If there was just one movie to describe the stock market’s 2016 behavior it would be Fast and Furious.
Stock market volatility, measured by the VIX, has shot up 25% during the first several weeks of trading. This uneasiness is reflected in the performance of the broader stock market in 2016.
It’s the worst yearly start for the stock market in eight years. Thus far, ETFs linked to the Dow Industrials (DIA), Nasdaq Composite and S&P 500 (SPY) have fallen 7.8% to 12.2%, with the technology heavy-Nasdaq declining the most. Large-cap companies like Apple (AAPL), Amazon.com (AMZN) and LinkedIn (LNKD) that led in previous years are now all posting negative year-to-date returns
Beyond the broader market, sector performance within the S&P 500 has turned defensive.
Consumer Staples (XLP) and Utilities (XLU) have held up better than the broader market and utilities are the only S&P industry sector with a year-to-date gain. XLU is up almost 8% while XLP has a modest loss of 2.2% (Other S&P industry sectors are off anywhere from 6% to 12%.)
A January 2016 report titled “Peak Profits” from Research Affiliates observes that earnings per share for the S&P 500 Index peaked in the third quarter of 2014 and have slid 14% since then. According to the report, this decline represents “only one of four drops of similar magnitude during the past 25 years and each event resulted in double-digit price declines for the U.S. stock market.”
The Financial Sector SPDR (XLF), which includes Berkshire Hathaway and big banks like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, is the worst performing sector, down more than 12% year-to-date despite having had their strongest quarter (Q3 2015) in M&A volume and benefiting from rising advisory fee revenues.
This time around, bank credit exposure to the beaten up energy sector is a growing concern along with increasing expectations that the Fed won’t be raising rates multiple times this year, if at all. In that case, the yield curve could flatten further, leaving banks with little ability to charge much more for loans than they pay out to depositors.
Also getting clobbered this year are health care stocks, a traditional defensive sector that investors favor when the market overall is weak and volatile. That is not the case this year. The Health Care Select Sector SPDR (XLV), which includes large pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Merck and biotech companies like Amgen and Gilead Sciences, has lost almost 11% so far.
Another surprising performance this year is energy sector. Despite collapsing oil and natural gas prices, the energy sector SPDR (XLE) is down just 7.3% this year, performing better than the S&P 500, which has lost 8.2%. Apparently there’s hope that OPEC countries will cut production and, along with stabilization in commodity prices, will lead to a rebound in energy shares.
In meantime, S&P 500 companies are on pace to report a 3.9% decline in fourth quarter earnings, according to FactSet. An earnings decline in the fourth quarter would cap three consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines, which hasn’t happened since the first three quarters of 2009.
Research Affiliates noted, “The current commodity-induced profits recession may be short lived, but the real secular trend growth rate in EPS should be much slower than the past quarter-century.”