On this day that sequestration has taken hold — in what seems like the final descent into madness — I want to offer investors some good news.
It’s this: The S&P 500 index will close at an all-time high this year, and it will at some point cross the 1,600 mark. I doubt it will end the year there and will more likely settle at 1,575 for a gain of about 8% (before dividends) — which, given last year’s 13% return, represents a fairly spectacular run since 2011 began.
I don’t really feel as if I am going out on a limb here. First, 1,600 is a mere 5-1/2% away. A few days of drunken ebullience will get us there. Second, as discussed in more detail below, there are a variety of positive influences on our economy that will drive equities higher.
Housing inventories. Two weeks ago at the Ibbotson Morningstar conference in Florida, I sat in on a presentation from St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank economist Kevin Kliesen. There was one statistic he let loose that made my jaw drop: housing inventories (the number of homes available for purchase) are below 2001 levels.
This, combined with an improving jobs picture, a rising GDP (see below) and low interest rates, sets the stage for the comeback in housing we’ve all been awaiting. I think 2013 is the year it will finally arrive.
Some people are afraid that rising interest rates will choke off the recovery in housing. The Federal Reserve has sent some conflicting signals of late — such that policies will favor low rates only to encourage job growth — but my read of the tea leaves (and I’m afraid that is the best anyone can do with interest rates) — is they will remain low for the balance of the decade.
These low rates, combined with what appears to be ultra-low housing inventory, sets the stage for new and existing home purchases and all of the derivative industries housing supports such as construction equipment, durable goods, building products, electronics, hardware, lawn care equipment, Internet services and so on.
Big-ticket purchases. The only other purchase more helpful to the economy than a home is a car. The auto market is ripe for a little pep. I’m taking my cue here from what’s going on in the used-car market. Prices are rising, and dealers are spending more time and effort getting their hands on used cars. This matters because by using some well structured financing, dealers can re-sell their old customers new cars for a smaller monthly payment.
Here’s two data points that corroborate my thoughts about the used car market and its impact on the new car market. In the repossession market, last year’s tally of 1.3 million vehicles, was down almost 32% from the peak year of the recession in 2008, and is the lowest count in 12 years. Further, used-car seller Manheim sold 2.5 million fewer vehicles in 2012 than in 2011.
Rising GDP. Fourth-quarter 2012 GDP, initially reported as a contraction of 0.1%, has been revised upward to an expansion +0.1%. No great shakes but consumer confidence is a fickle thing, and a shrinking GDP undermines settlement while a growing GDP, no matter how little, is additive to consumer sentiment.
The great migration. There’s a lot of money on the sidelines and/or in fixed-income securities. For several years strategists have predicted this money will migrate into equities. This year, 2013, will represent the fifth year the market has been in positive territory (though one could quibble that 2011 was not flat, but rather was a loss of 0.04%).
In 2008, the equity market sold off and the S&P 500 index fell by 38.5%. You could argue that it’s been long enough to forget the pain and suffering of 2008. You could also argue that with ultra-low interest rates, many pension funds have been paying out more than they’ve been taking in, and that they need the kinds of returns equities can generate.
Of the two arguments, I’m not saying which I believe has more sway. I will say, however, that fund flows from money markets in December and January (and most likely in February as well) into equities have steadily gained steam.
When you add it all up — housing, low interest rates, expanding GDP, big-ticket purchases in the wings, and the great migration into equities — someday we’re going to look back and call these the good old days.