gold prices have spent the past five years in a downtrend.
Meanwhile, while US stocks still have a positive signal going into the second half of the year, European stocks remain in doubt. While the recent Brexit vote caused a 3.5 percent decline and recovery in the space of a week for US stocks, other markets have been much more sensitive to the increased political uncertainty in Europe.
The FTSE, London’s stock index, is slightly up. Yet weaker EU countries like Spain and Ireland are still down since the vote. Since Britain was one of the key payers into EU coffers, it makes sense that the countries it was subsidizing are now feeling the pain.
I expect we’ll have some opportunities in the coming months to pick up shares of quality, multinational companies headquartered in Europe at a better price. That will allow us to diversify us away from US stocks as the election grows near.
So, the signal says the first half of the year was OK for stocks. There are a few events on the horizon that could change that, but if the US election is anything like the Brexit vote, it’ll be shrugged off quickly. For now, stocks remain the best game in town for long-term growth and income, but gold’s still likely to perform strong.
is a Senior Financial Editor with Newsmax Media. He currently writes the Insider Hotline investment advisory, serves as investment director for the Financial Braintrust, and is managing editor of Financial Intelligence Report. To read more of his work, GO HERE NOW.
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