On the back of a "feel-good" jobs report for February, the Dow Jones Industrials Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) gained 0.5% today, thereby setting its fourth consecutive record (nominal) high today. The broader, market capitalization-weighted S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) rose 0.4%.
The VIX Index (VOLATILITYINDICES:^VIX), Wall Street's fear gauge, continues to feel the pressure, losing another 3.6% today, to close at an eye-popping 12.59. (The VIX is calculated from S&P 500 option prices, and reflects investor expectations for stock market volatility over the coming thirty days.)
Yesterday, in an appearance on CNBC, a well-known contrarian strategist disagreed with the characterization of the current stock market rally as "earnings-driven," responding:
Well how can that possibly be? Because last I saw, fourth-quarter operating EPS is running at $23.32 -- that's actually down 1.7 percent from where we were a year ago. If anything, the 12-month rolling numbers on earnings are actually negative, and yet the stock market's up 14 percent over the past year. Earnings are down 1.7 percent, so draw your own conclusion. This is actually a rally led to a higher multiple that is tied directly to the Fed's balance sheet and its elongated period of negative real interest rates.
It's quite true that earnings did not keep up with stocks over the past twelve months: On the current bottom-up estimate for the first quarter, the S&P 500's trailing 12-month operating earnings per share are absolutely flat year on year. For 2012, year-on-year growth was a barely visible 0.4%. However, forward earnings estimates have tracked the index nicely, as the graph below demonstrates. Note that the S&P 500's forward price-to-earnings ratio (light blue line, right axis) dovetails the index level (dark blue line, left axis) almost perfectly:
However, keep in mind that the forward P/E, based on "bird-in-the-bush" earnings and current estimates -- which call for 15% earnings-per-share growth this year -- looks optimistic, to put it politely. Furthermore, if we reason in terms of realized earnings (i.e. "bird-in-the hand" earnings) from the market bottom on March 9, 2009, the stock market has outpaced earnings growth: The S&P 500 is up 129% relative to its low, whereas earnings-per-share roughly doubled between 2008 and 2012. Finally, there is some question regarding the degree to which earnings growth -- not just earnings multiples -- are the product of ultra-loose monetary policy.
Is this the Fed's rally? I think there is a strong case that it has made -- and continues to make -- a significant contribution to the appreciation of stock prices. Nevertheless, the numbers above suggest the market is not a pure levitation act in which prices have lost all relation to fundamentals. Still, while the old adage warns never to fight the Fed, I wouldn't want to chain myself to it, either. If you focus on business fundamentals, buy long-term value creation at an acceptable price, and avoid leverage -- you'll do alright.