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posted on 15 January 2017

The Week Ahead: Can 4Q Earnings Match Economic Growth?

by Jeff Miller, A Dash of Insight

We have a light calendar for economic data and a short week of trading. The biggest news will come from corporate earnings reports. Some financial stocks reported on Friday, but this is the first big week for Q416. Earnings season is always important, but sometimes it is special. This week the pundits will be asking:

Will improving corporate earnings confirm perceptions of a stronger economy?

growth.caption

Last Week

Last week the economic news was strong, but with little reaction from stocks.

Theme Recap

In my last WTWA I predicted a punditry focused on the incoming Trump Administration. The confirmation hearings provided a lot of fresh news, and there was not much going on in daily trading. My guess that people would be “digging down" for clues about policy changes was a pretty good one.

The Story in One Chart

I always start my personal review of the week by looking at this great chart from Doug Short. As you can readily see, both the range and the weekly change were very small. You can also see the 1% intra-day move during the Trump press conference.

Doug has a special knack for pulling together all the relevant information. His charts save more than a thousand words! Read his entire post where he adds analysis grounded in data and several more charts providing long-term perspective.

The News

Each week I break down events into good and bad. Often there is an “ugly" and on rare occasion something very positive. My working definition of “good" has two components. The news must be market friendly and better than expectations. I avoid using my personal preferences in evaluating news - and you should, too!

This week’s news was quite good - almost all positive. I make objective calls, which means not stretching to achieve a false balance. If I missed something for the “bad" list, please feel free to suggest it in the comments. This is a good week to illustrate the problem with the so-called “economic surprise" indexes. So much depends on how you determine the expectations. If conditions are good, they are good, even though some expect continued improvement each week.

The Good

  • Mortgage applications up 5.8%, despite concerns that higher rates would hurt the market. This is a very nice surprise.

  • Jobless claims at 247K continues at an extremely low level.

  • Michigan sentiment at 98.1 on the preliminary survey remains very strong (although a slight miss on expectations).

  • Sea container counts end the year on a strong note. Steven Hansen (GEI) does his expected deep dive into the data, providing plenty of long-term analysis. Here is a key table:

  • NFIB small business outlook surges. Scott Grannis has the story, including references to consumer confidence as well.

The Bad

  • Retail sales? More spin - good or bad? Some headlines:

U.S. retail sales disappoint at end of the year (MarketWatch) at 9:10 ET.

Holiday retail sales rise 4% to beat NRF expectations (MarketWatch) at 10:29 ET.

  • Gasoline prices are up about 20% year-over-year. New Deal Democrat has the story.

  • Business inventories? Some regard this as bad because of the m/o/m increase of 0.7%. Last week I called this a very spinnable number. Inventories are either wanted or unwanted. Going into the number we knew that the level was depleted. This is really a neutral report.

The Ugly

Volkswagen Diesel Scandal. We now know that this was the responsibility of important executives - not just low-level employees or a faceless corporation. Fiat Chrysler is also charged, but claims important differences.

The Silver Bullet

I occasionally give the Silver Bullet award to someone who takes up an unpopular or thankless cause, doing the real work to demonstrate the facts. There is week’s award goes to David Moenning (a nomination from a reader, Lasrman) for his helpful discussion of “Alts." He writes as follows:

The pitch is strong. “Alts," as they are called, are touted as a source of diversification, a way to create non-correlated portfolios, and a means toward potential risk reduction during severe market declines. I’ve heard some folks even suggest that alts are a way to produce a solid “riskless" returns!

And….

…who doesn’t want to own an investing strategy that is designed to produce a nice, steady 6-8% return without the vagaries associated with the traditional asset classes?

And the problem….

Investopedia goes on to note that most of these alt strategies are designed for sophisticated investors. “Most alternative investment assets are held by institutional investors or accredited, high-net-worth individuals because of the complex natures and limited regulations of the investments," the website says.

