April 4, 2014
“There will be growth in the spring.” – Chauncey Gardiner
T.S. Eliot famously called April “the cruelest month,” but it’s not so bad for the stock market (Eliot himself was a Lloyd’s Bank employee). Since 1950, the S&P 500 has rallied in 44 times in April while losing ground 20 times, and recent Aprils have been especially good. In the last eight years, the S&P 500 has averaged over 3% in April.
This April has gotten off to a good start as well. On Thursday, the S&P 500 got as high as 1,893.80, which is yet another all-time intra-day high. I’m not much of a fan of the Dow Jones, but I should note that until this week, the Dow 30 had failed to break its high from December 31. Some bears claimed that this lack of “confirmation” was a bad omen. Well, that mark fell as well. On Thursday, the Dow broke 16,600 for the first time ever.
What’s the cause for the recent rally? That’s hard to say exactly, but I suspect that the cooling-off of tensions in Eastern Europe has helped a lot. Investors were also buoyed by some remarks by Fed Chair Janet Yellen. We also got some decent economic news this week, and there seems to be some optimism for Friday’s jobs report (as usual, I’m writing this before the report comes out.)
But the next big event for investors is Q1 earnings season, which starts next week. We already know that crummy weather held back consumers this winter, but it will be interesting to hear what kind of guidance companies have for the spring. In this week’s CWS Market Review, I’ll preview this earnings season. I’ll also focus on two Buy List earnings reports for next week, Bed Bath & Beyond and Wells Fargo. I also have several new Buy Below prices for you. But first, I want to take a look at a question that keeps popping up on Wall Street.
Are We in Another Bubble?
There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about how today is similar to the Great Millennium Bubble. A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story titled “In Some Ways, It’s Looking Like 1999 in the Stock Market.”
Oh please. This is nonsense. Sure, stock prices have rallied, and yes, valuations are higher, but c’mon, we’re nowhere close to the kind of crazy numbers we saw in the late 90s. Back then, all you needed was a dot-com address, a sock puppet and some clever ads, and presto, investors would throw billions of dollars your way.
Actually, your company didn’t even need to be that fancy. I’ll give you a good example. General Electric (GE) is about the bluest blue chip you can find. The stock is currently going for $26.23 per share. That’s half of where it was 14 years ago, yet the company is expected to earn $1.70 per share this year. Compare that to 2000, when GE’s bottom line was $1.27 per share. So profits are up 34% in 14 years (not so good), while the stock price is down by 50%. GE’s Price/Earnings Ratio has dropped from 42 to 15. My point is that people have forgotten what a real bubble looks like.
To be sure, there are areas of the market looking bubbly. Actually, to be more specific, it’s areas outside the market that look troublesome. Tech companies are paying some hefty prices for start-ups with little or no revenue.
Last year, Yahoo shelled out $1.1 billion to buy Tumblr. The company has so little revenue that Yahoo isn’t even required to list it in its financial statements. In business jargon, that’s what we like to call “not good.” A few weeks ago, Facebook paid a massive amount, $19 billion, for WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees. I freely admit that I can’t judge the value of enterprise like that, but there seems to be a fear in Silicon Valley of being left behind in this week’s app of the century, so these prices are getting carried away.
But that’s not the kind of investing we’ve been doing, and our stocks haven’t done many mega-deals lately (though Oracle did a few years ago). My advice is to ignore all the silly bubble talk, and let’s focus on what the numbers say.
Breaking down Q1 Earnings Season
Now let’s take at a look at some current numbers and the outlook for Q1 earnings. Last year, the S&P 500 earned $107.30 (that’s the index-adjusted number; to convert to actual dollar amounts, multiple by 8.9 billion). Currently, Wall Street expects the index make $120.04 for this year and $137.20 for 2015. In my opinion, both numbers are too high, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
For Q1, Wall Street currently expects earnings of $27.60. Those estimates have drifted lower over the past several months. One year ago, the Street had been expecting over $29 for Q1. As a general rule, earnings estimates start high and gradually fall as earnings season gets closer, so don’t be alarmed about the reduced estimates. By the time earnings season arrives, estimates are often too low. This is part of a game the Street likes to play. There’s nothing Wall Street likes better than beating expectations, so companies know how to play the expectations game. The current Q1 estimate of $27.60 works out to an increase of 7.1% over last year’s Q1. That sounds about right. I think we’ll probably be at about $28 by the time all the reports have come in.
I also want to touch on an important and often-overlooked point, which is dividends. Payouts have been growing impressively for the last few quarters. Dividends for the S&P 500 grew by 15.1% for Q1. Technically, I should say “dividends-per-share,” because the stock market has been helped by a reduced share count, thanks to stock buybacks.
Over the last three year, dividends are up by 55%. The S&P 500 paid out $34.99 in dividends last year, and I think it will pay out $40 for this year. Going by Thursday’s close, that gives the index a yield of 2.12%. That’s not bad at all, especially in an environment where interest rates are near 0%, and we know they’ll be stuck on the ground for another year.
Instead of the $120 that Wall Street expects in earnings from the S&P 500, I think $115 is a more reasonable estimate. (I don’t know if it will be more accurate, but I think it’s a safer assumption.) That gives the S&P 500 a forward P/E Ratio of 16.4, which is quite reasonable. Historically, more bull markets are upended by deteriorating fundamentals than by excessive valuations. How far the markets fall, however, is usually determined by valuations. As long as profits continue to grow, the stock market is a good place to be.
Is the U.S. Stock Market Rigged?
