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Constructing Portfolios for the Fourth Quarter and Beyond: Equities (Part 1)

  • Low rates have encouraged risk taking, but equity returns have been supported by earnings growth
  • Growth is forecasted to slow and rates are expected to rise but remain low – creating challenges for investors
  • Focusing on small caps and quality stocks may help investors reposition portfolios
Head of SPDR Americas Research

Global equities registered their seventh month in a row with gains in August, their longest stretch since 2018, and have now gone over 220 days without being in a 5% drawdown — the third-longest streak ever. In fact, the S&P 500® has notched 53 new all-time highs this year — the third-most of any year since 1991.1

Low rates, significant infusions of liquidity, and rebounding earnings have propelled these returns. As a result, investors have steadfastly favored equities relative to bonds. Equity ETFs have taken in $85 billion more than bond ETFs over the past three months, a figure that is in the 80th percentile and 158% above the typical three-month average.2

Yet, even with these returns and behavior, stocks are still cheap when compared to bonds3 — and that is likely to continue as the low rate environment has created a less than ideal future return scenario for bonds.4 Caution, however, has begun to creep into market sentiment. Three-month S&P® 500 put/call option skew as well as the put/call option interest ratio are elevated, with the latter sitting in the 92nd percentile over the last five years.5

Today’s complex environment has clients concerned with many variables that could alter the market’s trajectory: Policy normalization, tapering, low rates, fiscal spending impacts, inflationary pressures, expensive valuations, earnings growth stability, market gains concentrated around a few large stocks and the future path of an economy still dealing with the effects of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. However, when grouped together, the through line of our client conversations centers on these two questions:

  1. How can I continue participating in a policy-supported rally marked by elevated valuations given concerns about the sustainability of future growth?
  2. Where can I source “real” levels of income within bond portfolios that can withstand rising rates?

In this first part of this two-part blog, I will address the first question related to equity portfolio positioning. Check out the second part on fixed income here.

The Key for Equities: Quality Not Quantity
Stocks are expensive, and growth is projected to slow in 2022 — a cocktail that makes investors a bit squeamish about continuing to pile into stocks, even with TINA (“There is No Alternative”) and FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”) tending bar.

The S&P 500’s 20%-plus gain so far this year has kept valuations elevated, even though earnings growth has been the driver.6 The market’s price-to-earnings ratio currently sits in the historical 90th percentile.7 This is not the only valuation ratio that is stretched, however. As shown below, four other common metrics are also elevated, with only one (next-twelve-months price-to-earnings ratio) not above the 90th percentile.

S&P 500 Valuations

Now, these metrics started 2021 near these levels and the market has still posted outsize gains. The difference for the road ahead is that growth is not expected to be as strong. Current figures project just single-digit growth in 2022 — revised lower over the past three months from 11.4% to 8.9%.8 In fact, 2022 figures have now been downgraded below the pre-pandemic 10-year average of 9.2%. As a result, the growth tailwinds enjoyed in 2021 may not be the driving force in future returns.

With concerns emerging over the quantity of growth, it is not surprising to see investors begin to place a preference on the “quality” of earnings growth. Over the past three months, stocks with more quality balance sheets and less volatile earnings patterns have outperformed the broader market by 2.8%. ranking in the top 88th percentile, historically, as shown below. In fact, momentum has been building for the quality factor over this period, and now leads all factors year-to-date in terms of returns. Valuations for quality stocks are elevated as well. But given these performance trends, it is apparent investors are comfortable paying a high multiple to access potentially more sustainable growth and less fundamental future volatility.

