Ignore the Fed!June 20, 2013: 12:35 PM ET
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
I ain't afraid of no Ben Bernanke. Investors shouldn't be either.
Yes, the Federal Reserve is important. Stocks are tumbling for a second straight day on fears that Bernanke is about to finally turn off the lights on what's been a great bull market for the past four years.
But the Fed's quantitative easing policy is not the only thing that matters. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned stock-picking?
In this age of QE, "investing" seems to simply boil down to finding the right index exchange-traded fund and letting the whims of correlation do the rest.
But several strategists and fund managers said that the market is now paying entirely too much attention to Ben Bernanke's latest musings on tapering and not enough to how the economy and companies are actually doing. Earnings and revenue. Remember them?
"The Fed is noise. Investors have to try and filter that out and focus on fundamentals," said Jason McPharlin, manager with the Rushmore Equity Income portfolio in Plano, Texas. "I'm not overly worried. Stocks are still a better opportunity than bonds."
Sure, the market is hooked on (phonics?) the Fed's liquidity machine. But if you listened closely to what Bernanke said in his press conference Wednesday, he clearly indicated that the Fed is only going to taper if the economy improves.
If GDP growth starts moving closer to 3% and the unemployment rate finally dips below 7%, isn't that a good thing? Wouldn't that be a sign that consumers will spend more, which should then boost corporate sales and profits?
What's more, Bernanke stressed that any slowdown of its $85 billion-a-month asset purchase program will be gradual and that short-term rate increases are still not likely until 2015. So it seems that worries about the Fed killing the recovery and plunging the economy into another recession are misguided.
But in this increasingly myopic, what's the market going to do in the next femtosecond, world we live in, a triple-digit point drop in the Dow is treated as a sign that stocks and the economy are doomed.
"I see this as a buying opportunity. I expect a global economic rebound with the dollar getting stronger and the U.S. leading the way," said Joe Quinlan, chief market strategist with U.S. Trust in New York. "People are confusing tapering with tightening."
That's a great point. Everyone wanted the Fed to plug in a destination for the end of QE into the market's GPS. Bernanke essentially did that. It's mid-2014.
But there could be some detours and traffic jams. That's why he wants the market to follow the data. Stocks shouldn't be treated like some futuristic Google driver-less car.
It should be painfully obvious that the Fed will only pull back on its bond purchases if the job market continues to recover.
"Forgetting about fundamentals and just worrying about the Fed is not a good thing," said Ron Sloan, senior portfolio manager with the Invesco Charter Fund in San Francisco. "I would much rather own stocks because their businesses are improving and GDP has a plus sign -- even if it's not the level we want."
With that in mind, Sloan said investors need to be focused on companies that are investing in themselves in order to boost revenue -- regardless of how weak the economic recovery is. He likes drug makers, particularly European leaders Roche (RHHBY), Sanofi (SNY) and Novartis (NVS), because he said they are focusing heavily on research and development.
While most people pay attention to Berkshire because they want to know what stocks Warren Buffett is buying and selling, Sloan said that Berkshire has now positioned itself to be a company that relies less on investments and more on actual businesses that benefit from the economy's growth.
Sloan thinks Berkshire's Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad unit should do well for years due to increased demand for hauling shale oil and gas produced in the U.S.
What else might hold up even if the Fed starts to taper? McPharlin thinks investors should focus on stocks that are likely to increase their dividends at a healthy clip. He was quick to caution that this doesn't mean investors should rush into stocks with high yields, such as utilities or telecoms AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ).
"We're leaning more towards dividend growth than yield," said McPharlin. "You're going to want cyclical companies."
Quinlan agreed that financials, industrials and tech may be a better bet than more defensive sectors like utilities, telecom and consumer staples.
He added that it's important for investors to remember that the Fed is still the market's friend. Bernanke (and any likely successor) won't put a halt to QE until the economy is ready to stand on its own two feet. That means that the market could continue to climb higher for awhile.
"The stock market's run may be a little ahead of itself but it is still justified," Quinlan said. "It's been five years since the crash and while it's true that the economic recovery may be one of the weakest on record, it may also turn out to be one of the longest."