Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar, and welcome to the Friday Five.
Now, there is always a lot of noise in the market, but this week, we've got some actions and words that really spoke volumes.
Here with me to offer the details is Morningstar markets editor, Jeremy Glaser.
Jeremy, thanks for joining me.
Jeremy Glaser: You're welcome, Jason. I'm always happy to try to cut through the noise a little bit.
Stipp: So, what do you have for the Friday Five this week?
Glaser: Well, this week, we heard from Ben Bernanke, from Warren Buffett, from small-cap stocks, Exelon, and finally we heard from a couple of companies that might see some price hike soon.
Stipp: So, Wednesday there was a press conference from the Fed. It's something that we haven't really seen before. What did you learn from listening to Bernanke's words?
Glaser: It certainly was unusual to hear from Chairman Bernanke in a venue other than when he is being questioned by Congress or when he is giving a speech and not taking questions. Members of the press were allowed to actually ask him anything that they wanted about the Fed's policies. We didn't really learn that much new about the current policy. We found that Quantitative Easing is going to continue much the way that we thought it was going to, that rates are not going up anytime soon, that employment is still a big issue, that inflation isn't a big issue in the eyes of the Fed right now.
But certainly, I think it was interesting that they've started doing these press conferences. I think it shows that the Federal Reserve is very concerned about how they are going to communicate the tightening when we finally get there. I think they want to set the precedent that this how these press conferences are going to work. These are the kind of questions, and how we're going to answer them, and the format, so that when a few quarters down the road, or maybe many quarters down the road, when rates are going to go up or when there is going to be other tightening, people won't be freaked out by the special announcements from the Fed. We are so used to having the same thing quarter after quarter, month after month, meeting after meeting--I think that this was a way to set the ground. I think that speaks volumes more than what was actually said at that particular conference.
Stipp: So, for number two, Jeremy, we are going to hear a lot from Warren Buffett this weekend at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, but even ahead of that meeting, we heard from Berkshire this week. What did that say to you?Read Full Transcript
Glaser: Unexpectedly, we heard from the Berkshire Hathaway board, which is not an entity you hear from very often. They released the internal ethics investigation of David Sokol. Now, he was an executive at Berkshire Hathaway, and he was accused of essentially buying shares of a company that he was then pitching for Berkshire Hathaway to buy. When Berkshire Hathaway bought it, he had a nice financial gain from that.
He resigned. And at the time, Warren Buffett put out a letter saying that he didn't think there are any ethical violations, and that [Sokol] was leaving, but that it wasn't really related to this. And this report really adds a new wrinkle to the story. That it looks like he did violate the company's ethics rules, that he was not completely forthright with Warren Buffett about the way that he was buying the shares, and the way that he came to know of Lubrizol and why he thought it would be a good investment opportunity.
Certainly, this raised a lot of questions about stewardship at Berkshire Hathaway. I mean, that's something that's just been there rock bed, that they don't do anything that's going to put shareholder capital at risk, or that would even have the whiff of risk. And that's what happened here. And this is someone who many people thought could be a potential successor to Warren Buffett, and it raises a lot of concerns. I think we are going to hear a lot of questions about it this weekend in Omaha, and hopefully Warren Buffett will have a good answer.
Stipp: In the markets, Jeremy, small-cap stocks, while they can't talk, their performance actually had quite a bit to say. What was that message?
Glaser: The performance really does speak for itself. The Russell 2000 Index, which tracks small-cap stocks, hit an all-time high this week. And this was somewhat surprising. If you think about everything that's happened from the very peak of the housing bubble, through the tech bubble, through the huge crash that we had, that these stocks are at an all-time high right now, I think, really shows that the equity markets are quite bullish right now. Valuation levels across many different stocks, but particularly in small caps, certainly are expecting a very bright future, or at least a brighter future than we've had for a long time. So, investors who think that maybe the economy is not going to be that bright going forward, might see that there is a little bit of frothiness there. People who think the economy is doing great, maybe this is just another sign there.
But certainly I think we should notice when we start hitting all-time highs in major indexes like the Russell 2000.
Stipp: In the M&A environment, Jeremy, we heard some words out of utilities. What did those say to you?
Glaser: Well, Exelon has been trying to say to us for a while that they're looking for a merger partner. They've tried a few times, and failed either due to regulatory concerns or concerns of the shareholders of other companies. But they're going to give it another short with an $8 billion deal with Constellation Energy; it will give them access to more regulated utilities. It seems to make a lot of sense from a strategic standpoint.
It's an all-stock deal, and we believe that Exelon shares were quite undervalued before this deal, so they're giving away a currency that is potentially quite undervalued right now, which means the deal looks very expensive for Exelon, but hopefully, they'll be able to get synergies out of it, and it makes sense. But certainly Exelon is trying to show us that M&A is still alive and well, and that they're going to try to get one of these deals done someday.
Stipp: Lastly, Jeremy, I don't want to call it a siren song, but we have been listening to some concerns about inflation and rising prices from companies. What have they been telling us?
Glaser: We've heard a lot about how people are seeing higher prices at the grocery store, at the gas station, amongst other places. But we saw this week that two companies, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, which have a very large presence within drugstores and within grocery stores, that they really haven't been raising prices too aggressively yet.
Procter & Gamble did not pass through all the pricing that they thought they could. They took some extra volume instead. PepsiCo also kept prices relatively stable, but both indicated that they're planning on raising prices in the relative near future--that they can't just keep taking on these higher commodity costs, and that consumers are going to see that, and they're going to raise price as far as the market will bear.
So, I think that if you thought you've seen some inflation in the stores are far, it turns out that a lot of those prices really haven't been passed on yet, and I think that could be further pain, at least when it comes to some of those volatile categories, in the months ahead.
Stipp: Well, Jeremy, thanks for adding to the important words this week with your report, and for joining me today.
Glaser: You're quite welcome, Jason.
Stipp: For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.