The bull market in stocks, which began two years and two months ago on the tail end of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, has handed investors gains of 80 percent.
But, according to fund managers and analysts including Standard & Poor's Chief Technical Strategist Mark Arbeter and Capital Advisors Chief Executive Officer Keith Goddard, the end is nigh.
Europe's tumultuous debt woes, Japan's recession, the end of the U.S. Federal Reserve's massive bond-buying program and peak profits among American companies signal a slowdown in the pace of equity gains that may, in a worst-case scenario, result in a decline of as much as 20%.
Calling stock-markettops and bottoms is more art than science, though in a research note last week, S&P's Arbeter said stocks will fall 15% to 20%, perhaps more, with a slide extending into next year.
His evidence: A breakdown in commodities, a potential intermediate- to longer-term bottom in the U.S. Dollar Index, lagging emerging markets and a rise in Treasury yields. All of which raise costs for U.S. businesses, crimping profits.
"In our opinion, this reflects concerns about the economy, and many times, is a bearish omen for the overall stock market," Arbeter writes, noting recent outperformance in sectors like consumer staples, health care, telecom and utilities.
Although Arbeter made his call through the prism of market technicals, other stock-market watchers agree with his bearish assessment. Nouriel Roubini, the economist who rang the warning bell ahead of the global financial crisis in 2008, recently said unemployment will continue to rise in the U.S. over the next year. Roubini has frequently warned of global economic woes, and he continues to see problems in Europe as a threat to a global recovery.
The threats to the future of the bull market read like a laundry list of events set to occur at the end of days. Inflation from rising commodity, agriculture and materials costs is a major concern, as is the end of the Federal Reserve's purchase of $600 billion in U.S. Treasurys, known as QE2, which provided a massive boost of liquidity that helped to increase asset prices.
There are several other concerns that aren't mentioned nearly as much as inflation and the end of the second round of quantitative easing. Fitch Ratings cut Greece's credit rating on Friday due to the risk of a sovereign default. Last year, the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailed out Greece, but even that rescue may not be enough to help the country manage its debt and deficit. Worry continues to mount over a potential debt restructuring.
In the U.S., economic reports have suggested sluggishness ahead. Unemployment remains at 9%, and new jobless claims have stayed stubbornly above 400,000 each week.
First-quarter GDP has been initially pegged at 1.8%, which is anything but robust.
And in the past week, the Conference Board said leading economic indicators fell 0.3% in April, the first decline since June 2010, and a separate report showed housing starts and building permits continue to drop.
Bullish investors have pointed to earnings performance as one reason the market still has legs. But the excitement over first-quarter earnings, which recently wrapped up with Wal-Mart's release, doesn't quite match reality.
Bespoke Investment Group's market analysis says out of 2,132 U.S. companies that reported earnings this quarter, 59.5% beat estimates.
"This is by far the lowest quarterly 'beat rate' reading of the bull market, and it's 7 percentage points below the 'beat rate' last quarter," Bespoke writers noted in last week's post.
There has also be a shift in leadership, another potential sign of an impending market swoon. Lower-quality stocks led the equity market higher until about a month ago. Both the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500 ($INX) are up 6% this year — a far cry from bear-market territory — but the small-cap index is down 2% over the past month as the S&P 500 has held steady.
Despite mounting evidence, there is much conflict about whether this is the end of the bull market's run.
"Bull markets, as they say, have been killed historically by restrictive monetary policy. I'm not aware of a bull market being killed my anything else," says Mark Schultz, fund manager at M&T Bank. "We're a little ways away from that, according to the authorities at the Fed."
Other fund managers and investment advisors are a little more concerned. TheStreet spoke with several bullish and bearish investors and got their take on whether the bull market is dying. Their views are presented on the following pages.
Brian Peery, Hennessy Cornerstone Growth Fund
"It's not about timing the market, it's about time in the market," says Brian Peery.
"I've never been good at picking tops or bottoms. I'm going to invest for the long term, so I want to pick high-quality companies that are going to be around in five years and make sure I'm not paying too much for them."