[Jeff] The most attractive track record I ever saw was from Bernie Madoff - consistent strong returns and minimal drawdowns. It was too good to be true. David’s experience is quite like mine. I get pitches for these products on a regular basis. Some of them are theoretically sound and might work. The average investor does not have the skill to evaluate them.

We also published our annual review of winners. If you take a look at the excellent work reviewed (here and here) you will see the advantage of following these contrarian sources. You will be surprised at how much it can help your investing!

The Week Ahead

We would all like to know the direction of the market in advance. Good luck with that! Second best is planning what to look for and how to react. That is the purpose of considering possible themes for the week ahead. You can make your own predictions in the comments.

The Calendar

It is back to normal for the volume of economic data, but fewer of the most important reports.

The “A" List

  • Housing starts and building permits (Th). The most important leading data in a key sector.

  • Industrial production (W). The expected rebound would improve overall confidence in the economy.

  • Initial claims (Th). The best concurrent indicator for employment trends.

The “B" List

  • Beige Book (W). The Fed’s district-by-district look will be scoured for signs that rate hikes might come more quickly than expected.

  • Philly Fed (Th). Earliest read on the new month has gained more respect in the past year.

  • CPI (Th). Interest in the inflation reports is building, but the worrisome stages are not imminent.

  • Crude inventories (Th). Recently showing even more impact on oil prices. Rightly or wrongly, that spills over to stocks.

Fed speakers are still on the trail, with appearances every day. Chair Yellen will make two appearances.

Earnings reports will be the most important news.

Next Week’s Theme

It is a short week, with a light calendar of data. The Trump story continues as confirmation hearings shed a little more light on possible policies. There will be plenty of FedSpeak.

Despite these factors, the start of earnings season should give the punditry a break from All Trump, all the time. Because of recent economic strength, people will be skeptically searching the earnings news for signs of weakness or a negative outlook. The key question will be:

Do Earnings Reports Confirm a Stronger Economy?

The basic positions are simple.

  • Reports normally beat estimates, and there is plenty of potential this season (FactSet)

  • Some recent laggards are looking strong - energy, tech, financials (Brian Gilmartin).

  • Corbin Perception suggests that expectations are very high. This is an interesting collection of survey data. Read the full report, but here is a nice summary:

    • Heading into 4Q16 earnings season, 85% of surveyed investors expect results to be in line or better than consensus, an increase from 78% last quarter

    • Expectations for improving organic growth surpasses worsening for the first time in more than a year

    • Investor sentiment towards the U.S. has improved dramatically; 70% now forecast higher U.S. GDP while recession fears have pushed out

    • Rate hikes drive sector views: participants most bullish on Financials while Utilities and REITs see dramatic pullback in sentiment

    • 67% of investors report feeling better about the U.S economy post-election; recession fears off the table for 2017

  • Earnings are inflated by peak profit margins and bogus analyst forecasts. “Organic" growth is low and so is revenue growth. (I see these comments, but we would all appreciate some credible sources).

What does this mean for investors? As usual, I’ll have a few ideas of my own in today’s “Final Thoughts".

Quant Corner

We follow some regular great sources and the best insights from each week.

Risk Analysis

Whether you are a trader or an investor, you need to understand risk. Think first about your risk. Only then should you consider possible rewards. I monitor many quantitative reports and highlight the best methods in this weekly update.

The Indicator Snapshot

Although dropping last week, the yield on the ten-year note has increased significantly since the election. This has lowered the risk premium a bit. I suspect much more to come. By this I mean that the relative attractiveness of stocks and bonds will continue to narrow.

The C-Score has also dropped. The relationship is not linear, and it remains in the “safe" zone.

The Featured Sources:

Bob Dieli: The “C Score" which is a weekly estimate of his Enhanced Aggregate Spread (the most accurate real-time recession forecasting method over the last few decades). His subscribers get Monthly reports including both an economic overview of the economy and employment.

