Bottom line, the first half of 2018 was a tough pill to swallow for investors. They had to fight a constant rollercoaster. Volatility was high, returns were low, and the news was dominated with fears of trade wars. This environment has left investors questioning if we are on the eve of the next recession. Well I have good news. While trade wars have driven fear into the hearts of investors, during that same time period corporate earnings have been soaring and the U.S. economy has continued its growth path. For these reasons, disciplined investors may have good things waiting for them in the second half of 2018.
Coming Off A Big Year
As of the end of the second quarter, the S&P 500 Index was up 2.6% year to date. So why does 2018 seem like such a disappointment? You have to remember that 2017 was a huge year with the added benefit of very little volatility. It was a straight march up the entire year.
First, let’s compare the performance of the various asset classes in the first half of 2017 versus to first half of 2018. Below are the returns for the various assets classes in the first half of 2017:
Here are those same asset classes in the first half of 2018.
Obviously a huge difference. At this time last year, the S&P 500 Index was already up 9.3% for the year compared to 2.6% in 2018. International and emerging market equities were up over 14% in the first half of 2017. In 2018, those same international stocks were down over 2%. One might guess that bonds would preform better in a year with muted stock returns. Well, one would be wrong because the Barclay’s US Aggregate Bond Index was down 1.6% in the first 6 months of 2018.
Volatility Is Back
Not only has the first half of 2018 been a return drought but the level of volatility in the stock market has also spiked. In the first 6 months of 2017, the S&P 500 Index only had 2 trading days where the stock market moved plus or minus by more than 1% in a day. Guess how many trading days there were in the first half of 2018 where the S&P 500 Index moved up or down by more than 1% in a day.
The answer: 25 Days
That’s a 1,250% increase over 2017. No wonder everyone’s nerves are rattled. So the up 2% YTD in the stock market feels more like a down 10% because a lot has happened in a short period of time. Plus, the only big positive month for the stock market was in January which feels like forever ago.
Investors are largely suffering for what we call in the investment industry as “recency bias”. In other words, what happened recently has now become the rule in the minds of investors. Investors are largely using 2017 as their measuring stick for 2018 performance and volatility. While it would seem that the dramatic increase in the level of volatility this year would classify 2018 as an abnormally volatile year, it’s actually 2017 that was the anomaly. Below is a chart that shows the annual return of the S&P 500 Index since 1980. The dots below each annual return are the market corrections that took place as some point during each calendar year.
Based on historical data, it’s “normal” for the market to experience on average a 10% correction at some point during the year. Now look at 2017, the stock market was up 19% for the year but the largest correction during the year was 3%. That’s abnormal. By comparison, even though we are only half way through 2018, we have already experienced a 10% correction and as of June 30th, the S&P 500 Index is up 2% for the year.
Earnings Are King
Behind the dark clouds of the media headlines and the increased level of volatility this year is the dramatic increase in corporate earnings. Corporate earnings have not only increased but they have leaped forward. Take a look at the chart below:
The market traditionally follows earnings. The earnings per share for the S&P 500 Index in 2017 was 17% which is a strong number historically. In the first quarterly of 2018, the year-over-year earnings per share growth was up 27%. That is a surge in corporate earnings. But you would have no idea looking at the meager 2% YTD return from the stock market this year. Pair that with the fact that the P/E of the S&P 500 is around 16 which is in line with its 20 year historic average. See the chart below:
Even though it has been a long expansion, the market is not “over priced” by historic terms. If the stock market is fairly valued and corporate earnings are accelerating, one could make the case that the stock market has some catching up to do in the second half of the year.
The Chances Of A Recession Are Low
With the yield curve still positively sloped and the Composite Index of Leading Indicator, not only positive, but accelerating, a recession within the next 6 to 12 months seems unlikely. It’s like wandering through a jungle. When you are on the ground, the jungle is intimidating, there are plenty of things to be afraid of, and it’s tough to know which direction you should be walking. As investment advisors it’s our job to climb the tallest tree to get above the jungle to determine which way we should be walking.
In summary, 2018 has been an emotional roller coaster for investors. But making sound investment decision is about putting your emotions and gut feelings aside and looking at the hard economic data when making investment decisions. That data is telling us that we may very well be witnessing the soon to be longest economic expansion since 1900. The U.S. economy is strong, tax reform is boosting corporate earnings, interest rates are rising but are still at benign levels, and consumer sentiment is booming. In the later stages of an economic cycle, higher levels of volatility will be here to stay which will test the patience of investors. But overall the second half of the year could prove to be beneficial for investors that choose to climb the trees.
Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.