In spite of spotty economic data and a choppy stock market heading into the summer, a couple of Wall Street strategists are predicting the dog days won't be so bad after all.
"The economy is much healthier today then in either 2010 and 2011," James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, says in an interview. That might be some comfort to many observers who have fretted that stocks in the United States might go into a spring swoon like in those past two years. Granted, in each of those years, better economic data led investors to push stocks to recovery highs, only to sputter out by late spring.
But Paulsen insists there are several reasons it's different this time, and that the rest of 2012 should be swoon-free. "Widespread fears this spring will prove another replay of the last two years when a significant economic stall precipitated a major decline in the stock market appear overblown," he writes in a report called "Is it Déjà Vu all Over Again?"
In his report , Paulsen points out that economic policies in the U.S. and abroad that are much more accommodating now than in the last two years. At home, growth in the M2 money supply is flowing at a 10% pace this year, compared to 4% to 5% last year, and just 1% in 2010. In Europe, officials recently started to ease interest rates and lend more money to help tame the debt crisis. In the emerging markets, most authorities are also easing rates to help their recoveries.
Back in the U.S. other metrics are looking up. The 30-year national average mortgage rate is under 4%, putting it near an all-time low. In 2010 and 2011 that figure was over 5%. Consumers saw price inflation zap their real income gains over the last two years, but now, their income is getting help from a dip in the consumer price inflation rate to 2.7% from 4% last fall.
Paulsen adds that because the U.S. recovery is more mature, it is less vulnerable to market drops. He writes that unemployment is seeing "it's most persistent decline of the recovery."
Buoyed by these developments, plus a 2% uptick in real wages and salaries in the past year, consumers are feeling better, Paulsen says. Retail spending is picking up, as are auto sales. Even housing activity and bank loans are stirring slightly. What's more, the U.S. consumer's debt burden is down just below 16%, near a record low. Compare that with the record high of 19% in 2007, and the 17.4% burden consumers carried in the spring swoon of 2010.
Paulsen says U.S. stocks are much cheaper now than at the same time during the last two years. In April 2010, the S&P 500 price-earnings multiple was more than 18 times trailing 12-month earnings. In 2011, that figure was 16. Now, it trades around a multiple of 14. Paulsen sees these slipping multiples as a signal that investor sentiment is less exuberant—and less ripe for a fall.
Paulsen also says in an interview that he worries about Europe frightening away investors from stocks everywhere for too long. "It's getting to be a tired old sky-is-falling story," he says. Investors would have lost money if they sold U.S. stocks every time Europe had a problem in the last 27 months, he says. When the crisis began in January 2010, the S&P 500 was at 1100. Today, it's gone as high as 1350. "So, if you ignored all the news from Europe and stayed invested—did nothing—you'd have 12% returns, including dividends," he says.
Paulsen's fellow optimist, Steve Wood, chief market strategist at Russell Investments, also likes the U.S. stock market.
But, Wood is not so sure that Europe is on the right path and derides policy makers' austerity plans. "They're trying to achieve growth through austerity and it escapes me and my colleagues how that will be successful," Wood says. "It's a policy with no historical precedent." He adds that the both Europe and the emerging markets are at a very early stage in the process of monetary and fiscal easing. So comparatively, "the fiscal policy in the U.S. is pretty darn good," he says.
Wood finds U.S. stocks and corporate bonds attractive. His favorite sectors are consumer discretionary, technology, and certain areas of energy. He is focusing more on firms in oil services and exploration. Finally, given the improvements in the economy , Wood says: "We're putting on asbestos gloves and looking at financials."