The Bear That Wasn’t: First Quarter in the Markets

The first quarter of the new year has brought us small positive returns in many of the U.S. market indices, which means that investors survived—for now, at least—the worst start to a calendar year ever for the U.S. stock market.

The Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index--the broadest measure of U.S. stocks and bonds—was up 1.17% for the first three months of 2016, which is remarkable considering that the index was down more than 10% by the second week of February.  The comparable Russell 3000 index has gained 0.97% so far this year.

Meanwhile, global markets are not off to a good start.  The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies lost 3.74% in dollar terms in the first quarter of the year, in part because Far Eastern stocks were down 6.06%.  In aggregate, European stocks lost 3.18%, and are now down more than 10% over the past 12 months.  Emerging markets stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, fared better, gaining 5.37% for the quarter. 

The easy call at the beginning of the year would have been to bail out when the markets were declining and sit out the widely-predicted start of a painful, protracted bear market.  Some analysts were talking openly about another 2008-9 drop in share prices.  But 10% market declines are simply a part of the market’s normal turbulence, and anyone who spooks as soon as they see a month of bearish sentiment is likely to miss out on the subsequent gains.  Since hitting their 2016 lows on February 11, both the S&P 500 index and the Nasdaq Composite have gained roughly 13% in value.

That doesn’t guarantee that there will be continuing gains going forward, however.  The Market Watch website reports that half of the S&P 500 sectors are reporting declines in earnings per share this quarter over the same period last year, and a poll by the FactSet analysts suggests that seven out of the ten sectors will end the earnings season reporting declining earnings.

Part of the wind at the backs of stocks this past six weeks has come, yet again, from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, which had originally signaled that it planned to raise interest rates four times this year.  After its most recent meeting, the Fed is projecting just two interest rate hikes this year, and Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has clearly indicated that the Fed will remain cautious about disrupting the markets or the economy as it unwinds its various QE initiatives.  

Investors also seemed to take comfort that the Chinese stock market has stabilized—for now, at least.  Recently, Chinese officials reported the first rise in an important manufacturing statistic—the purchasing managers index—in eight months.

But arguably the biggest stabilizer of U.S. and global stock markets was the rise in oil—or, more precisely, the end of a long unnerving drop in the price of crude that caused anxiety to ripple through the investor community (Figure 2).  Analysts are not sure how the price of a barrel of crude oil is connected with the value of stocks; indeed, for most companies, lower energy costs are a net plus to the bottom line.  But investors generally seemed to take comfort in the fact that oil prices had stabilized.  It’s worth noting that the day the stock market hit its low for the year—February 11—was also the day when oil futures hit their low of $26.21 a barrel.  

We can’t predict where the markets will head during the remainder of the year; indeed, even the present is hard to understand.  Our mission as investors is to hang on and allow the millions of workers who get up every morning and go to work to do what they do best: incrementally, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, grow the value of the companies we own with their efforts.  Investors will spook and sometimes flee stocks, driving their prices down, but for the long-term, the returns on your investments are invisibly, inexorably driven by the underlying value that is created in the offices, cubicles and factory floors all over the world, especially of the sustainable and responsible companies we strive to include in our client portfolios.

Sources:

Article adapted from a Bob Veres script, with permission.
Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/ 
Russell index data: http://www.russell.com/indexes/data/daily_total_returns_us.asp
S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf--p-us-l-- 

Nasdaq index data: http://quicktake.morningstar.com/Index/IndexCharts.aspx?Symbol=COMP
International indices: http://www.mscibarra.com/products/indices/international_equity_indices/performance.html
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/most-stocks-rose-during-the-first-quarter-surprised-2016-03-31
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/2016s-first-quarter-was-a-curious-case-of-mr-hyde-dr-jekyll-2016-03-31?siteid=rss&rss=1

Indexes are unmanaged groups of securities and are not directly available for investment.  This information is obtained from sources we believe to be reliable, but we cannot guarantee its accuracy.  Past performance does not guarantee future results.