NEW YORK (AP) — On the surface, the stock market may not have looked any different in September than it did earlier in the year. But even though indexes continued to climb, the market went through a shift.
Starting in late August, banks and industrial companies rose and the dollar got stronger. The Russell 2000 index has climbed 11 percent from mid-August as smaller, U.S.-focused companies made big gains. That's a change from the way stocks have behaved for much of this year: technology companies and other corporations that do a lot of their business overseas had been soaring as the dollar weakened, and low interest rates have hampered financial company stocks. But if the September pattern sounds familiar, it should: it's the same trend that dominated the market from the November presidential election through President Donald Trump's inauguration in January.
Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management, explains how investors' views of the market have evolved and doubled back in the 11th months since the election. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why has the market changed direction in the last few weeks?
A: Tax reform seems to be gaining steam, and that's boosted sentiment as well as expectations for President Trump's pro-growth agenda. With tax reform you're likely to see earnings favorably impacted, and a pro-growth agenda tends to be favorable for small caps as well. So the Russell 2000 has been on a tear. Tax reform tends to be U.S.-centric and is likely to boost earnings, which obviously is favorable for the broad market. Secondly, should a tax reform come to pass and result in an elevated dollar, that could conversely put some pressure on earnings for multinational companies.
Q: So in a lot of ways, stocks are making the same moves they made about a year ago. How is this move different from that one?
A: Following the November election (investors anticipated) a pro-growth agenda, expectations for inflation, deregulation and tax cuts. The pro-growth agenda now is gaining some steam again. The key difference between now and then is we have greater visibility on earnings. Earnings for the S&P 500 are tracking for about a 10 percent increase year over year and in 2018 we're seeing that same kind of growth. The whole global economy is improving, which means higher earnings and higher earnings mean higher stock prices. We still don't see a looming recession or ramping inflation. Stocks still provide an opportunity for investors to get yield as well.
Clearly the equity market valuations are elevated, but we think there is valuation support in an environment where inflation is low. But while our outlook remains constructive, clearly risks remain. You do have a flattening yield curve, there's political wrangling and low expectations on balance and you've got geopolitical tensions.
Q: Are there other reasons for those gains, like improvement in the economy?
A: There's still much to like about the U.S. equity market. Earnings are increasing and generally restrained inflation and low interest rates provide support. The large caps are somewhat in pause mode ahead of third-quarter (earnings) reports. We're seeing consensus expectations for about a 5-percent increase in earnings year over year and higher earnings still warrant higher stock prices. We like the macroeconomic and fundamentals backdrops.
Q: Have you advised investors to make any changes in response to this market shift?
A: Our message has been the same, really. That is that we like equities over fixed-income securities and we like U.S. stocks over international even though international growth is improving. Nine of the 11 S&P 500 sectors are in positive territory year to date, (which) implies a market that's likely to trend higher. Technology and select areas of consumer discretionary and health care remain favorites.
Our year-end price target for the S&P 500 is 2,550, at the midpoint of a range between 2,500 and 2,600. Should tax reform visibility improve and earnings get reported as we expect they will, our sense is that we'll end the year toward the high side of that range. (Note: The S&P 500 closed at 2,553 on Friday.)