The US stock market has reached new highs recently and closed yesterday (Aug. 4) only slightly below a record. In fact, the S&P 500 has been closing at or just below a record high for weeks as the index wiggles within a tight range. From a technical perspective, the latest run of strength look bullish. But what should we make of Mr. Market’s reluctance to do much of anything since the S&P has recovered from a series of sharp selloffs? Is this merely a consolidating phase that leads to even greater heights? Or is the crowd starting to wonder if the rally off the recent lows in February was mostly a speculative binge without fundamental support?
The answer’s unclear, although you can certainly make a case at the moment for rebalancing a portfolio with a US-heavy equity allocation. But whatever you decide is a plausible future for stocks, there’s no denying the strange sense of calm that’s descended over the market.
Since mid-July, the S&P has been trading within a tight band. The serene pricing profile of late has been accompanied by a sharp drop in the VIX Index, a measure of the implied volatility of the S&P via index options. For several weeks, the VIX has been bouncing around the 12-to-14 range and as of yesterday is near its lowest levels decades.
Some analysts are becoming anxious, including Blackrock’s global chief investment strategist, Richard Turnill, who recently opined that the US stock market rally is “running on fumes.” His reasoning: “multiple expansion—or rising price-to-earnings ratios—has been the main driver of returns in many markets this year.” Meantime, “earnings growth has been flat to negative.”
Stronger economic growth is the antidote, which would probably give earnings a lift. But the US macro trend remains sluggish, as last week’s disappointing second-quarter GDP report reminds.
From the 30,000-foot level, the stock market’s series of sharp setbacks, starting in August 2015 and (so far) concluding in February, provided what currently appears to be a reasonably accurate early warning of an economic slowdown, as measured by GDP. The deceleration over the three quarters through this year’s Q2 mark the weakest stretch of growth since 2012’s slowdown. The risk is still low at the moment that an NBER-defined recession has started, but current conditions are about as soft as possible without slipping into a contraction.
For what it’s worth, bear-market risk is still elevated, according to an econometric technique based on a Hidden Markov Model (HMM) via 1-year S&P returns (see here for details on the methodology). Back in February, this forecast appeared to be accurate, but the market’s subsequent rally has made mincemeat of that projection. Could it be that the bear market came and went and that HMM’s warning, which started in late-August 2015, is now defunct? That’s a reasonable view when you consider that the model has a history or delivering timely signals in the early stages of bear markets but suffers from a lag when the danger has passed.
But to seal the deal that all’s well, and lay the bear-market worries to rest once and for all (at least for the near term), a stronger run of economic growth is required to justify the market’s latest rally and keep the bull humming. But macro salvation in a convincing degree doesn’t appear likely at the moment. Nonetheless, today’s employment report for July may ease worries a bit and promote the idea that the US economy can maintain a modest if unimpressive expansion for the foreseeable future. If so, the recent case for worrying about a bear market may be null and void.
The question is whether we’re now in a phase where growth is too strong to trigger a formal recession signal but too weak to rally animal spirits further? The S&P’s flat performance in recent weeks hints at the possibility that it’s neither bull nor bear.