Holmes: Our cautious and clever watchdog, who sniffs out opportunity like a great detective, but emphasizes guarding assets.

Brian Gilmartin: Analysis of expected earnings for the overall market as well as coverage of many individual companies.

RecessionAlert: Many strong quantitative indicators for both economic and market analysis. While we feature his recession analysis, Dwaine also has several interesting approaches to asset allocation. Try out his new public Twitter Feed. His most recent research update suggests some “mixed signals" from labor markets.

Georg Vrba: The Business Cycle Indicator and much more.Check out his site for an array of interesting methods. Georg regularly analyzes Bob Dieli’s enhanced aggregate spread, considering when it might first give a recession signal. Georg thinks it is still a year away. It is interesting to watch this approach along with our weekly monitoring of the C-Score.

Doug Short: The World Markets Weekend Update (and much more).

Davidson (via Todd Sullivan) notes that Markets Do Not Peak Until Spread Shifts To Zero

The indicators in this fine post are consistent with what we see from our regular sources. Many of these subsume the concept mentioned.

How to Use WTWA (especially important for new readers)

In this series, I share my preparation for the coming week. I write each post as if I were speaking directly to one of my clients. Most readers can just “listen in." If you are unhappy with your current investment approach, we will be happy to talk with you. I start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush. Each client is different, so I have eight different programs ranging from very conservative bond ladders to very aggressive trading programs. A key question:

Are you preserving wealth, or like most of us, do you need to create more wealth?

Most of my readers are not clients. While I write as if I were speaking personally to one of them, my objective is to help everyone. I provide several free resources. Just write to info at newarc dot com for our current report package. We never share your email address with others, and send only what you seek. (Like you, we hate spam!)

Best Advice for the Week Ahead

The right move often depends on your time horizon. Are you a trader or an investor?

Insight for Traders

We consider both our models and the top sources we follow.

Felix and Holmes

We continue with a strongly bullish market forecast. Felix is fully invested. Oscar is fully invested, but the sectors are less aggressive. The more cautious Holmes has taken some profits, but is still about 90% invested. The group meets weekly for a discussion they call the “Stock Exchange." In each post I include a trading theme, ideas from each of our four technical experts, and some rebuttal from a fundamental analyst (usually me). There are fresh ideas each week. You can also ask questions and have a little fun.

Top Trading Advice

Sir Michael Hintze suggests that “Trump volatility" is good for active managers. This is also true for investors and traders. Check out Eddy Elfenbein’s account of the Trump press conference effects on healthcare.

Adam H. Grimes has advice aimed at new traders, but everyone can benefit. a useful and timely post for traders turning the page on the calendar. While the focus is on motivation, he has several specific suggestions. He analyzes each of the following important points:

Decide if you want to trade or gamble.

Have an open mind, but a critical mind.

Understand what “proof" looks like.

If you want to trade, bet size is really important.

Psychology matters, but these things are more important.

Dr. Brett Steenbarger illustrates how to make Internet discussions work well. He links to the Grimes post and extends some of the arguments. An intelligent discussion of important factors is one of the most important sources for traders (and investors). He has almost daily posts. Any serious trader should read them all. Another great example from this week shows how to turn failure into strength.

Those who join us in reading Brett Steenbarger’s regular posts will enjoy his appearance on Barry Ritholtz’s acclaimed MiB series.

Insight for Investors

Investors have a longer time horizon. The best moves frequently involve taking advantage of trading volatility!

Best of the Week

If I had to pick a single most important source for investors to read this week it would be Morgan Housel’s account of his dinner with Daniel Kahneman. It is a nice summary of Kahneman’s basic ideas - all worth reading. Morgan has a great sense for what is important and what you need to know about it. Here is my favorite quote:

On education changing thinking: “There are studies showing that when you present evidence to people they get very polarized even if they are highly educated. They find ways to interpret the evidence in conflicting ways. Our mind is constructed so that in many situations where we have beliefs and we have facts, the beliefs come first. That’s what makes people incapable of being convinced by evidence. So education by itself is not going to change the culture. Changing critical thinking through education is very slow and I’m not very optimistic about it."

