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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Bullish Case for U.S. Equities

by Bob Doll

When the Puritan John Winthrop invoked the image of America as a "City Upon a Hill"—seeing model communities for the world in the raw settlements of 17th century New England—the idea of American exceptionalism was born. The concept retains its motivating force and our recovery from this recession offers the latest evidence of it.

There is no question that we face formidable, long-term structural problems that make U.S. stocks less attractive for many investors. But I believe that the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that has defined America in past crises will prevail again and propel our markets forward. As such, overweight positions in U.S. equities are more than warranted.

Though housing is weak and debt and deficit levels are rising, compared to the rest of the world the U.S. is in reasonably good shape. Our economic fundamentals are sound: Manufacturing levels are up and interest rates and inflation are low. The broader economy's recovery is also finally translating into meaningful employment improvements—recent employment reports show increases in average hourly earnings and hours worked—and I believe this trend will continue.

The recovery that took root last summer with the help of government stimulus now seems to be evolving into a self-sustaining expansion. In the first quarter of 2010, nominal GDP reached an all-time high. Real GDP will reach a new high either late in the second quarter or early in the third.

Compared with historic trends, these developments are extraordinary. Following the Great Depression, the U.S. took 15 years to return to its previous GDP level. Japan's growth took nearly as long to recover following its "lost decade" of the 1990s. But in just a few quarters, our economy has taken monumental steps toward health.

Now consider Europe, grappling with significant sovereign debt and deflation, and an inflexible currency system straining its governments. In Japan, economic recovery is evident, but the pace is much slower. Deflation and a declining population remain real concerns, a strong yen has slowed exports, and the banking system is pressured.

At the beginning of this year, the consensus expectation for 2010 U.S. GDP growth was around 2.6%. Today it is 3.5%. Expectations for Europe have slid to 0.5%-1.5% from 1.2%-2%. Cyclical recovery appears much stronger in the U.S. than in other developed economies, creating an important tailwind for our stocks.

What about emerging markets? The largest of the emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have advanced their global GDP share to 15% from 7% since 1995. But their relative economic expansion has come at the expense of Europe and Japan‐not the U.S. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. accounted for 25% of global GDP. Today? Still 25%. Europe's share, however, has fallen to 21% from 25%, while Japan's has plummeted to 9% from 18%. What's more, emerging market prosperity is to our advantage: It hinges on increasing domestic demand that translates into a larger market for U.S. goods and services.

Our economic recovery, though relatively strong, is still tepid (U-shaped). But our rebound in corporate profits is robust (a definitive V). It's a testament to the flexibility that remains American capitalism's great strength.

When the markets faltered in 2008 and revenue growth stalled, U.S. companies moved decisively to cut costs—unlike their European and Japanese counterparts. Now that recovery has taken hold, businesses are replenishing inventories and rehiring, corporations are expanding exports, and American consumers are responding better than most expected.

Corporate profits could reach a new record high in this year's third quarter. Free cash flow for nonfinancial American companies is also exceptionally high—cash on the balance sheet is close to 11% of assets, a 60-year high. And high cash levels are already generating dividend increases, share buybacks, capital investments and M&A activity—all extremely shareholder friendly.

The importance of improving America's productivity growth can't be overstated. High productivity tends to lower unit labor costs and boost corporate profits.

According to Citigroup, U.S. unit labor costs are dropping at their fastest pace in 40 years. We last saw a similar surge in U.S. productivity in the late 1990s. Then, U.S. corporations were heavily investing in their own businesses, and foreign investors were increasing their U.S. allocations. This sparked a rise in the dollar. Improving productivity, a strengthening currency, and rising equity markets are linked. We saw that synchronization 15 years ago, and we are seeing it today.

Indeed, U.S. equities arguably have been outperforming. In the first four months of 2010, U.S. markets were up roughly 6.5%, compared with 2.6% for global equities. Many European markets were in negative territory; only Japan was outpacing the U.S. When the sovereign-debt crisis escalated in May, European, Japanese and emerging markets stocks all fell more sharply than U.S. markets. The bottom line is that the U.S. has generally performed better on the upside this year and held its ground better on the downside.

The relative strength of U.S. stocks is no accident. Since the credit crisis struck, we have taken quicker action and demonstrated greater innovation than our competitors.

Potential risks—trade complications, escalating credit contagion, overly aggressive financial regulation, and tax increases—clearly remain. But for the moment, our nation seems poised to remain a City Upon a Hill.

Mr. Doll is vice chairman and chief equity strategist for fundamental equities at BlackRock, and lead portfolio manager for the BlackRock Large Cap Series.

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