Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Dash For Trash in Stocks

Following an unusually rough start to 2016, the last four weeks have seen a dramatic turn of events in stocks, oil and commodity prices. The question we ask is "what has changed?" Unfortunately, not very much. Our concerns entering 2016 are still with us: record low commodity prices, weak oil, widening junk bond yields, declining corporate profits and a less accommodative Fed.  These concerns are superimposed upon a bleak macroeconomic picture, with many starlets of the emerging markets stumbling, including China, and others falling hard, like Brazil.

Amidst this backdrop the rally in stocks has been puzzling. Driving these gains, in part, was a race to hastily cover short positions in oil, as a rumored OPEC alumnae reunion quickly sent the price of oil up by 50%.  Oil analysts, though, shrug off the effect of a plan to freeze production at today's record levels (even assuming parties would hold to it) as having little impact on ever-growing inventories.  However, as weak shorts run to cover in oil and beaten down oil stocks, hedge funds and algorithmic traders have been quick to ride the tailcoats of all the buying.

But let's look at one non-oil, non-mining blue chip stock to see what has happened to valuations over the past several weeks. Boeing Corp (BA) bounded off its mid-February lows of 108, to now trade at a robust 130.  Little has actually changed at the company over this period. In fact, the company announced in late February that it would be laying off employees, including highly paid engineers, as it faces stiff competitive market pressures, principally from Airbus. This news followed a downbeat earnings report for 2015 Q2, released on January 27, in which the company lowered forward earnings guidance on an expectation of slower 2016 sales. Boeing's net in 2015 Q4, it turns out, was $1.03 billion, down from $1.47 billion in the same quarter a year earlier. 

Yet despite this 29% drop in Q4 earnings and lowered guidance for 2016, Boeing stock is up a stunning 20% from its February 11 low.  So how is this possible?  Multiple expansion. Today, BA trades at 17.15x twelve month trailing earnings, above its 5-year historical range of 16.19x. But with earnings projected to decline, even if not nearly to the degree the company experienced in 2015 Q4, this TTM multiple will jump significantly, without any further gain in the price of its stock.

Now this isn't to say that Boeing is a weak or troubled company. It is an outstanding company, with excellent long term prospects. But these prospects must be set against global macroeconomic conditions that support, or in this case, limit growth. This issue, in fact, is precisely what the company warned in its Q4 earnings statement.

Meanwhile far trashier stocks, like Chesapeake Energy (CHK) are up 201% over the past four weeks, while Freeport McMoran (FXC) is up 187%.  It's much more difficult to value these stocks on a TTM p/e basis, because these stocks do not have earnings.  Not by a long shot. FXC lost $12.2 billion in fiscal 2015. If you think this might give pause to the reasonableness of a 187% rise in FXC's stock price, you might want to consider treading cautiously in this newfound market rally.