Stock Ideas

Do you believe that managers with a ten-year success record might have good ideas? If so, look at these picks. (We own several of them, which encourages me to put the rest on our watch list).

Many stocks are attractive, despite the popular valuation perception. Rupert Hargreaves reports the Jefferies take. Hint: Cyclicals and value look good.

Our trading model, Holmes, has joined our other models in a weekly market discussion. Each one has a different “personality" and I get to be the human doing fundamental analysis. We have an enjoyable discussion every week, including four or five specific ideas that we are buying. This week the dip-buying Holmes (who has been very hot) likes Michael Kors (KORS). Check out the post for my own reaction, and more information about the trading models.

Seeking yield?

How about Raytheon? William Stamm describes the dividend hike and the potential.

Kohl’s 5% looks safe. (Josh Arnold). This is one where we enhance yield by selling near-term calls.

But watch out for companies where the dividend might not be safe. Can you depend on 5.7% from Blackstone? (Brian Bollinger)

And a key question: Should dividend investors be worried about rising interest rates? Rebecca Corvino provides some great links.

Personal Finance

Professional investors and traders have been making Abnormal Returns a daily stop for over ten years. If you are a serious investor managing your own account, this is a must-read. Even the more casual long-term investor should make time for a weekly trip on Wednesday. Tadas always has first-rate links for investors in his weekly special edition. My personal favorite this week is Megan McArdle’s post on the importance of saving. Investors should understand that the 401(k) is not a substitute for the old guaranteed benefits plans.

I have often commented that when Tadas has the time to write a standalone post, it is a special treat. This week he wrote about the “evidence-based" movement, the endurance of outmoded ideas, and what it all might mean for investors. A general conclusion is that many investors should minimize fees, choosing cheap robo-advisors or doing some basic rebalancing on their own.

Seeking Alpha Editor Gil Weinreich’s Financial Advisors’ Daily Digest has quickly become a must-read for financial professionals. Somewhat to my surprise, the topics also stimulate comments from active individual investors. It has added to the value of the posts for both groups. Gil engages the same topic as Tadas - the need for financial advisors. (and also here).

This is a topic that hits close to home. I am quite sure that an intelligent investor who never made the common mistakes could avoid the fees of a professional advisor. I even provide a way for investors to check this out. Just ask for our free report, The Top Twelve Investor Pitfalls - and How to Avoid Them. If you regularly navigate these problems, you can fly solo! If not, you might be losing 4-8% each year. Less than 1% of my regular audience consists of clients. I started writing to help average investors, and that remains my principal motivation. I am disappointed to see what seems like an increasingly commercial approach by so many of my friends. I know that they all seek to provide excellent and special service.

Final Thoughts

As the Q2 and Q3 earnings seasons began, I wrote about the possible end of the “earnings recession" and an inflection point in forward earnings. Those events have come to pass, but we now have a new concern: the outlook. Conference calls and the company’s guidance is always interesting, but this quarter is special. Companies cannot know what the policy changes will be, nor can they predict the effects on their business.

In each week’s “Final Thoughts" I offer opinions based upon facts. Sometimes my conclusion is a description of what I find important to watch. So it is this week. My scorecard for earnings season will look for the following company characteristics:

  • Confidence. I expect most to have a murky outlook, with no reason to set the future bar very high.

  • Important trade relationships - imports or exports. Comments on these fears may create some buying opportunities.

  • Concern about a stronger dollar. Everyone is teed up to watch for this, and we should as well.

Earnings reports help us interpret the strength of the economy using non-government data. In this earnings season, it is especially important to know the story as well as the numbers.

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