Friday, 4 February 2011

Stocks over Bonds for 2011

Just over a year ago I featured as my Chart of the Day the mutual fund flows for U.S. bond funds and equity funds. At that point I summarised the attitudes of retail investors as "keep me out of Wall Street, I want the return of my cash, and I can only trust Uncle Sam with my money at the moment, thank you." The updated chart (Fig 1 below) shows that 2010 had more of the same, that is, huge inflows to bond funds and net outflows from equity mutual funds.

                                  Fig 1. Monthly Net New Cash Flows to U.S. Mutual Funds by Asset Class

As at the previous point of review (December 2009) the logical case now is very strong for a preference for equities over bonds based on valuation. Looking at the P/E ratio of American shares in isolation the case is not particularly convincing as Figure 2 shows. The S&P 500 trades at 13.6x forward four quarter earnings – this level is neither cheap nor dear in an absolute sense. But the context is very constructive: inflation is low at the consumer level; interest rates, whether real or absolute, are low and will remain so for some time; and earnings growth may be a positive surprise in 2011 as expectations are low.

                                    Fig 2. P/E Ratio of U.S. Stocks based on 12m Forward Estimates

The earnings surprise at the market level could come because expectations are low and the American corporate sector is well set in several regards. First the operating leverage is good after staying lean and mean, and hiring has only recently begun. Secondly the level of the Dollar makes the U.S. internationally competitive (and exports accounted for 1.1 percentage points of the 3.2% increase in real GDP in 2010). Thirdly, and this will be very important this year, unlike the consumer and the government, the corporate sector has a good balance sheet in aggregate. I place an emphasis on the balance sheet because there is good scope for capital spending as well as hiring, and, most importantly for investor psychology, conditions are good for a lot more mergers and acquisition activity this year.

However, even if the earnings growth for 2011 only turns out to be in line with the current consensus, a strong case can be made for a preference for stocks over bonds on the basis of relative valuation. This is illustrated in Figure 3.

                                                      Fig 3. Yield Comparison for Stocks v Bonds 
                                               (Earnings Yield on S&P500 v Real Yield on 10 Year Treasuries)

The widening gap between the real yield on the highest quality bonds and the earnings yield on American blue-chip stocks (the inversion of the P/E ratio) reflects the neglect by investors of stocks relative to bonds. The risk premium for stocks now is higher than it has been for more than 80% of the last decade, and at nearly 3.9% is 1.6% higher than the average over the last 10 years. The logical case is very strong - on the basis of valuation investors should switch out of bonds and into stocks.

On the basis of investor psychology investors won't switch. The aversion of the man in the street to anything to do with Wall Street will continue. ETFs have continued to grow whilst equity mutual funds remain out of favour suggesting that Americans don't want to give money to stock-selecting money managers. Individual investors are dis-engaged with markets to an extent rarely seen before. In short, America has fallen out of love with stocks.

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