From 1980 to 2013, vast markets opened around the world while corporate-tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology all fell. The net profits posted by the world’s largest companies more than tripled in real terms from $2 trillion in 1980 to $7.2 trillion by 2013,1 pushing corporate profits as a share of global GDP from 7.6 percent to almost 10 percent. Today, companies from advanced economies still earn more than two-thirds of global profits, and Western firms are the world’s most profitable. Multinationals have benefited from rising consumption and industrial investment, the availability of low-cost labor, and more globalized supply chains. ... But there are indications of a very significant change in the nature of global competition and the economic environment. While global revenue could increase by some 40 percent, reaching $185 trillion by 2025, profit growth is coming under pressure. This could cause the real-growth rate for the corporate-profit pool to fall from around 5 percent to 1 percent, practically the same share as in 1980, before the boom began. ... Profits are shifting from heavy industry to idea-intensive sectors that revolve around R&D, brands, software, and algorithms. Sectors such as finance, information technology, media, and pharmaceuticals—which have the highest margins—are developing a winner-take-all dynamic, with a wide gap between the most profitable companies and everyone else. Meanwhile, margins are being squeezed in capital-intensive industries, where operational efficiency has become critical. ... As profit growth slows, there will be more companies fighting for a smaller slice of the pie, and incumbent industry leaders cannot focus simply on defending their market niche.
Is it any wonder investors are questioning why they allocate to emerging markets in the first place? Even going beyond the woes of emerging, we are starting to hear some investors asking whether holding non-U.S. stocks is at all necessary. As market historians we can say that the timing of such sentiments tends to be bad – no one seems to ever decide to give up on an asset class after it has just had good performance, and the last burst of “why bother with non-U.S. stocks” occurred just before the top for the S&P 500 in 2000. But just complaining that investors got it wrong last time they voiced these sentiments does not qualify as thoughtful analysis. ... while emerging markets “deserved” some of their bad luck over the last several years and the outperformance of the U.S. has made some sense, we do not believe that emerging is a value trap, nor do we believe that the U.S. has proved itself particularly extraordinary. ... In total, we can surmise that emerging currencies are a “risk asset” of sorts and that they have delivered a return above U.S. cash over time and should probably continue to do so given the capital needs and vulnerabilities of emerging economies. ... even if the U.S. has somehow managed to unlock the secret to permanently high profits and the economy remains solid, it seems unlikely that the secret will remain an entirely U.S. phenomenon. If we imagine a world in which U.S. profitability is able to remain well above historical levels, we would expect non-U.S. companies to begin to copy their American counterparts, similar to the way profitability converged from the 1970s to the early 2000s. ... we have seen an impressive expansion of American profitability that has not been mirrored in the rest of the world, and U.S. stocks have duly outperformed. This has, not surprisingly, led investors to try to convince themselves of the inherent superiority of U.S. stocks to justify continuing to hold them. We cannot completely reject the possibility that those arguments are correct, but the evidence seems pretty thin.
Earnings per share for the S&P 500 Index peaked in the third quarter of 2014. The dramatic plunge in the prices of oil and industrial commodities as a result of slowing demand from China together with increased supply from the United States, decimated energy and materials companies’ profits. In the years ahead, oil production will decline to remove excess capacity, prices will again rise above costs, energy company margins will recover, and market-level earnings will return to a normal rate of growth. ... The future secular real rate of growth in corporate profits is far more important than the current commodity cycle to investors’ long-term real wealth accumulation. During the past quarter-century, politically facilitated globalization allowed profits to grow much faster than per capita GDP, wages, and productivity, propelling capital’s share of income to an unsustainable extreme. ... The distribution of the economic pie is ultimately a political choice. With populist frustration increasingly pressuring policy change around the world, investors should expect labor, tax, and interest expense to rise faster than sales, thereby depressing profit margins and slowing real growth in earnings per share over the decades ahead.
Some aches and pains are constraining the global economy, with more severe strains occurring in the emerging world. We believe contagion to the US and Europe will be limited in 2016, and expect their consumer revivals to continue, courtesy of low inflation, low commodity prices, central bank intervention and reduced fiscal austerity. However, above-average equity valuations, peaking corporate earnings momentum and stagnant productivity growth will likely result in a year of modest single- digit returns on diversified portfolios. ... This year’s cover art transforms some well-known aches and pains: exhaustion, tinnitus, periodontitis, bronchitis, acid reflux, hangovers, restless leg syndrome, appendicitis, conjunctivitis, anemia, mononucleosis, E. coli infections, iron deficiency, narcolepsy, macular degeneration and altitude sickness. These aggravating but generally not life- threatening conditions are meant to convey a slow growth world, but not one on the precipice of collapse or recession. Competitive devaluations are unlikely to alleviate these aches and pains; successive rounds of currency depreciation in Europe and Asia mostly redistribute income across countries, rather than boost aggregate demand. ... Most of these conditions are homegrown: Latin American and Australian overexposure to commodity prices, weak consumer activity in Japan, economic dissonance across countries in the Eurozone, a surge in dollar-borrowing emerging economies and slowing corporate profits growth in the US. However, some conditions are the result of contagion: “ECBotulism” refers to the impact of ECB policy on countries like Sweden that are forced to engage in destabilizing quantitative easing, or lose export market share (see page 15 for more details). As for Canada, there was no need to transform the name of an illness for our cover: “Dutch Disease” refers to an economic condition in which one sector of the economy (in this case, oil and gas) drives the currency to such a high level that it causes medium-term damage to the rest of the country’s export sectors.
Along the way there were early signs that things had changed. First was the decline from the greatest bubble in US equity history, the 2000 tech bubble. Compared to the previous high of 21x earnings at the 1929 bubble high, this 2000 market shot up to 35x and when it finally broke, it fell only for a second to touch the old normal price trend. And then it quite quickly doubled. Compare that experience to the classic bubbles breaking in the US in 1929 and 1972 (Exhibit 2) or Japan in 1989. All three crashed through the existing trend and stayed below for an investment generation, waiting for a new crop of more hopeful investors. The market stayed below trend from 1930 to 1956 and again from 1973 to 1987. And in Japan, the market stayed below trend for… you tell me. It is 28 years and counting! Indeed, a trend is by definition a level below which half the time is spent. Almost all the time spent below trend in the US was following the breaking of the two previous bubbles of 1929 and 1972. After the bursting of the tech bubble, the failure of the market in 2002 to go below trend even for a minute should have whispered that something was different. Although I noted the point at the time, I missed the full significance. Even in 2009, with the whole commercial world wobbling, the market went below trend for only six months. So, we have actually spent all of six months cumulatively below trend in the last 25 years! The behavior of the S&P 500 in 2002 might have been whispering in my ear, but surely this is now a shout? The market has been acting as if it is oscillating normally enough but around a much higher average P/E. ... We value investors have bored momentum investors for decades by trotting out the axiom that the four most dangerous words are, “This time is different.”2 For 2017 I would like, however, to add to this warning: Conversely, it can be very dangerous indeed to assume that things are never different. ... I believe it was precisely these other factors – increased monopoly, political, and brand power – that had created this new stickiness in profits that allowed these new higher margin levels to be sustained for so long.