Key Points

  • Indicators across four channels—the macroeconomy, credit conditions, capital markets, and politics—are all flashing warning signs. These escalating vulnerabilities were moving the markets closer to an inflection point, even before the novel coronavirus entered the picture.
  • Warning signals for the US capital markets include the inverted yield curve; unanticipated repo market stress, growing percentage of BBB-rated debt, and steadily increasing numbers of zombie companies; historically high CAPE ratios; and the uncertainties the 2020 US presidential election holds.
  • An informed investor acknowledges the challenges and nuances behind assessing an asset’s worth in different parts of the business cycle. The next turn may be toward recession, possibly ending the positive equity market trajectory experienced over the last decade. Now may be an opportune time to rebalance away from long-outperforming US growth stocks into cheaper and higher-yielding US and international value stocks.

We’ve all heard the maxim “when the US sneezes, the world catches a cold.” In the last few weeks, the truth in this saying has made itself evident, although in this case, China did more than sneeze. In our interconnected world, when a highly contagious disease such as the novel coronavirus emerges, the damage, both human and economic, can quickly take on a global scale. Globalization provides economic leverage that can cause the gearing to rapidly spin out of control across supply chains, and downside risk suddenly becomes reality. Could this new virus be the catalyst to a Minsky moment?

Even before COVID-19 entered the picture, we were already concerned about the year ahead. Indicators across four channels—the macroeconomy, credit conditions, capital markets, and politics—are flashing warning signs. These escalating vulnerabilities, moving the markets closer to an inflection point, were worrisome enough, but the coronavirus epidemic may be the tipping point that triggers the what’s-this-worth question asked by many investors all at once. The creation and spread of an unsettling narrative (Shiller, 2019)1 could precipitate a self-fulfilling crisis (Merton, 1948).2

The last 10 years have produced a growth-dominated, monetary-policy-fueled US bull market—the longest in the nation’s history—that almost no one saw coming (Wang, 2019). Remember what it was like back then? A decade ago we had just realized that money market funds could “break the buck.” That’s the kind of thing you don’t want to try at home. It tests your faith in the system on a good day. Credit markets were frozen like a new Ice Age had descended on the capital markets. The S&P 500 Index flashed the “sign of the beast,” and investment banks went bust over various weekends. Those were the final symptoms of serious trouble, suggesting to some investors that the patient could be terminal and that we didn’t have a financial system we could lean on the next day.

Move the clock forward by a decade. By the beginning of 2020, the US economy had stretched into a record-setting growth cycle as capital-market asset prices steadily trended upward. Against this backdrop, few investors appeared worried about the intrinsic value of their investments. When “bad times” are far enough in the rearview mirror, complacency reigns and the price-setting mechanism that prevails in the capital markets tends to boil down to a simple question: Is the next investor in this asset willing to pay the recently struck price or even bid it up? Adopting this mentality is far easier and more comfortable than 1) assessing the worth of a series of uncertain future cash flows and its residual value today, and 2) maintaining the margin-of-safety discipline to put protection in place before the risks become self-evident.