Why Business TV Is Bad for You
This morning, against my better judgment, I turned on cable TV to watch the business news channels. I was curious to see what the “experts” were saying about the forthcoming Federal Reserve meeting. After a few minutes, I hit “off” and tossed aside the remote with disgust.
Allow me to make a public service announcement: Business TV is bad for your financial health.
The real appeal of these celebrity stock pickers isn’t in the soundness of their investment advice. It’s in their entertainment factor. They’re stock broker versions of Howard Stern; they’re Wall Street “shock jocks.” Sure enough, studies show that their recommendations on average don’t beat the market. These animated blowhards constitute a cult of personality.
My job? It’s to deprogram the viewers who are caught in their spell.
Let’s look at the hard data today, in objective fashion and with no emotional antics, and see what it means for your portfolio.
The three major U.S. stock indices closed last Friday at record highs, propelled by better-than-expected results for corporate earnings and economic growth. The analyst consensus still predicts an overall decline in earnings growth for the latest quarter, but it’s turning out that the report cards won’t be as bad as originally feared.
Likewise, even though second-quarter U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) growth slowed in the second quarter to 2.1%, due to contracting business investment, consumer spending beat expectations by increasing 4.3%.
As of this writing on Monday morning, the major stock indices were trading in the red and struggling to gain traction. Investors are holding their collective breath ahead of this week’s Federal Reserve meeting.
The big story this week is the U.S. central bank, which meets July 30-31. Modest (but not torrid) economic growth, combined with low inflation and concerns about the global economy, could be setting the table for another interest rate cut this week, albeit a smaller one than Wall Street would like. The Fed probably will seek to inoculate the vulnerable recovery from global headwinds and President Trump’s trade war.
Long-term investors, though, should be less concerned about Fed policy and more about the deceleration in corporate profit growth. Earnings rose 24% in 2018, fueled by the massive corporate tax cut bill signed into law in December 2017. We now face an earnings recession (two consecutive quarters of negative earnings growth).
To be sure, corporate earnings are coming in better-than-feared, but the bar has been set pretty low. Lofty valuations, combined with weak earnings growth, make stocks susceptible to short-term sell-offs sparked by headline risks — of which there are plenty.
The economic calendar is crowded this week with major reports scheduled for release. In the coming days, we’ll get important clues as to the sturdiness of the expansion (see table).
We’re already seeing cracks in the expansion. Last week, IHS Markit reported that the U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 50.0 in July, the lowest reading since September 2009 and below analyst expectations of 51.0.
The negative factors were an increasingly troubled global economy and the trade war. We’re witnessing downturns in inventory investment, exports, and nonresidential fixed investment — the sort of activity that the 2017 tax cuts were supposed to stimulate (but didn’t).
These headwinds were reflected in disappointing earnings last week from key industrial firms, such as Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT).
The PMI report also noted a downturn in the automotive sector, which was confirmed last week by operating results from Ford Motor (NYSE: F) that missed on the top and bottom lines.
On the bright side, consumer spending (which accounts for about 70% of the economy) remains robust. Mostly strong earnings results from financial services underscore the resilience of the consumer.
Another positive (but sometimes forgotten) factor: the U.S. economy today is increasingly reliant on services rather than the production of goods.
Which brings me to the supposedly “bad” trade deficit between the U.S. and China, a sticking point with Washington as it negotiates with Beijing. Business news anchors like to prattle on about the trade deficit, but it’s clear that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The U.S. trade deficit with China reached a record high of $419.2 billion in 2018. But that’s not necessarily a bad trend. It’s not as if that money were “lost.”
Anyone who says tariffs are necessary because of the trade deficit simply doesn’t understand trade, or is being purposely dishonest.
The increase in the deficit actually reflects American strength, as a strong U.S. economy and a strong dollar boost demand in the U.S. for Chinese goods.
It’s true that the U.S. imports more than it exports, particularly manufactured goods. But the U.S. government’s trade numbers can be misleading, because they tend to emphasize lower-skilled manufacturing jobs and underestimate the importance of value-added services.
In the services sector (which tends to generate higher-paying jobs than in manufacturing), the U.S. ran a $244 billion trade surplus last year. Don’t we want America to be an incubator for skilled jobs, rather than low-paying unskilled ones?
The following chart tells the story of goods versus services:
Source: Commerce Department, Investing Daily
Sure enough, last week’s PMI report showed that companies in the services sector posted the biggest rise in activity since April. That’s good news.
And yet, there’s enough bad news to compel an increasing number of analysts to predict a correction in the third quarter. A stock market correction is when the market falls 10% from its 52-week high. You can’t count on the Fed’s dovishness to prevent a correction.
You should take protective measures now, such as paring back your exposure to growth stocks, especially mega-cap technology names. They’ve enjoyed a nice run-up that’s increasingly unsustainable.
A handful of tech giants have accounted for a disproportionate portion of the bull market’s rise; they constitute what’s called a “crowded trade” and they appear poised for a stumble. Re-balance toward safer assets, such as quality dividend stocks.
At least 10% of your portfolio should be in bonds right now. Indeed, investors have been flocking to this safe haven asset in record numbers, motivated by concerns over economic growth. Net inflows into bond mutual funds and bond exchange traded funds have totaled $254 billion so far in 2019. For context, the total of this inflow over the last decade was $1.7 trillion.
That said, the economic expansion continues (for now) and corporate earnings, although contracting, aren’t falling off a cliff.
The S&P 500 is up 344% over the past 10 years, including dividends. During that time, corporate profits rose 256%, confirming the correlation between stock appreciation and earnings. Stocks remain the best game in town. Stick to your long-term goals and tune out the TV hucksters.
Questions or comments? I welcome your letters: email@example.com
John Persinos is the managing editor of Investing Daily.