Published on October 31, 2018

With the U.S. economy now in its ninth year of expansion, investors have become wary of growth stocks and their higher multiples. The ongoing market volatility has increased these concerns, but research from Cornerstone Macro suggests that a slowdown in the economy may in fact be favorable for growth companies.

We have always believed that growth stocks belong in any long-term asset allocation. Our logic is simple – over time, companies with steadily increasing earnings should deliver higher returns than slow growing companies.

Nonetheless, many investors avoid growth stocks, fearing they are little more than well-disguised momentum stocks. Those concerns are elevated right now, as the recent market selloff has investors worried the long-running economic expansion is finally slowing down, potentially causing growth stocks to fall faster than more defensive value stocks.

A recent report from Cornerstone Macro argues that the opposite is true. The authors agree with the concerns about a potential slowdown, but they believe that a cooling economy is actually quite favorable for growth firms. Moreover, the authors claim that the traditional risk relationship between growth and value is changing.

As the Market Cools, Earnings Take Priority

According to the Cornerstone report, “History shows that the sweet-spot for growth, cyclically speaking, is the period that follows a peak in economic prospects.” The chart below shows the three phases that typically occur after a peak in economic activity.

Phases of Risk-Off Cycle

The x-axis shows the number of months before and after the economy hits its apex, as measured by the Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI). Citing a recent decline in the PMI following a multi-year peak, Cornerstone argues that the U.S. economy is at the beginning of a sustained period of slower growth. They believe PMI is a leading economic indicator signaling that the long-running expansion is likely to lose steam as the Fed pushes up rates and inflationary pressures mount.

They argue that a slowdown favors growth firms because it is a more challenging environment in which to operate, significantly reducing the number of companies that are able to deliver steadily increasing earnings. And historically, those that are able to do it are almost always growth firms, as they are less sensitive to the state of the macro economy. These companies should stand out from the crowd, which will increase demand for their shares and push up their stock price.

Cornerstone believes the process is already underway. Using the S&P 500 as a proxy for the broader market, they show that breadth (as measured by the number of stocks above their 150 day moving average) has declined since 2016 while the price of the index has steadily risen.

SP500-150 Day MA

Their conclusion is that the gains are driven by a progressively smaller set of growth companies whose share prices are rallying disproportionately.

Structural Shifts Should Continue to Favor Growth

The authors also point out that growth has beaten value over the past decade*, and they argue that the key post-crisis structural shift that has driven this dynamic is likely to continue.

Specifically, consumer debt as a portion of GDP has fallen roughly 20% in the past decade, and the authors believe this is the major reason quarter-over-quarter GDP growth has been materially slower during the current recovery than during other expansionary periods. The present growth rate is roughly half the rate from 1980-1999, and roughly 75% of the growth rate from 2000-2008.

ConsumerDebt-to-GDP

Historical-GDP-Growth

Reduced GDP growth has translated to slower top line expansion for the broader market, pushing investors toward growth companies. They expect this trend to intensify as the economy slows in the near-to-medium term.

Risk Profiles Are Changing

Perhaps the most intriguing component of Cornerstone’s research is their claim that the traditional risk relationship between growth and value has changed.

Using beta as a proxy for risk, the authors show that the relationship between P/E and beta has essentially reversed itself over the past 15 years. Specifically, high P/E stocks now have a low beta and vice-versa.

Beta Profiles Reversing

Conclusion

Cornerstone’s analysis offers an interesting perspective that combines conventional wisdom with a contrarian view. They agree with the prevailing sentiment that the current economic expansion is likely to slow down, but they have the uncommon belief that such a change would actually be good for growth stocks.

James L. Callinan

Vice President & Portfolio Manager

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Opinions expressed are those of the author, are subject to change at any time, are not guaranteed and should not be considered investment advice.

The charts and graphs included in this article were all provided by Cornerstone Macro.

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The ISM Manufacturing Index monitors employment, production, inventories, new orders and supplier deliveries. The Index is based on surveys of more than 300 manufacturing firms by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM).

Beta is a measure of the volatility, or systematic risk, of a security or a portfolio in comparison to the market as a whole.

Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio is the ratio of the stock price to the trailing 12 months diluted EPS.

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