Peery is the co-portfolio manager of the Hennessy Cornerstone Growth Fund (HFCGX), a $200 million fund with a tilt toward small- and mid-cap equities such as Mercer International (MERC) and Atlas Energy (ATLS).
"There's always going to be that wall of worry. You could make a case for the end of the world being near," Peery says.
"But if you can separate the individual companies and their performance from the overall economy, there are a lot of cash-rich companies that are making a lot of money that are sitting on this capital."
Peery is solidly in the bullish camp of investors, as he says a hypothetical 20% market pullback would "be a huge buying opportunity." But even he acknowledges the challenge investors face with the weak economic rebound.
"We're not in an environment where the economy is rip-roaring, so you're only getting incremental growth on the top line," he says. "The economic numbers haven't been all that great. If you don't have a job, the recession is still going on. But people are feeling more secure about spending and they're loosening the purse strings a little."
Peery says it will still be a stock pickers' market, and that investors have to look for high-quality companies selling at a discount. He says there are an abundance still out there, including Dell and, in particular, Chevron .
"Chevron is making a truckload of money," Peery says. "What do you do with that $12 of earnings per share? You could increase your dividend, you could invest in infrastructure to make yourself more profitable, or you could do some M&A. We're seeing companies like Chevron that are yielding high."
Peery advises people to take a long-term approach, as it's still early in this bull market in his eyes.
"We could have a dip along the way and have continued growth, so I would look at any time the market comes down as potential buying opportunities," he says. "I still think valuations are relatively low."
Keith Goddard, Capital Advisors
Keith Goddard, president and CEO of Capital Advisors, says there are two important things that are making the climate more difficult for investors: the end of QE2 and the peaking of profit margins.
Based in Tulsa, Okla., with $900 million in assets under management, Goddard says that while investors will debate whether interest rates will rise or fall on the termination of the Fed's quantitative easing in June, there is no debating the market will transition from an environment of easy monetary policy to one of incremental tightening.
Secondly, Goddard argues that profit margins are peaking. "We're right up against records, and that series is mean-reverting. It's one of the most mean-reverting elements of capitalism," he says. "Profit margins will come down at some point. We think it's starting."
Rising interest rates are never good for stocks, and that coupled with idea that companies will begin negative earnings preannouncements in June is something that scares Goddard.
"The risk in your portfolio goes up because you'll have more stocks that don't make it through earnings season without a drop," he says.
"If you get both of those things beginning in June and July, it will make the second half of the year that much harder."
Goddard says his firm is getting more defensive, although he's not quite expecting a bear market yet. He is calling for "an old-fashioned earnings-based correction sometime in the next 30 to 60 days based on a resetting of expectations for lower corporate profits."
Capital Advisors is navigating the market by looking for stable earners that are high-quality companies with global diversification and solid balance sheets, Goddard says. He also looks to find companies that have a thin margin between analysts' estimates. If the spread is narrow, it's more likely that analysts have a good handle on the business and therefore the earnings estimates can be relied upon.
Some of these names are PepsiCo , Procter & Gamble , Johnson & Johnson and Wal-Mart .
But Goddard says he also has very high conviction in Ford for a different reason altogether: analyst estimates are too low.
"Ford earned $1.91 a share when auto sales were below 12 million. Consensus estimates for 2011 and 2012 are around $2 a share, but we expect auto sales to hit 15 million by 2012," Goddard says.
"If we hit 15 million in auto sales, they're going to earn more than $2 a share. I'll eat my hat if they don't."
The wild card, though, is a third round of quantitative easing by the Fed, according to Goddard. He says that the market is already feeling its way through the dark with QE2, and that there comes a point where QE2 or QE3 ceases to be beneficial to asset prices.
"The Fed has been buying two-thirds of all Treasurys issued since November, so it is not logical to assume that rates will not react to that buyer walking away," Goddard says. "But it is debatable whether the markets will cheer QE3 or not. QE3, if it happens, will smell more like monetizing the national debt than inflating asset prices."
Even if there is a negative market reaction to QE2, that correction won't grow to 20%, Goddard says.
