Market Forecasts Part 2

Yesterday I posted some of the questions and answers from the Barron’s annual ‘Test Your Wall Street Skills’ quiz. Here’s a link to my article from yesterday and here is the link to the article in Barron’s (a subscription may be required).

Most of the ‘big’ questions have already been answered, but there are still some fun ones:

1. Which ‘FANG’ stocks will fare worst in 2016 – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix or Google?

On average, these stocks have gained approximately 84 percent so far this year – the best being Netflix, up 138 percent and the worst, if you can call it that, was Facebook, which gained 35 percent. Unfortunately, I can write about all four of them since not one is on our Approved List.

This is a tough one because the valuation on Amazon seems so absurd: the price-to-earnings ratio is 956! I thought it looked bad when it was around 100 or so, but betting against Jeff Bezos feels like a bad call.

Google is the only one with a PE ratio of less than 100, so I wouldn’t think they would be the worst, so if it’s between Facebook and Netflix, I would have to say Netflix. I mean, why aren’t all media companies streaming their content at this point? What happens if Apple or Google wants in – isn’t it bad enough that Amazon is offering streaming? That said, I still wouldn’t short Netflix.

2. Where will oil prices (WTI) finish 2016? Oil traded last week around $38 per barrel.

This is a multiple choice quiz with the lower bound being below $30 and the upper bound being $55. WTI dropped -38 percent in 2014 and, so far, is down another 27 percent this year. It seems to me that the Saudis want oil down here to end our energy renaissance, so this whole question depends on what they are going to do next – an impossible estimation.

I’ll bet that they keep pumping out oil, which means further drops, but I’ll also bet that it’s less severe than the last two years, maybe a 20 percent drop, which as of yesterday’s close, put’s the price around $30 per barrel, which in the quiz means that I am saying between $30 and $45.

It’s funny because when Barron’s printed the question that I simply copied above, oil was $38, but yesterday it was $42. That’s a 10 percent move, so a drop of 20 percent isn’t saying much in an extremely volatile market.

3. Where will the 30-year Treasury bond end 2016? It now yields about three percent.

Again, this is a multiple choice question, with the upper and lower bounds being under 2.5 percent and over four percent. Although the 30-year touched four percent at the end of 2013, that seems unlikely to me.

This is another impossible question, but here I can turn to the markets and see what they are telling me. Based on what is called a forward curve, I can see that markets think that one year from now the 30-year Treasury will yield 3.07 percent. That’s not much of a move from where we are now, which makes sense given the slow economy (except that like oil, the 30-year yield is volatile). Based on current market expectations, I’ll answer between 3.01 and 4.00 percent.

It’s interesting because these are simple, fundamental questions: where are stocks headed, what sectors will do well, are interest rates and oil headed higher or lower? At the same time, they are really impossible to answer. A year from now, the answers may all seem pretty obvious, but from this vantage point, there is too much uncertainty to answer any of them with any precision.

This wasn’t intentional, but I realized that as I answered these questions I used the word ‘bet’ quite a lot. And that’s because these are all bets, which the dictionary describes as ‘risking something, usually a sum of money, against someone else’s on the basis of the outcome of a future event’.

I like to think of us as investors instead of bettors – not wagering on future events, but taking ownership in businesses (whether through an individual position or an index or lending money in the form of a loan), we are making bets in the sense that we think that corporate earnings in the aggregate will grow or that cheap stocks (value) will outperform expensive ones over the long run, but somehow that seems different.

I’m having trouble articulating the difference, but like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describing obscene materials, ‘I know it when I see it.’