Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Equity Market Headwinds: No Margin For Error

While it is encouraging that equities have rallied to the point where many 200 day moving averages are either flat or nearly so and nearly all sectors, styles, regions, and countries are above their 50 day moving average, not to mention the fact that many 50 day MAs have an upward slope, there are reasons, both fundamental and technical, to be more cautious about stocks over the near term.

The concern on the fundamental side is centered on valuation. For investors may have looked into the Great Depression II abyss and concluded that the worse case scenario (under $50 operating earnings for the S&P 500 for 2009) is less likely than it was 30 days ago. However, the current level of 850 for the S&P 500 implies either an above historically good times average P/E of 15 and/or earnings above $60. Consider the following: if stocks are a forward looking discounting mechanism and if its projected return is its historical average of 12%, then 850 today implies a 12 month price level of 952. That then supposes that 12 months forward to the end of 2010 would put the S&P 500 at 1066 (952 plus 12%). To justify 1066 and assuming the market’s historical good times P/E of 15 assumes $71 in operating earnings for 2010. That may come to pass but the great economic unknown is not 2009 but 2010, for next year's growth relies on the economic handoff from government to private enterprise and the consumer. The more bullish fundamental valuation conclusion then becomes a future time period that does not warrant an above average margin of error (as in a below average (< 15 times) P/E). Frankly, at 852 that’s a fully invested conclusion I am less than comfortable living with, more so when considering the following technical analysis points.

From a technical analysis perspective, many market technicians point to the favorable chart patterns, with bottom formations and upside breakouts. They may be right but it has been my experience that chart patterns have a far reduced predictive value than momentum and divergence indicators, and those indicators are not so sanguine right now. As the above chart* illustrates, for example, Momentum is clearly in deceleration mode and not confirming the index's price and MACD’s sustained and confirming strength. Experience shows that only when both are in unison (confirming the higher highs in price, specifically) can an investor feel more confident of the sustainability of the move. Added to this concern is the high overbought readings in the short term indicator, Slow Stochastics. Readings above 80 typically cause markets to pause.

Investment Strategy Implications

For the above stated reasons, taking some money off the table is advisable. Granted seasonal factors, such as April being the second best performing month of the year (historically), are supportive of higher stock prices. Moreover, there is every reason to feel more confident that, for the very short term, the worst of the economic and credit crisis has passed. However, concerns both fundamental and technical seem to warrant a less than fully invested posture at this time.

*Note how the Momentum reading is nearly flat while MACD is steady up.
click image to enlarge

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