Back in December 2017, I wrote an article focusing on the toppy valuations of equity markets around the world. Back than the NASDAQ stock exchange in the USA, which consists of mostly growth stocks, was trading at around 7000 points. Considering that the NASDAQ was at less than 1500 points just over 8 years ago during the Financial Crisis, I thought 7000 points was an extraordinary valuation over such a limited timeframe.
However 2018 was the first year in a while to really test global markets. The first wobble occurred in February followed by a more rocky period between the months of October and December of that year. During the latter time period, the NASDAQ fell to around 6,300 points having reached an all time high of over 8000 points earlier in the year. Yet what is extraordinary is that since December 2018, the US stock markets have rallied back towards all time highs. As I write this article, the NASDAQ is currently trading at close to 8,200 points, whilst the S&P 500 (featuring the 500 largest publicly traded US listed companies) has just hit 3000 points for the first time ever. Much of these rises have been driven by the performance of large tech companies such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. Amazon is back to trading at its all time high of over $2000 a share on a very high P/E (a company’s share price to its earnings per share ratio) multiple of over 80. Amazon along with Apple and Microsoft currently have market caps close to $1trillion – in fact, as I write, Microsoft is now trading at $1.05trillion. Microsoft has a lower P/E than Amazon (around 30), whilst Apple has the lowest (17). The P/E metrics of this trio of trillion dollar behemoths mean currently Apple is generating the most cash.
Yet what is interesting when analysing the multi year charts of the NASDAQ and S&P 500 indices, is that they have both been in a bull market for ten years. This is the longest bull market of all time for a stock market. The reason why I am currently rather concerned and on my guard is due to multiple factors. I cannot neglect that a low interest rate environment for many years coupled with quantitative easing have contributed to this lengthy bull market. Yet when I look at many tech companies and other growth companies that make up the NASDAQ, I cannot help but feel that a lot of them are being propped up by positive sentiment and lots of goodwill in relation to their fundamental net asset valuations. Some companies are just simply too powerful and potential amounts of thorough government regulation in the future cannot be overlooked. Facebook, Google and Amazon, no matter how much it may be denied, are in their own ways powerful monopolies. Facebook has the largest social media empire in the world, Google the largest search engine and Amazon the largest e-commerce business. Because of these unique characteristics, to some, their valuations are justified, and some would even argue that in spite of their already high valuations, the scope for even further upside continues to be vast. This belief in the continuing bright futures of these companies, is also taken into account in their current valuations.
When I wrote my article in December 2017, I mentioned the well known British fund manager Neil Woodford who at the time went on record to say that many growth companies were trading on very high valuations and that value investing had been neglected. Over the last couple of months Woodford’s funds have run into problems regarding unquoted and illiquid investments and his main fund is currently suspended. I am surprised with some of these unquoted and non-dividend paying companies in his portfolio, especially as they contradict his value investing philosophy, which has in the past set him in good stead. However, I do believe that value investing has currently gone out of fashion, like a has-been popstar. Some of the largest holdings in Woodford’s portfolio at one point (before he had to sell large chunks to generate liquidity) were Imperial Brands and housebuilders like Barratt Homes and Taylor Wimpey. These are stocks in unfashionable industries paying large dividends. The tobacco industry has had a torrid couple of years with the main companies trading at depressed valuations yet paying very high dividend yields. Fears over a declining number of smokers and more regulation on the tobacco industry have spooked investors. Yet what I find deliciously ironic is that many high growth publicly traded cannabis companies like Tilray and Canopy Growth are trading at very high valuations and neither pay any dividends. Dividends are an important source of income, especially in a low interest rate environment with low yielding government bonds. Investing in high growth tech companies often deprives one of this valuable source of income and even when tech companies do pay a dividend, it is not very much (Apple pays a very modest dividend of 1.50%). I can understand that tech companies that start to generate cash prefer to reinvest much of their profits to further grow their businesses and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact I admire this, yet all this means is that for solid dividend income one has to look elsewhere.
Black Swan events aside, perhaps the greatest thing to derail this current bull-market is another financial crisis related to the enormous levels of global public and private debt, which are at all time high levels. The current debt in the US is at a record $22.5 trillion. It’s quite funny for this record US debt level to correlate with new record highs for both the NASDAQ and S&P500 stock markets. At some point the resident party DJ will have to pull the plug on the beats. When this will happen don’t ask me. Furthermore, I hesitate to predict when as I’ve been wrong more times than I have been right. I do believe though, that in times like these it is always a wise move to have some insurance assets. Some say one should have 5% of their assets in gold bullion. Others prefer safe government bonds, arguing that the price of precious metals are driven by sentiment and there is no guarantee that their prices will go up in the event of a financial crisis. They are of course not wrong and I will even further add that precious metals don’t pay any income. Yet I like gold and silver. Silver even more since it is fundamentally more undervalued than gold. Instead of the conventional wisdom that one should allocate 5% of their portfolio to gold bullion, I would allocate at least 10% of ones portfolio towards precious metals with 70% in silver and 30% in gold. For more information on why I am particular bullish on silver, you can read my last article here.
By Nicholas Peart
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Disclaimer: This article reflects my opinions and should not be taken as professional financial advice.