Retail Sales, Autos, Sell in May

May 18, 2014

This week I’ll look at sentiment among small business owners, retail and auto sales, and revisit the “Sell in May” idea.

Small Business

Cue the trumpets, clouds part, sun rays stream down upon the green fields.  After almost seven years, sentiment among small business owners broke through the 95 level according to the monthly survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB).  Despite the many positives in this latest survey, hiring plans remain muted.  This unfortunately confirms several other reports – the monthly employment report, JOLTS, disposable income, to mention a few – that indicate a befuddling lack of robust employment gains during this recovery.

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Retail Sales

The monthly reports on employment and retail sales probably have the most impact on short term investor sentiment.  Retail sales were flat in April but have rebounded well after the particularly harsh winter.  With a longer term perspective, year over year retail gains are not robust but are still in the healthy zone of 2-1/2%.

Per capita inflation adjusted retail and food service sales are strong.  Rising home prices in the early 2000s drove an upsurge in retail sales, followed by an offsetting plunge as home prices dropped and the financial crisis of 2008 hit consumers hard.  The landslide of employment losses undercut retail sales.

Motor Vehicles sales are particularly strong and are now back to the pre-recession trend line.

However, that recession dip represents millions of vehicles not sold and contributes mightily to the record average age of more than 11 years for vehicles in the U.S. (AutoNews)  As the article noted, better engineering has lengthened the serviceable life of many autos.  There are 247 million registered passenger vehicles and light trucks, more than one for each of the 240 million people in this country over the age of 18 (Census Bureau) According to the industry research firm Motor Intelligence (spreadsheet), April’s year to date passenger car sales have declined 1.8% while sales of light pickups have surged 8.3%.  The particularly harsh winter months probably reduced traffic at car dealerships around the country, but the year-over-year comparison in April was only a 3.6% gain.  The lack of a spring bounce indicates that household income gains are meager.  The rise in sales of light pickups is largely due to a 10% increase in construction spending in the past year.

On an annualized basis, auto sales are approaching 16 million, a level last seen in November 2007 and far above the 10 million vehicle sales in 2009.

The numbers look rather strong but annual sales per capita are at the recession levels of the early 1990s.   Clearly, something has changed.

Better engineering has increased serviceable vehicle life.  Demographic changes may be having an effect. The population is aging and older people who drive less may decide to hang on to their vehicles longer.  A population shift toward urban centers reduces demand for autos.  There is a greater availability of public transportation.  In some areas of the country, an electric scooter or bicycle meets many transportation needs.
Long term shifts in an industry prompt employers to look for opportunities to adjust some part of their strategy or cost structure to meet those changes.  Three weeks ago, Toyota announced that they will move their headquarters from Torrance, CA, in the South Bay area of metro L.A., to Plano, TX.  As the largest employer in Torrance, the city’s economy will surely take a hit. (Daily Breeze)  Toyota joins a list of large employers leaving or reducing their presence in California (article)

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Sell in May

The market has flatlined since early March.  Most of the companies in the S&P500 have reported earnings for the first quarter.  68% beat expectations but this has become a highly sophisticated game of managing expectations.  What is notable is that sales growth has slowed.  As I noted a few weeks earlier, labor productivity is poor.  Companies have done a remarkable job of cutting costs to boost profits but it is unclear how much more they can cut.  Last year’s 30% rise in the market has spurred the rise of mergers, or growing profits through economies of scale.

If the market were to decline 10 – 20% from here, some would point to the chart of the S&P500 and say they saw it all along.  “Classic case of a market top,” they would intone.  “Several failed attempts to break through resistance at the 1900 level indicated a major market correction.”  Oh, and they have a newsletter that you can subscribe to.

If the market goes up 10%, a different set of people will proclaim that they saw it all along.  “The market was forming a baseline of support,” they will sagely pronounce.  Each of these people also have a newsletter.

“Sell in May and go away” is an old quip of short term trading.  In 2011, I explored (here and here) the truths and myths behind this old saw. On a long term basis, one earns better returns by disciplined monthly, or quarterly, investing. Still, in a slight majority of the almost 20 years I reviewed, the Sell in May approach had some validity. Let’s look back at the last five years.  Typically an investor would sell the S&P500 and go into long Term Treasuries (TLT).  A more cautious investor might pick a less volatile intermediate bond fund.

In 2013, the SP500 went nowhere from May 1st to September 1st.  Great call by our intrepid investor who took some of her money out of the market and invested in Long Term Treasuries (TLT) in early May.  By early September, however, her investment would have depreciated 13%. Ooops!  Better to have stayed in stocks.

Likewise, in 2012, stocks went nowhere from early May to early September.  Unlike 2013, an investor buying long term Treasuries during that period had a 7% gain BUT if she had waited a week to sell in September, there was no gain.  The gains were a matter of luck.

2011 was the bing-bang year for the Sell in May crowd.  The stock market lost about 12% during the summer while long Treasuries gained 20%.

In 2010, stocks fell 7% during the summer while long Treasuries gained 10%.  During the summer of stocks gained almost 12% while Treasuries changed little.  In short, the strategy worked three summers out of the past five.

Now for a more fundamental approach – investing in companies that are more stable.  Horan Capital Advisors referred to a report from S&P Capital IQ that found that companies in the S&P500 with a low beta offset or reduced any summer market volatility.  Beta is a measure of a stock’s price volatility.  A value of 1 is the volatility of the entire index.  Betas less than 1 mean that a company’s stock price is less volatile than the index.  As volatility of the total market increases, investors tend to seek companies with a more reliable outlook and performance.  The screening criteria produced a mix of companies dominated by those in the consumer discretionary and health care sectors.  Worth a look for investors who buy individual stocks.

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