Quality Excess Returns to S&P 500 Index (Rolling Three-Months)

Targeting quality segments of the market can take different forms. You can target the factor outright or consider multi-factor exposures that have a quality bias. Strategies focused on dividend paying stocks with a track record of returning capital to shareholders are another option that can add an element of value, as dividend strategies tend to have a strong value bias and lower relative valuation metrics.9 Additionally, dividend funds may reduce broad market concentration issues, as they tend to have a low allocation to tech-related stocks (e.g., 3% for the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats Index versus 28% for the S&P 500 Index).10

Thinking Small May Help Too
While focusing on dividend strategies or the quality factor may help you tamp down exposure to expensive tech stocks and increase the sustainability of balance sheets, focusing on small caps can assist on three fronts: valuations, market concentration, and potential reactions to policy responses in the next leg of the rally.

Although small caps have outperformed large caps in 2021, small caps’ relative valuations have improved this year as a result of stable price-to-book ratios and declines in price-to-earnings ratios (both trailing and next-twelve-month). Based on a five-factor composite metric, as shown below, relative valuations for small caps sit in just the 7th percentile.

Average Percentile of Five Relative Valuation Metrics of Small Caps to Large Caps

Small caps may also allow you to diversify away from large cap/tech biases that have crept into portfolios this year. Currently, the largest 50 stocks in the S&P 500 make up more than 58% of the overall index, leading to concentration that we have not seen since the early 2000s.11 Including an exposure to small caps, with less skew between the largest and smallest holding (0.66% for the S&P 600 compared to 6% for the S&P 500), 12 may reduce the reliance on a few key stocks. Not to mention, small caps only have 15% in Technology and Communication Services sectors, versus 40% in large caps. 13

Small caps may also help you navigate any related market shifts stemming from the Federal Reserve (Fed) potentially tapering its asset purchases. At the Jackson Hole Symposium, Fed Chair Powell stated that the Fed will likely begin slowing down asset purchases this year. Yet, it is unlikely the taper announcement would come at the September meeting, given the softness in recent labor data and lingering concerns of how the Delta variant is impacting the recovery — a forecast supported by the options market implying a mundane move in equities around that date. Therefore, look for a taper announcement sometime in November when more economic data is known.

Past taper performance trends could help provide some clarity as to how asset classes may perform this time around — even if it is one single data point and subject to a small sample size bias.

For perspective, in May 2013, then Fed Chairman Bernanke first raised the possibility of a taper during his Congressional testimony, resulting in a "tantrum" in the rates market. Equities initially sold off as well. But by July, those losses were reversed. When the Fed did actually start to taper purchases at its December meeting, equities barely reacted and continued to rally throughout the year. Back then, as shown below, small caps led other major asset classes from tantrum to the actual taper.

Performance of Major Asset Classes Leading Up to First Taper (May 2013 to Dec 2013)

This time around, Fed Chair Powell telegraphed the taper extremely well and the market has taken the news in stride. I’d expect the same reaction when the taper announcement comes and the taper itself commences. And the strong performance by small-cap equities we witnessed back in 2013 could also repeat itself for three reasons:

  1. A taper announcement signals confidence in the economy and more cyclical exposures have historically benefitted from an expansionary market environment.
  2. Small caps have historically had a higher beta and correlation to interest rates than large caps.14
  3. 2022 earnings growth estimates for small caps have not been downgraded as much as large caps over the past three months, and are still in the double digits (13.8%)15 where the differential to large caps is actually larger now than at the start of the year (4.82% versus 3.73%).

Navigating Equities in the Fourth
While the fourth quarter has historically brought increased levels of volatility — evidenced by all three months’ average CBOE VIX Index readings being at or above 20 since 1994,16 unlike any other quarter — there is an upward bias to the current market’s trajectory given supportive policies, slowing but still positive growth expectations and plenty of cash still on the sidelines.17

Overall, focusing on the exposures mentioned here (quality and size) may allow you to navigate some of these challenges facing both the stock markets right now.

For implementation ideas, consider:

  • Quality bias: SPDR® S&P Dividend ETF (SDY)
  • Size bias/Small Caps: SPDR Portfolio S&P 600TM Small Cap ETF (SPSM)

And don’t forget to check out the second part of this blog series where I dig into fixed income positioning and question two, Where can I source “real” levels of income within bond portfolios that can withstand rising rates?