The Aging Bull Market Still Has (Wobbly) Legs

A handful of hot technology stocks are keeping the wheezing, wobbly bull market alive, creating a divergence that probably heralds a correction. But for now the good times keep rolling, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Tuesday flirted with the 23,000-mark.

In large part, the market’s mojo this year has come courtesy of the “FANG” coterie of Facebook (NSDQ: FB), Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), and Google, which is now Alphabet (NSDQ: GOOGL).

Neflix on Monday was the first FANG stock to report third-quarter fiscal 2017 earnings, after the closing bell. The media streaming giant also was a big story on Tuesday, as the stock fell sharply despite impressive third-quarter growth in earnings, revenue and subscribers.

Let’s look at the numbers and see what they portend for your portfolio.

Tuesday Market Wrap

The three major U.S. stock indices closed the day mixed.

Solid earnings from health care, retail and consumer companies buoyed the S&P 500 and propelled the Dow to the verge of breaching a new landmark.

However, Netflix’s unexpected woes weighed on the tech-heavy Nasdaq.

DJIA +0.18%, to 22,997.44

S&P 500 +0.07%, to 2,559.36

Nasdaq -0.01%, to 6,623.66

Tuesday’s Big Gainers

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) +5.55%

The diversified health insurance and managed care giant beat expectations on third-quarter earnings.

W.W. Grainger (NYSE: GWW) +12.82%

The Fortune 500 industrial supply company exceeded consensus estimates for third-quarter earnings and revenue.

Biogen (NSDQ: BIIB) +2.62%

Biogen is benefiting from a series of analyst upgrades to “buy,” on the strength of a promising drug pipeline. Over the past three months, BIIB has soared 23% versus 3.9% for the S&P 500.

Tuesday’s Big Losers

Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) -1.58%

The digital entertainment behemoth reported a blow-out third quarter, but as I explain below, ballooning costs are worrying analysts.

Xylem (NYSE: XYL) -4.14%

The water infrastructure company faces several political and environmental headwinds, including operational disruptions from severe storms.

Seagate (NSDQ: STX) -1.54%

The data storage company is plagued by high fixed costs and competition from disruptive technologies.

Netflix: Investors Change Channels

Netflix reported robust third-quarter earnings after the closing bell on Monday, but beneath the numbers lurk troubling cost increases.

The media streaming giant reported that worldwide subscribers had reached 109 million in the quarter, compared to 83 million during the same period a year ago. That number includes an additional 5.3 million subscribers during the July-September period, exceeding analyst forecasts.

Netflix reported third-quarter revenue of $2.9 billion, a year-over-year increase of more than 30%, while earnings reached $130 million, up from $52 million in the same year-ago quarter. Earnings per share came in at 37 cents, beating analysts’ expectation of 32 cents. The stellar earnings and revenue gains were fueled by new and compelling content.

However, the company also indicated in Monday’s earnings report that it will spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on original content next year. The company in the third quarter was shouldered with $17 billion in obligations, such as content acquisition and licensing, compared to $14.4 billion in the same year-ago quarter.

NFLX’s share price decline on Tuesday underscores the fickleness of tech investing. Investors have set the bar high for technology stocks, which means they can plunge at the mere whiff of negative news.

Tech stocks as a whole are on the upswing because of increased IT spending among corporate clients, confident consumers who are scooping up the latest gadgets, the accelerating pace of product innovation, and the prospect (albeit diminishing) of lower taxes under President Trump.

Lots of cash on hand will provide tech giants with a cushion for the market downturn that lies ahead. It also allows them to make the strong research and development (R&D) spending that’s necessary to maintain their competitive edge.

Netflix’s third-quarter earnings were buttressed by consistently high spending on quality programming that has paid off in the form of new subscribers around the world. But therein lies the rub: Neflix’s costs could be getting out of control.

Regardless, if Trump makes good on his promise to allow tech companies to repatriate overseas cash for a lower domestic tax rate, you’ll see an explosion of R&D and acquisitions which in turn will boost tech sector growth.

Sniffing Out Bad Breadth

It’s troubling, though, that the broader market is being kept aloft by a relatively small number of large-cap blue chips, especially in the technology sector. It’s called “bad breadth” and it’s a classic red flag for an imminent correction. This perilous situation makes earnings results all the more imperative.

On the FANG earnings calendar: Facebook (November 1); Apple (November 2); and Alphabet (October 26). For these tech stalwarts, consensus expectations call for healthy earnings and revenue growth across the board. But share prices will be severely punished if high expectations are disappointed.

Scheduled to report earnings after the closing bell on Tuesday is IBM (NYSE: IBM). The consensus estimate is that the company’s earnings will come in essentially flat, as Big Blue struggles to remain relevant in a world dominated by the game-changers as exemplified by FANG. Under the spotlight will be IBM’s cloud growth and software demand, which will provide a clue as to whether the company’s massive investments in R&D and acquisitions to “reinvent” itself are paying off.

This Day in History: Capone Behind Bars

On October 17, 1931, notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He served time in Alcatraz and was paroled in 1939.

In 1947, vilified by the public and his mind ravaged by syphilis, Capone died at the age of 48.

Desperate to stop Capone by any means, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables relied on the tax code to nab a murderer who had otherwise eluded justice. The lesson? Pragmatism can be a winning strategy. Focus on your long-term goals and don’t get discouraged by obstacles along the way.

Develop a good investment mindset — and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good.

Number of the Day:  -53%

Since the go-go days of the energy patch, when the price of crude reached a peak of about $110 per barrel in mid-2014, the price of crude has fallen 53%. Energy investors were temporarily cheered in the latter half of 2016, when depressed energy prices seemed to finally turn the corner, but 2017 so far has dashed those hopes.

Volatility will likely plague the energy sector for the rest of 2017 and into next year. Battle-weary energy investors have been habitually overreacting to bad news and under-reacting to good news. Geopolitical surprises, of which there have been many, only exacerbate the uncertainty and market mood swings.

On Tuesday, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, rose 9 cents cents to close at $51.96 per barrel. Brent North Sea Crude, the international benchmark, rose 28 cents to close at $58.10/bbl. The good news for energy investors is that the price of crude now hovers above the $50/bbl threshold generally considered to be the price at which energy companies can “break even.”

As tech stocks reach nosebleed valuations and the energy sector seesaws, the lesson is to remain selective in all of your investments. As this bull market approaches its ninth year, a day of reckoning is surely at hand.

No one bangs a gong to announce the official start of a correction. Investors learned this hard fact on October 19, 1987, during the “Black Monday” crash. The 30th anniversary of the meltdown occurs this Thursday; I’ll have more to say about that dubious anniversary in a later issue.