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3 reasons the Dow Doesn't deserve to be at 17,000
June 10, 2014 by David Weidner, Wall Street Journal
We're straddling 17,000 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But it just doesn't feel right. It has to be the most unenthusiastic rally in a generation - maybe more.
It's not that there isn't reason to be buying stocks. We are now five years into an economic recovery that began in mid-2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. It's been a slow slog. It's been paced. Those are actually good reasons to be buying stocks. A rapidly growing economy, which coincided with the dot-com boom and the housing bubbles, usually go belly up as quickly as they rise.
And the stock market always leads the economy. Investors tend to buy cheap and ride the wave of ever-increasing earnings and premiums added to their holdings.
But a 155% rise in the Dow DJIA since the 2009 nadir of the financial crisis? A 31% rise in the past 18 months? Yes, the gains look that more striking because of the lows we hit in the Great Recession. Still, that's a fantastic run considering that last week we finally recovered the jobs lost since the financial and housing crises hit. At that point the Dow was 18% lower than it is today.
There are many reasons this rally feels empty. But here are the biggest, most obvious reasons:
No one is really buying. Stock prices are edging higher, but it's not retail investors driving the trend. Lipper reported that investors last week actually pulled $921 million from U.S. stock mutual funds in the week ended June 4, and $451 million the previous week.
This is a long-term trend. Overall stock holdings - any type of ownership, including individual stocks - by households topped out at 67% in 2002, according to an ongoing Gallup poll , but has been erratic since. By 2011, that number fell to 54%. A study by the Pew Research Center, published in May, found stock ownership has become even less pervasive, just 45%. And while it's true many investors are simply bypassing actively managed funds for cheaper exchange traded funds, the truth is there's not enough of them to really move the needle. It's the wealthiest Americans - 5% of Americans own 82% of directly owned, publicly traded stocks, according to the Federal Reserve - and the pro traders, many of them guided by algorithms.
Corporate earnings are flat. You'd think that as the market reaches this milestone, corporate profits would be churning, or a least growing. They aren't.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that its measure of corporate profits declined 9.8% in the first quarter. It was the largest drop since the fourth quarter of 2008, and during the past four quarters, corporate profits have fallen 3%.
Market analyst and adviser Doug Short noted last week that the market SPX -0.03% is overvalued in the range of 51% to 85% when measured by price-to-earnings ratios and the lesser known Q ratio (total price of the market divided by replacement cost). Also last week, Goldman Sachs analysts published a report that concluded: "In just one quarter, profit margins dropped from 10% to 8.7% of gross national product.
There are no alternative investments. Rather than higher prices for goods and services and a devalued currency, the real consequence of the Federal Reserve's efforts to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates, bond buying and easy credit seems to be inflation in the stock market.
That's not entirely surprising. Lower interest rates make fixed-income products undesirable. If the 10-year Treasury is close to 2.5% (about the same yield it offered last year) and the inflation rate is 2%, that's not a terribly attractive investment. Nor are corporate bonds, which are taxable.
No wonder the Fed is now worried about money pouring into high-yield, or "junk," bonds. Issuance of low-rated U.S. dollar-denominated junk bonds last year hit a record $366 billion, more than twice the level reached in the years before the 2008 financial crisis, according to financial-data provider Dealogic.
As for some other investments: Housing continues to be a game open to cash-rich buyers (31% of sales were all-cash in the first quarter); gold at roughly $1,250 an ounce is off 30% from its three As for some other investments: Housing continues to be a game open to cash-rich buyers (31% of sales were all-cash in the first quarter); gold at roughly $1,250 an ounce is off 30% from its three-year high; and oil has added 20% in the past year. Nice, but it's still trailing the stock market.
Ultimately, today's bull market seems to be driven by a lack of alternatives. What it lacks in enthusiasm it is making up for in gains as Short's market valuation analysis shows. It's not a bad thing that there's confidence.
On the flip side, markets cannot sustain such overvaluation without a significant change in the economy. And economic growth rates - GDP contracted at a 1% annual rate in the first quarter - don't support the buying.
That means when something puts a spook into the market, we're going to get burned, our 401(k) statements are going to be printed in red ink. Remember, your monthly contributions buy stocks at the current levels. We're going to fall hard.
We may not be feeling the rally is real now, but when it disappears, believe me, we're going to feel it.
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