"There is too much on the sidelines that has been waiting for an entry point for two years. I don't think they'll wait for 20% to start buying. We saw a 7% pullback related to the Japan situation this spring, and the buyers came in."
Jeff Sica, Sica Wealth Management
A handful of investment managers say the market has been overvalued for some time and that the decline is just beginning.
Jeffrey Sica, president and chief investment officer of New Jersey-based SICA Wealth Management, is one of those investors. He is currently predicting a 15% to 20% decline by the end of the summer, as the economy doesn't support more gains.
Sica says the market is now dependent on added liquidity and the willingness of the Fed to further inflate stock prices. He says that even an artificial boost by another round of quantitative easing by the Fed won't fix the problem.
"If the economy should slip into trouble, there was a willingness to do a QE3," Sica says, referencing the recently released minutes from the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee. "The problem will be the inflation spring."
Sica, whose firm manages about $1 billion in assets, says the Fed is in a no-win situation. If the central bank raises interest rates, they risk slowing the economy. However, there is also an inflation factor.
When Sica sees GDP estimates at 1.8% for the first quarter, he says he begins worrying about stagflation — stagnant economic growth mixed with inflation, a combination that tends to destroy investments.
In order to invest during stagflation, investors must have no willingness to buy and hold. "We're bearish because we're seeing that these initiatives will have a negative impact on the overall economy, creating greater inflation which will cause increased interest rates," Sica says.
Sica is recommending that investors purchase gold, silver or other precious metals like platinum due to the lack of faith in currency and lack of faith in government to preserve the value of currencies.
"I certainly think we have another 25% up on gold. Silver could be in the mid-$40s," Sica says. "We're still buying it and we're going to continue to buy it."
Sica also contends that the bond bubble "is absolutely ready to burst. No matter what the Fed does, they can't initiate enough stimulus to stop interest rates from going up. So we think it is a good time to be ultra-defensive and to short the U.S. Treasury market as rates go up."
For that reason, Sica has been looking to the ProShares Short 7-10 Year Treasury ETF , the ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury ETF and the ProShares UltraShort 3-7 Year Treasury ETF to capitalize on the inevitable rise in interest rates.
For now, Sica says he plans to stick to this short-term trading style. "Things have to change a lot for me to go back to buy and hold. I think those days are over," he says.
"The economy, the deficit, the dollar, and the global view — a lot has to improve."
Kevin Mahn, Hennion & Walsh Asset Management
The stock market typically advances nine months before any true economic gains. Without sustainable economic growth, Kevin Mahn argues that this market recovery has rallied too high, too fast absent fundamentals.
"I have a great deal of reservation with respect to how we're going to continue to grow our economy in light of higher material costs, higher agricultural costs and higher energy costs on consumers that are already stressed," says Mahn from his Parsippany, New Jersey-based office.
Mahn argues that market bulls are overestimating the strength of the U.S. consumer as well as the ability and the willingness of the developed world to continue to provide financing for fiscally lead economic stimulus.
Consumer spending accounts for over two-thirds of economic growth in the U.S., and Mahn questions how willing is this U.S. consumer to continue to spend at the rate that we need to grow our economy.
"Inflation isn't here? Try and tell Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who are paying more for bread and milk and can't afford to fill up their gas tank more than once per month," Mahn says.
"That's real inflation that we need to concern ourselves with. Not to mention, there are still 400,000 new people who have filed for unemployment."
Looking at equities specifically, Mahn asserts that the rate of companies beating earnings expectations cannot continue at the current clip of roughly 70%, and he adds that forward-looking forecasts from many of these companies are not as promising.
"If you were just a pure large-cap-centric investor, you should brace yourself for some bumps in the road ahead," Mahn says. "That said, there are a tremendous amount of opportunities for individual investors if you look outside of the U.S. and you don't stay in large-cap stocks."
Mahn says he is looking at alternative asset classes, such as ETFs to play commodities and agriculture, REITs, and investments that stand to benefit from a rebuilding of Japan. Mahn says he still favors multinationals that pay strong, consistent dividends.
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