Taking the stock market’s temperature

It’s a balmy 53 degrees here, which isn’t bad for January, but the Standard & Poor’s 500 is hotter than a fire ant’s furnace. As of Jan. 25, the blue-chip index has gained 6.16%, including dividends. How do you know when hot is too hot? You can get one hint from the aptly named Thermostat fund.

A rising stock market, in and of itself, is no reason to panic. Typically, a really good year is followed by at least an OK year. When the S&P 500 gained 26% in 2009, it followed up with a 15% gain in 2010. Similarly, the index gained 13.46% in 2014 after a 32.31% advance in 2013.

What matters is how stock prices measure up against corporate earnings. The basic measure is the price-to-earnings ratio, which simply divides a stock’s price by its previous 12 months’ earnings.

The lower the PE, the cheaper the stock is, relative to earnings. A $50 stock that earned $3 last year has a PE of 16.7. Changes in either price or earnings affects the PE ratio. If the stock’s price drops to $35, its PE is 11.7. If its earnings fall to $2 a share, its PE rises to 25.

It’s not infallible. PEs were high in early 2009 because earnings were so low. Some argue that it’s best to use earnings estimates, rather than past 12 months’ earnings, to measure PE. There’s some wisdom to this: The stock market looks forward, not back. On the other hand, earnings estimates are fiction, and historical PEs are a tad more fact-based. You can get both on Morningstar’s site.

All of which brings us to the Columbia Thermostat Fund (CTFAX), created by storied value investor Ralph Wanger. The Thermostat fund adds bonds to the portfolio as the market heats up, based on the market’s price vs. long-term earnings. When stocks become cheaper, it adds more to stocks and reduces its bond holdings. The fund also has rules to prevent big swings in its holdings.

What’s the fund’s current reading? It’s got just 7.31% of its portfolio in U.S. stocks, and 2.43% in international stocks. Even by the fund’s cautious nature, that’s pretty low. Here’s how the fund’s stock allocation has varied over the years:

Source: Columbia Threadneedle Investments

The fund’s return the past 10 years has been above its category —  conservative allocation, by Morningstar’s reckoning. Nevertheless, its absolute return hasn’t been particularly spectacular. The fund has gained an average 5.35% a year the past decade, in part because it has been so conservative during bull market years.

Nevertheless, the fund serves as a useful market barometer: It’s hard to argue that most stocks are cheap now. If you’re thinking of turning up the temperature in your portfolio, you might want to take another look at the thermometer.

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