Many of the themes and trends we were seeing at the end of the third quarter still hold true today--namely, the market's laser-like focus on Europe; continued undervaluation in economically sensitive sectors such as industrials, basic materials, energy, and financial services; and reasonably strong numbers coming out of U.S. corporations.
We sense the beginnings of a shift under the surface, and we now have a decidedly optimistic outlook for the market in 2012. While the global economy will certainly continue to struggle for growth, well-positioned companies with little to no debt on their balance sheets should benefit from growing pockets of strength.
Last quarter, my colleague Erik Kobayashi-Solomon opined that we have a long way to go before we see the end of deleveraging, and I couldn't agree more. This is certainly a meaningful headwind when it comes to economic growth, and as our director of economic analysis Bob Johnson points out, this recovery will be a bumpy one with many fits and starts.
In fact, there's no shortage of bad news out there: Demand from China could falter. Austerity measures could sap any remaining consumer demand in Europe. The European Union could fail. These are all huge concerns, and stack up to a lot of good reasons to be bearish. So why do we expect 2012 to witness a meaningful rally in the market?
First, we think pent-up demand for hard goods is starting to take off in the U.S., as evidenced by strong growth in sales of cars and TVs in recent weeks, albeit at the expense of demand for services (See Bob Johnson's weekly commentaries for more details.) We have been commenting for more than a year that consumers cannot put off purchases such as cars and other hard goods indefinitely, and I think we all can agree that consumers cannot easily put off services like haircuts for long (at least we hope not!). While we're not calling for a huge return to growth in services, we think demand for hard goods will continue to benefit the U.S. economy.
Second, as my colleague Erik Kobayashi-Solomon commented last quarter, low leverage and strong profits leave U.S. corporations in an enviable position. In fact, U.S. company balance sheets are flush with a record $2 trillion-plus in cash, and profit margins are at or near all-time highs. Couple that with the undemanding multiples for investing in these firms lately, with the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500 hovering around 13 times 2011 earnings, and we see some great opportunities out there. So even if the economy is not off to the races, we think the stock market can do well in 2012.
We're finding compelling investment ideas in several sectors, including some that are sensitive to a recovery in the U.S. economy and will therefore perform particularly well if the economy improves faster than we (or the market) expect, as well as wide moat businesses with strong balance sheets, good dividend yields, and undemanding valuations.
Among economically sensitive sectors, basic materials stocks are trading at a mere 75% of fair value, on average, with energy stocks not far behind at 81% of fair value. We think the market is particularly concerned about weakening demand from China affecting these stocks, but we see some opportunities even after taking that into consideration. For example, steel manufacturer Nucor NUE sports a narrow economic moat, an investment-grade credit rating from Morningstar, a dividend yield north of 3.5%, and a stock that is trading at less than 70% of our fair value estimate. For more ideas within each of these sectors, please see our upcoming quarterly outlook for each sector in this week's special report.
I'll leave you with one final note of optimism: While brainstorming ideas of guest speakers we'd like to see, a colleague mentioned that when he asked around, everyone he talked to wanted to see one of the top bearish market mavens give a presentation. I just about cheered out loud--if his comments are any indication, investors are feeling incredibly bearish, which gives me hope that at least some of the sectors we mentioned above may do well in 2012.
Please take a look at the upcoming sector-specific commentary in this week's special report for more specific ideas on where to find undervalued investments for the coming year.
Sector Outlook Articles