Sky-High U.S. Stock Prices Supported by Fed, Not Economy

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Stock prices in the United States are flirting again with all time highs and it's the Federal Reserve and its policies that are supporting the boom, not underlying value.

At the meeting of the Open Market Committee of the Fed last week, the Fed decided to leave short-term interest rates where they are and hinted that any possibility for a change might take place no sooner than September or even the end of the year. The reason given for this decision was the slow rate of growth of the economy and the state of the labor market.

Yet, stock market prices are dependent upon the growth of the economy and if the longer run projection for the economy , and the labor market, remains rather dismal, it is hard to believe that future earnings can justify such a high level even though the Fed continues to keep interest rates at such a low level.

The second quarter of 2015 is just about to end and when it does, U.S. economy will have gone through 24 quarters of economic recovery since the end of the Great Recession. For 23 quarters, the compound rate of growth of the economy has been at an annual rate of 2.2%. The numbers from the 24th quarter will not change this result.

Last week, the Federal Reserve released the projections indicating that officials expect the mean growth for the U.S. economy in 2015 to be only 1.9%, even worse that the compound rate already achieved in this recovery.

Still, these officials do not expect a recession to occur in the near future as they expect the mean growth rate of the economy to rise to about 2.6% in 2016 and 2.3% in 2017. The longer run mean projection is 2.2%, the same as achieved over the past 23 quarters.

The unemployment rate is expected to average around 5% during this time period, down slightly from the present level.

But, this does not say a whole lot about the labor market because civilian labor force participation rate will still remain around or just below 63%, which has seemed to be in a secular decline since 2000 when the participation rate was over 67%.

And, what about corporate profits? Wall Street Journal reporter Justin Lahart questions whether or not corporate earnings will drop off in the second quarter, and, even more important whether or not profit margins "might finally start to contract."

He notes that S&P 500, tracked by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), earnings per share have fallen 4.7% year-over-year, down from 5% at the start of this year.

This decline has helped to push up Robert Shiller's measure of stock prices, the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings (CAPE) ratio to right up around 27.0, reaching levels that have not been seen since the early 2000s.

If the corporate earnings per share are starting to drop, this is not a good sign. The hope always has been that corporate earnings would tend to catch up with rising stock prices as the economy grew more aggressively and this would result in CAPE falling back to more reasonable levels.

As of this date, data seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

And, since recent increase in the earnings per share number has come about due to stock buybacks, this decline is somewhat disconcerting. Furthermore, he writes, "six of ten S&P sectors are pointed toward slower earnings than sales" where analysts, he states, are expecting just 1.7% growth in sales, excluding energy.

Now what Lahart is looking for is a decline in corporate profit margins, something that would indicate even further downward pressure on stock prices. His figures indicate that "on a GAAP basis, five sectors will show lower profit margins in the second quarter."

The implication one can draw from this analysis is that the continued slow growth in the economy, accompanied by a continuation in the low labor force participation rate, is that corporate earnings and corporate profit margins are going to continue to suffer.

It seems as if the ability of the Federal Reserve to get the economy growing more rapidly has declined and Fed officials recognize this fact. It seems hard to believe that within such an environment that corporate earnings could improve from where they now are.

Is it possible that we have reached a time when the stock market mantra "follow the Fed" is no longer very useful?

 

  This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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