Always a Reckoning
From 1949 through 1964, the S&P 500 enjoyed an average annual total return of 16.4%. In the 8 years that followed, through 1972, the total return of the index averaged a substantially lower 7.6% annually; strikingly close to the 7.5% projection that Graham had suggested based on prevailing valuations, yet still providing what Graham had suggested would likely “carry a fair degree of protection” against inflation, which averaged 3.9% over that period.
Detached Parabolas and Open Trap Doors
Nothing so animates a speculative herd as a parabolic price advance in an asset detached from any standard of value. I am convinced that future generations will use the present moment to define the concept of a reckless speculative extreme, in the same way our generation uses “1929” and “2000.”
A Good Response to a Bad Situation
I should start by saying that I’ve got great admiration for Robert Shiller. Even three decades ago when I was completing my doctorate at Stanford, I avidly embraced his work, including his studies on excess volatility. He has originated an impressive range of useful tools, including the Case-Shiller housing price indices. As the tech bubble was peaking in 2000, I doubt that any 30-something in finance was more pleased to see Shiller become a widely-quoted figure in the financial markets. All of that is important to say, before I tear into this particular metric.
Hypervaluation and the Option Value of Cash
One of the most insidious ideas foisted on investors by Wall Street, in tacit cooperation with activist policy makers at the Federal Reserve, is the fiction that zero interest rates offer investors “no alternative” but to speculate in risky securities.
In calling the current market the third “Real McCoy” bubble of recent decades, Jeremy Grantham described, in his own words, what I call the Iron Law of Valuation: a security is nothing more than a claim on some set of future cash flows that investors expect to be delivered into their hands over time. The higher the price an investor pays today for some amount of cash in the future, the lower the long-term return the investor can expect on that investment.
Here in the U.S., I estimate that the actual number of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 to-date is currently just over four times the number of reported cases. Actual cases are undercounted partly because, based on very large-scale, unbiased testing, roughly 45% of people who acquire SARS-CoV-2 infection are asymptomatic.
Incubation Phase: Gradually and then Suddenly
Severe economic recessions often feature what might be called an “incubation phase,” where an exuberant rebound from initial stock market losses becomes detached from the quiet underlying deterioration of economic fundamentals and corporate balance sheets.
Amygdalotomy: Surviving the Intentional Demolition of Warning Signs
A compassionate society has both economic reason and ethical responsibility to provide a social safety net to its most vulnerable members. It is an act of both economic insanity and ethical corruption to provide a financial safety net to its most reckless speculators.
Containing the Crisis
Amid the current crisis, a forceful economic policy response is essential. The central principle here is that the closer we can get economic support to the point where current spending enters the “circular flow” – basic incomes, net rent and lease obligations, utilities, contractual payments, even net interest payments, the better we can support the entire economy.
Make Good Choices!
There are two key drivers of investment returns. One is valuations, which provide a great deal of information about long-term investment prospects, and about the income component of total returns. The other is the uniformity or divergence of prices across thousands of individual securities, which helps to distinguish whether shorter-term investor psychology is inclined toward speculation or risk-aversion.
Whatever They’re Doing, It’s Not “Investment”
Understand this. The more glorious this bubble becomes in hindsight, the more dismal future investment returns become in foresight. The higher the price investors pay for a set of future cash flows, the lower the return they will enjoy over time. Whatever they’re doing, it’s not “investment.”
One Tier and Rubble Down Below
One of the striking things about bull markets is that they often end in confident exuberance, while simultaneously deteriorating from the inside. We’ve certainly observed this sort of selectivity during the past year. The market advance in 2019 fully recovered the market losses of late-2018, fueled by a wholesale reversal of Fed policy, hopes for a “phase one” trade deal, and as noted below, a bit of confusion about what actually constitutes “quantitative easing.”
The Meaning of Valuation
The recent half-cycle has been admittedly difficult. My bearish response to historically-reliable “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” syndromes proved detrimental in the face of zero-interest rate policies that amplified speculation, and we’ve adapted our discipline to give priority to our measures of market internals – which we use to gauge that speculation.
Propositions for a Recessionary Bear Market
As the financial markets enter what I expect to be a rather disruptive completion to the recent speculative half-cycle, it will be helpful for investors to consider certain propositions that are readily available from history, rather than insisting on re-learning them the hard way.
Going Nowhere in an Interesting Way
Not surprisingly, the higher the valuation at the bull market peak, the longer the subsequent period of disappointing returns, in several instances extending more than a decade, though not without intermittent failure-prone bull market rallies to add excitement. This is what I often call ‘going nowhere in an interesting way.’
Warning: Federal Reserve Easing Ahead
Of all the distinctions that investors might make in the coming few years, one that I expect will serve investors particularly well is the distinction between how the market responds to monetary policy when investors are inclined toward speculation, versus how the market responds when investors are inclined toward risk-aversion.
Vulnerable Windows and Swinging Trap Doors
Why do economies collapse into recession in ways that seem so difficult to predict? Why do financial markets collapse into free-fall with timing that’s so loosely related to market valuations? Much of the reason is that complex systems usually aren’t linear.
Why a 60-65% Market Loss Would Be Run-Of-The-Mill
One might view the very comparison of present stock market conditions to 1929 market peak as exaggerated and preposterous, but then, one would be wrong. The fact is that on the valuation measures we find most strongly correlated with actual subsequent long-term and full-cycle market returns across history (and even in recent decades), current market valuations match or exceed those observed at the 1929 peak.