This week, Wall Street has been buzzing about Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment with Michael Lewis. He was on to discuss his new book, “Flash Boys,” which covers High Frequency Trading. In the interview, Lewis said that the U.S. stock market is “rigged.” I was disappointed to hear him say that. Lewis is a gifted writer, but I’m afraid he drew an overly simplistic narrative for a complicated issue.
Let me put your fears to rest. The U.S. stock market is not rigged. Individual investors have no reason to fear that a bunch of super computers are ripping them off. There are serious concerns about HFT, but saying that the market is rigged deflects the debate in a pointless direction.
I wanted cover this topic because it’s made so much news on Wall Street this week, including an acrimonious debate on CNBC, and I’m afraid Lewis’s interviewed rattled investors. The issue with HFT is an issue we often see: technology is changing the way we do business. Some of the changes are good, and some are bad. Instead of having floor traders, guys who make funny hand signals at each other, the modern market is governed by very fast computers. The HFT guys provide liquidity, and they get paid for it. On balance, that’s much better than the system we used to have.
I have concerns about HFT causing more numerous and more severe Flash Crashes, and I like to see that addressed. Fortunately, our strategy isn’t based on trading. I change the Buy List just once a year. I guess you could call us Low Frequency Traders. But I want to assure investors that the U.S. market is not rigged.
Don’t Count out Bed Bath & Beyond
This Wednesday, April 9, Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) will release its fiscal Q4 earnings report. Let me fill you in on the back story. In early January, BBBY cut their Q4 (Dec/Jan/Feb) earnings estimate. They had been expecting earnings to range between $1.70 and $1.77 per share. Now they said it would be between $1.60 and $1.67 per share.
The stock market wrecked the shares. In one day, BBBY plunged from $80 to $70. It continued to fall for the rest of January, and got as low as $62 per share in early February. If that wasn’t enough, one month ago, the company lowered their Q4 estimates again. This time it was due to the lousy weather. Now they expect earnings between $1.57 and $1.61 per share.
So where do we stand now? I still like Bed Bath & Beyond, and this is why we have a locked-and-sealed Buy List. We didn’t jump ship in a panic, and the shares have started to rebound. Yesterday, BBBY came within a penny of hitting $70 for the first time in three months. I think the market has basically written off the Q4 earnings report and is now focused on their guidance for Q1.
For last year’s Q1, BBBY earned 93 cents per share. The Street currently expects $1.03 per share. I’m going to hold off making a forecast, but I’m still optimistic for BBBY. The company has a rock-solid balance, they’re well run and the recovery in housing is good for them. For now, I’m going to keep our Buy Below for BBBY at $71 per share. Don’t count these guys out.
Wells Fargo Is a Buy up to $54 Per Share
Next Friday, Wells Fargo (WFC) will be our first Buy List stock to report for this earnings cycle. As I mentioned last week, Wells passed the Federal Reserve’s stress test with flying colors. The Fed also had no objection to WFC’s capital plan, which included a 16.7% increase to their dividend. Wells now pays 35 cents per share each quarter.
In my opinion, Wells is the best-run big bank in America, and it’s better than a lot of small banks. The shares came very close to breaking $50 this week. Wall Street currently expects earnings of 96 cents per share. My numbers say that’s about right, so don’t expect any major earnings beat. The new dividend gives Wells a yield of 2.81%. I’m keeping our Buy Below at $54 per share.
Six New Buy Below Prices
The recent rally has been very good to us. Through Thursday, our Buy List is up 3.29% for the year, which is ahead of the S&P 500’s gain of 2.19%. Three of our stocks, DirecTV (DTV), Stryker (SYK) and CR Bard (BCR), are already up more than 10% this year. Plus, Microsoft (MSFT) and Wells Fargo (WFC) aren’t far behind. This week, I’m raising the Buy Belows on six of our stocks.
Two weeks ago, I said that I expected Oracle (ORCL) to soon break through $40 per share, and that’s exactly what happened. In fact, the stock hit $42 per share on Tuesday. Oracle hasn’t been this high in 14 years. (Remember how the stock dropped after the last earnings report? It’s funny how quickly people forget those short-term reactions.) This week, I’m bumping up my Buy Below on Oracle to $44 per share. I really like this stock.
Ford Motor (F) has been especially strong lately. Two months ago, the shares pulled back below $14.50, and it recently closed at $16.39. Ford just reported very good sales for March. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: I think Ford is worth $22 per share. I’m raising my Buy Below on Ford to $18 per share.
Three of our healthcare stocks, CR Bard (BCR), Medtronic (MDT) and Stryker (SYK), broke out to new highs this week. I’m expecting more good earnings news from all of them. I’m raising my Buy Below on Bard to $152 per share. Medtronic is going up to $65, and Stryker’s is rising to $90 per share.
I’ve raised my Buy Below on Qualcomm (QCOM) for the past two weeks, so I might as well make it three in a row. This stock continues to rally higher for us. On Thursday, QCOM topped $81 per share for another 14-year high. I’m raising Qualcomm’s Buy Below to $87 per share. This could be a break-out star for us.
That’s all for now. First-quarter earnings season kicks off next week. Bed Bath & Beyond reports on Wednesday. Then the big banks start to chime in Friday, when Wells Fargo reports. Investors will also be paying attention to the latest Fed minutes, which come out on Wednesday. If you recall, the market was rather confused by Janet Yellen’s press conference. The minutes may clear things up. Be sure to keep checking the blog for daily updates. I’ll have more market analysis for you in the next issue of CWS Market Review!
Named by CNN/Money as the best buy-and-hold blogger, Eddy Elfenbein is the editor of Crossing Wall Street. His free Buy List has beaten the S&P 500 for the last seven years in a row. This email was sent by Eddy Elfenbein through Crossing Wall Street.
2223 Ontario Road NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA