As of Friday, the S&P 500 is on the second-longest bull market run in history, surpassing the 1949-1956 bull market that lasted 2,607 days. The longest bull market in history ran between 1987 and 2000, lasting nearly 4,500 days.[i]
After months of volatility and challenges on the horizon, can the bulls keep running?
Stocks ended last week mixed on earnings that were largely better than expected, though the tech sector disappointed. For the week, the S&P 500 gained 0.52%, the Dow grew 0.59%, and the NASDAQ lost 0.65%.[i]
First-quarter earnings reports drove a lot of market activity last week. Though analysts expect overall S&P 500 earnings to be negative for the fifth quarter in a row, the news so far is more about earnings surprises and fewer negative revisions to estimates. Given how low the bar was set by many corporate teams, it’s not so unexpected to see positive surprises. With reports in from 132 S&P 500 members, overall earnings are down 7.9% on 1.1% lower revenues, though nearly three-quarters beat their earnings estimates.[ii]
However, the tech sector is another story.
Stocks rallied last week on better-than-expected earnings and some reassuring news about China’s economy, giving the Dow its best weekly performance since mid-March.[i] For the week, the S&P 500 gained 1.62%, the Dow added 1.82%, and the NASDAQ grew 1.80%.[ii]
Earnings reports are trickling in and the news so far is not as bad as expected. Since advance estimates had prepared investors for very weak earnings reports, the weak reports we’re seeing so far are being treated as victories. Out of 35 S&P 500 firms reporting in so far, total earnings are down 9.0% from Q1 2015 on 0.1% higher revenues with 71.4% beating their earnings estimates.[iii] As earnings season continues to unfold in the weeks ahead, we may see more of the same, which could give markets room to rally. On the other hand, investors could take the weak earnings picture as a sign that the economy is struggling to produce sustainable growth.
After months of gloom on China’s economy, a new report shows that China’s economy grew 6.7% in the first quarter. Though this is down from the fourth quarter’s 6.8% rate of growth, it’s not as bad as investors had feared. U.S. investors treated the news as a win, though China experts are skeptical about the reliability of these statistics. Since China’s ruling body has staked its political legitimacy on economic stability, officials have a lot of pressure to produce reassuring data. Overall, it’s not likely that China’s economic woes are over.[iv]
After a rosier-than-expected fourth quarter, economic forecasts suggest that the economy barely grew in the first three months of 2016. A report showing that wholesale inventories declined in February caused estimates of Q1 real economic growth to plummet from 0.7% to just 0.1%. In mid-March, the estimate was as high as 2.3%, but forecasts are dropping fast.[iii]
A couple of things to keep in mind: 1) these are very early estimates that are missing a lot of data; 2) early forecasts are very sensitive to updates to the data. Other economists think that the seasonal bias against first-quarter results could be pushing down estimates and that underlying economic growth could be closer to 2.0%. We’ll know more when the first estimate of Q1 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth comes out on April 25.[iv]