You Are Here
Probably the most useful exercise we can do at present is to examine where the markets and the U.S. economy are in their respective cycles - with 19 charts and detailed analysis. There’s little question that the market is long into what Rhea described as the final phase of a bull market; “the period when speculation is rampant – a period when stocks are advanced on hopes and expectations.”
Ground Rules of Existence
Over the years, I’ve often quoted Galbraith’s remark about the “extreme brevity of the financial memory.” During every speculative episode, investors come to believe that past experience is “the primitive refuge of those who do not have the insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present,”...
Turtles All the Way Down
Last week, the Federal Reserve issued policy statements intended to telegraph a shift toward easier, or at least more patient monetary policy. Though Wall Street interpreted this shift as a major about-face in the Fed’s policy stance, the most significant shift in Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s statements actually occurred on November 28.
Questions We Hear a Lot
In recent days, we’ve heard a number of analysts gushing that the S&P 500 is vastly cheaper than it was only a few months ago. It’s worth noting that they’re actually referring to an index that is now less than 10% below the steepest speculative extreme in history.
Bubbles and Hot Potatoes
Of all the delusions that have infected the minds of economists, central bankers, and the investing public in recent years, perhaps none is as short-sighted and pernicious as the idea that aggressively low interest rates are “good” for the economy and the financial markets.
The Heart of the Matter
Let’s be clear. October’s market decline was a rather mild warning shot. At its lowest close, the S&P 500 lost -9.9% from its September peak, before rebounding in recent sessions. As I noted during the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 collapses, intermittent “fast, furious, prone-to-failure” rebounds are among the factors that encourage investors to hold on through the entirety of major declines.
The Music Fades Out
The music is fading out, and a trap-door has opened up in the floor, but they're still dancing. In recent days, the combination of extreme valuations and unfavorable market internals has been joined by acute dispersion in daily trading data that often occurs within a few days of pre-collapse peaks in the market.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Current stock market capitalization is largely an artifact of speculative psychology, not reasonably discounted cash flows. Unless investors rely on eternal sunshine of the spotless mind – the assumption that current levels of extreme cyclical optimism will be permanent – they should not expect the associated valuation extremes to be permanent either.
Market returns and economic growth have underlying drivers. At their core, extended periods of extraordinary growth and disappointing collapse reflect large moves in those drivers from one extreme to another. Extrapolation becomes a very bad idea once those extremes are reached.
Mind the Trap Door
Even when extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” warning signs are present, we now require explicit deterioration in market internals before adopting a negative market outlook. That, however, is far different than saying that extreme conditions can be ignored altogether. With market internals negative here, underlying market risks may be expressed abruptly, and with unexpected severity.
Hallmark of an Economic Ponzi Scheme
The hallmark of an economic Ponzi scheme is that the operation of the economy relies on the constant creation of low-grade debt in order to finance consumption and income shortfalls among some members of the economy, using the massive surpluses earned by other members of the economy. The factors most responsible for today’s lopsided prosperity are exactly the seeds from which the next crisis will spring.
Comfort is Not Your Friend
The overall profile of market conditions continues to feature: 1) hypervaluation on the measures we find best-correlated with actual subsequent S&P 500 total returns, coupled with 2) continued deterioration in our measures of market internals, which are the most reliable tools we’ve found to gauge the psychological inclination of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion.
Risk-Aversion Meets a Hypervalued Market
Investment is about valuation. Speculation is about psychology. Both factors are unfavorable here. We’re observing the very early effects of risk-aversion in a hypervalued market. Based on the deterioration we’ve observed in our most reliable measures of market internals, investor preferences have subtly shifted toward risk-aversion, which opens up something of a trap-door.
The Arithmetic of Risk
In my view, the idea that higher risk means higher expected return is one of the most dangerous and misunderstood propositions in the financial markets. The reason it’s dangerous is that it ignores the central condition: “provided that one is choosing between portfolios that all maximize expected return per unit of risk.” Presently, the S&P 500 is both a high risk and a low expected return asset.
Measuring the Bubble
I expect the S&P 500 to lose approximately two-thirds of its value over the completion of this cycle. My impression is that future generations will look back on this moment and say "... and this is where they completely lost their minds." As I’ve regularly noted in recent months, our immediate outlook is essentially flat neutral for practical purposes, though we’re partial to a layer of tail-risk hedges.
When Speculation Has No Limits
Here we are, nearly three times the level at which I expect the S&P 500 to complete this cycle. Yet our immediate outlook remains neutral (though tail-risk hedges remain appropriate). It’s essential to distinguish between valuations, which have long-term implications, and market internals, which have implications for shorter segments of the market cycle.
Survival Tactics for a Hypervalued Market
The essential survival tactic for a hypervalued market, and its resolution ahead, is to recognize that market valuations can experience breathtaking departures from historical norms for extended segments of the market cycle, so long as shorter-term conditions contribute to speculative psychology rather than risk-averse psychology. Yet those departures matter enormously for long-term returns.
Three Delusions: Paper Wealth, a Booming Economy, and Bitcoin
Delusions are often viewed as reflecting some deficiency in reasoning ability. The risk of thinking about delusions in this way is that it encourages the belief that logical, intelligent people are incapable of delusion. An examination of the history of financial markets suggests a different view.