David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc., has 10 reasons to be cautious about stocks as major indexes hover near record highs.
The S&P 500 has rallied 19 percent in the past 12 months, with more than half of that gain coming since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the election on November 8. Trump campaigned on a platform to reignite the stagnant U.S. economy with tax cuts, less regulation and massive spending on roads, bridges and airports.
Before the “Trump rally,” stocks hadn’t moved much in almost two years as the Federal Reserve ended its billion-dollar programs to buy Treasury and mortgage debt in an attempt to keep interest rates at record lows.
As the bull market enters its ninth year, Rosenberg sees “classic late-cycle ‘bubbly’ signposts” that were evident before the Great Depression and the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000:
- Stocks Are Expensive Compared With Historical Averages: “Trailing and forward price-to-earnings ratios are now in the top quintiles historically and the most expensive in 15 years,” Rosenberg says in a March 10 note obtained by Newsmax Finance. Retail investors are buying shares while company insiders are dumping them, meaning mom-and-pop’s could get burned.
- Buying on Margin: “U.S. margin debt has surged at a 27 percent annual rate since immediately prior to the election to stand at $513 billion, the highest level on record.” The problem with margin debt is that any significant market decline could push investors to dump stock, and set off panic selling.
- Retail Fund Flows: “Private clients have thrown in the towel and plowed nearly $80 billion into mutual funds and ETFs since the November election,” Rosenberg says. A classic sign of a market top is when “dumb money” chases market gains.
- Narrowing Leadership: In the past four trading days, “we have seen more new 52-week lows than new highs (the longest streak since November 4) – a technical sign of a toppy market.” Small-caps are also flat, indicating a lack of breadth in the rally.
- Investors Are Complacent: “The S&P 500 has gone 57 days without so much as a 1 percent intraday swing, something we have not seen in at least 35 years. The proverbial calm before the storm.” Investor polls indicate strong optimism, usually a sign that everyone is fully invested in stocks.
- Federal Reserve Is in Play: “The Fed has met its twin objectives [inflation of 2 percent and full employment] and the Fed funds rate consistent with that is 3 percent, not the 0.75 percent currently,” Rosenberg says. The market is adjusting to the idea that the central bank will raise interest rates three times this year, starting next week.
- Inflation Roars: “All one needs to see is the latest blow-off in the commodity complex, which is now on pause, to notice how late cycle we are. Remember what oil did, for example, in 2008?”
- Lofty Forecasts: Economists have high expectations of stronger growth, while actual data indicate sluggishness persists. “The survey data are at extremely high levels at a time when actual economic growth is running barely above a 1 percent annual rate,” Rosenberg says.
- Over-Ownership of Stocks: The bull market since 2009 means 21.1 percent of household assets are now in stocks. “Only five times in the past 156 years has the share been this high or higher – this is 42 percent above the norm,” Rosenberg says.
- Frothy Credit Markets: “The risk premium on U.S. high-yield corporate bonds very recently approached lows for the cycle at a super-tight 335 basis points. However, they now are widening again.”
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