Why we shouldn't be wringing our hands over this pause in the stock market

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Key Points
  • Semiconductors, the Russell 2000, banks and industrial stocks have been weaker in the last couple weeks and with good reason. The markets are no longer cheap.
  • The key to getting markets moving again is to stop the decline in earnings estimates. There are signs that is happening.
  • There is a good chance the much-feared "earnings recession" will not begin in the first quarter.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Once again, we are seeing the usual hand-wringing over the fact that after a 17 percent rally from the December low, some of the stock market's sector leaders are meeting resistance.

Leadership groups like semiconductors, the Russell 2000, banks and industrials have been weaker in the last couple weeks and with good reason. The markets are no longer cheap. Since Feb. 24, the is down 1.5 percent. In the same period, semiconductors are down 2.7 percent, the Russell 2000 has slipped 3.9 percent, banks are down 4 percent and industrial stocks have shed 2.6 percent.

The key to getting markets moving again is to stop the decline in earnings estimates. There are signs that is happening.

On Jan. 1, first quarter earnings were expected to be up 5.3 percent, but that forecast collapsed over the next six weeks. In early February, the revised forecast was looking for earnings to be up 0.7 percent, and later that slipped to an estimate calling for earnings to be down 0.5  percent. As of today, the estimate is calling for earnings to be down 1.3 percent. So, the rate of decline is slowing and it is likely earnings will end up positive for the first quarter.

That's because corporations typically provide conservative guidance and beat estimates by a roughly 3-percentage-point margin. If the estimates are calling for earnings to be down 1.3 percent right now, and if they stay in this range, it's likely earnings will be up somewhere in the 1 percent range.

Q1 Downward Revisions to EPS Estimates
  • Jan. 1: up 5.3 percent
  • Feb. 1: up 0.7 percent
  • Feb. 15: down 0.5 percent
  • Today: down 1.3 percent

Source: Refinitiv

"While EPS estimates have gone lower, they have not fallen nearly as much as feared," Nick Raich, who follows corporate earnings at Earnings Scout, told clients on Thursday.

There is a good chance the much-feared "earnings recession" will not begin in the first quarter. That is a term that describes two consecutive quarters when earnings decline over the prior year quarter.

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Also, do not underestimate the power of central banks. We had the Fed pivot in December to less aggressive stance. And on Thursday we had the European Central Bank make the same move with President Mario Draghi leaving rates unchanged, dramatically downgrading Eurozone growth prospects and launching another lending program offering cheap money to banks.

Finally, maybe it's time we all got more reasonable with future expectations in the stock market. With the S&P up nearly 10 percent this year, investors have become used to the idea of an endless up spiral in the next decade. Maybe it's time to temper that.

The current bull market turns 10 years old at Friday's close. At Wednesday's close the S&P's 10-year annualized return was a whopping 17.5 percent, the best since early-2001, according to Advisor Investments. That is way above the historic returns of about 7 percent a year.

This is why everyone from Vanguard on down have been saying to temper forward expectations. In a recent interview with CNBC, Vanguard CIO Greg Davis told me the firm's expectations for U.S. equity market returns are lower for the next 10 years.

"If we look forward for the next 10 years, our expectations around U.S. equity markets is for about a 5 percent median annualized return," he told CNBC on Feb. 11. "Five years ago, we'd have been somewhere in around 8 percent."

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We're at the high end of fair market value, says Vanguard chief investment officer
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters