Disrupted commerce. Strained transnational relationships. Political disarray atop the world’s largest economy. The reasons for despair seemed to outnumber fingers on which to count them in 2020, yet Wall Street, after a brief period of shock, propelled major market indexes to record highs. The history of this market will read like fiction to future generations.
The hobbled economic outlook leaves the supply of companies with near-term earnings promise lower than levels we might expect in an environment unrestrained by a global health crisis. Still, there is by no means a shortage. From companies capitalizing on unshakable secular trends to others overcoming newly presented challenges, we continue to find an ample supply of companies that we believe are poised to deliver robust earnings growth as we move into the final quarter of the year.
In aggregate, it was an overwhelmingly positive period for stock prices as spring expired into summer, with most major indexes posting double-digit gains. It turned out to be the best quarter since the final three months of 1998. Still, investors showed that they reserve the right to diametrically change their minds at any given moment.
One of the main advantages of being in business for the better part of five decades is experience. Granted, there’s nothing fun about time spent experiencing the downside of a crisis, but there’s no discounting the value of the lessons learned while weathering it. Investing for growth is a long-term pursuit, one that requires perspective seasoned over time.
With billions of shares bought and sold each day, ascribing one statement as responsible for a day’s trading in the stock market is, to put it mildly, an oversimplification. Someone sold shares in a mutual fund held in a 529 plan to raise money to pay college tuition for his daughter’s spring semester. Someone else accumulated shares in a company that she believes represents a likely acquisition target. Neither investor paid the president’s trade comments much mind.
Conflicting signals. Volatility, for reasons ranging from lingering to topical, is on the rise. As we embark on the final quarter of 2019, now seems an appropriate time to recall Mark Twain’s 19th century observation about October: “This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks.”
The Consumer Confidence Index increased more than 10 percent from its January reading through its high in May. At the same time, exposure to the consumer discretionary sector among the portfolios we manage decreased by one-fourth. We’re comfortable with the divergence. Consumer confidence is an important indicator in an economy primarily driven by domestic consumption, but, by itself, it doesn’t influence a single investment decision that we make.
The theory is that stock buybacks, by boosting earnings per share among companies that execute them, can lift share prices as the pool of outstanding shares shrinks. Considering last year’s nosebleed levels and the since-passed anniversary of the tax cuts that helped juice their rise, predicting an impending loss of buyback steam seems like a reasonable prognostication once again. So, trouble lurks, right?