Janet Yellen and her colleagues at the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) will spend the coming weeks and months contemplating the timing of an increase in short-term interest rates. While a cynic might describe the Fed’s behavior as “reactionary,” the Fed itself prefers the term “data-dependent.” As the Fed monitors incoming data, it will be searching for signs of the overall strength of the economy and any associated inflationary pressures. In so doing, the Fed is likely to find a two-speed economy, with the general health of the U.S. consumer improving rapidly, while the industrial side of the economy continues to struggle, says Eaton Vance in a report.
Part of the explanation for this seeming disconnect in economic data lies with energy prices. Over the past 12 months, the price of a barrel of oil has fallen 43%, from $105 to $60. This has led to a drop in average U.S. gasoline prices from approximately $3.70/gallon to $2.75/ gallon. With more money in their pockets, U.S. consumers (at least those who drive) are apparently feeling somewhat better about things. Accordingly, the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index recently neared its five-year high.
While the collapse in oil prices has been good news for the consumer, it’s bad news for many industrial companies. Oil and gas is an important end market for capital goods and equipment manufacturers. "We have been struck by how rapidly the energy sector cut expenses at the beginning of 2015. North American exploration and production companies tell us they have cut capital spending by roughly 35% this year. This has had a ripple effect throughout the supply chain, well beyond the direct exposure of oil and gas equipment. The softness in the industrial part of the economy has begun to manifest itself in the form of lower utilization rates at U.S. factories".
Aside from lower energy prices, another big reason for the greater optimism on the part of many consumers is the recent improvement on the jobs front. After topping 10% in 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate has steadily fallen since then and is now at what many would consider a more “normal” level – 5.3% as of June 2015. Perhaps even more telling is that wage growth has finally begun to pick up after years of stagnation.
Bringing it back to equities
Understanding the relative health of different segments of the economy is important, but for equity investors, the key question is always, “What’s not priced in?” Looking at the trailing 12-month performance of the consumer discretionary and industrials sectors within the S&P 500 Index, it seems clear that the U.S. equity market has begun to figure things out, as consumer discretionary stocks have handily outperformed industrials over the past several months.
“This divergence of performance between the two sectors has led to widening valuation differentials: Consumer discretionary stocks were recently valued at 19.5x forward EPS estimates, whereas industrials stocks were only valued at 16.3x. In the Eaton Vance Large-Cap Value strategy, we have recently been cutting back our consumer discretionary exposure and have been adding to industrials. Meanwhile, in our growth strategies, we have recently had underweight positions in industrials. Our growth team has continued to be optimistic about the outlook for companies that it believes to be benefiting from strong, secular growth trends in the areas of consumer, technology and health care, among others”.
Regardless of where there may (or may not) be opportunities in today’s equity market, their view remains that true bargains are far from plentiful. However, that could change in the months ahead. “In the interim, we continue to believe investors should selectively favor shares of companies with skilled management teams that allocate capital well”.