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Don’t Be Seduced By The Siren Song Of The Stock Market

I recently wrote that, “the single greatest mistake investors make is to extrapolate recent history out into the future.” As an example of how dangerous this natural tendency is, I shared a bit of Warren Buffett’s warning from late 1999 in which he wrote that the amazing returns from the stock market during that period had led to investor expectations rising far too high. He forecast that the coming decade would not be nearly as rewarding as investors were hoping it would be. Clearly, the “lost decade” that followed vindicated this idea.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about investor expectations once again becoming “delusional.” And with the 200% gain in the stock market over the past six years we probably shouldn’t be surprised. When stocks return 20%+ per year for a few years investors become accustomed to it. It’s only natural to extrapolate recent history into the future even if it is also extraordinarily dangerous to your financial health.

Earlier this month, Nautilus Research shared on twitter the chart below which shows exactly how dangerous this natural tendency really can be:

This is only the fourth time in history the stock market has risen 200% over a six year period.  Exactly six years ago, when I wrote that the market presented investors with an ‘opportunity of a lifetime,’ I was rip snorting bullish but still never dreamed the following six years would be so rewarding.

And while it may be difficult to base anything on only 3 previous occurrences, returns after each of these amazing runs were lackluster at best. History has not been kind to investors acting on their natural tendency to extrapolate.

In fact, only the 1955 occurrence shows a positive subsequent return on a 2, 3 or 5-year time frame. The one thing that sets this occurrence apart, however, is that valuations back then, based on Warren Buffett’s favorite metric (total market capitalization-to-gross national product), were about half what they are today.

fredgraph

As I wrote previously, today’s stock market is priced just as high as it was in November 1999 when Buffett wrote his warning in Fortune. For this reason, the April 1999 occurrence in the Nautilus study is probably much more relevant to our current situation than the 1955 one. And there is good reason to believe that this market is even more insidious than the one that peaked 15 years ago this month.

The stock market today is calling to investors just as the sirens of Greek mythology called to sailors drawing them into their rocky shores only to be shipwrecked. Extrapolating the fantastic recent returns into the future despite all the evidence against it is succumbing to the stock market’s perfidious seduction. And history suggests that’s almost a sure way to shipwreck.

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Why The Smart Money Is Beginning To Worry About The Downside

A month or so ago, I was struck by Ray Dalio’s comments at Davos. He seemed fairly concerned and the major media outlets didn’t really pick it up.

“It’s the end of the supercycle. It’s the end of the great debt cycle.” -Ray Dalio

What does this mean? I think the simplest explanation is that over the past several decades we’ve gone from a nation of savers who paid cash for things including homes and cars to a nation of spenders who use debt like mortgages, car loans and credit cards to pay for things.

And it’s not just on the consumer level. It’s also happened at the corporate level.

“Corporate debt was $3.5 trillion– in 2007, arguably a period and– many would describe as bubbly. It’s 7 trillion now. So it’s gone from 3.5 trillion to 7 trillion. As you know, most of that mix has been in more highly leveraged stuff, Covenant-Lite loans– high yield, that’s where the majority of the rise has been. And if you look at corporations have been using it for, it’s all financial engineering.” -Stan Druckenmiller

Government debt has also grown to multiples of GDP around the world. But it can’t keep growing forever.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, credit has grown to such an extreme globally that debt levels and the ability to service that debt are at risk, relative to the private investment world. Why doesn’t the debt supercycle keep expanding? Because there are limits.” -Bill Gross

The debt boom over the past few decades has been a big economic stimulant. It reminds me of the steroids era in baseball. You take a great player, put him on the juice and he becomes a record-breaking home run machine.

But what happens when he comes off the juice? Have you seen a picture of Mark McGuire or Sammy Sosa lately? They are shadows of their former selves. Now that rates are zero and everyone has borrowed as much as they possibly can debt is no longer the super-stimulant it once was.

“The process of lowering interest rates causing higher levels of debt, debt service and spending, I think is coming to an end.” – Ray Dalio

The steroid era is over. So what are the implications for the economy and the markets?

“The implications are much lower growth, less inflation, lower interest rates, and less profit growth.” -Bill Gross

These are all symptoms that we’ve already witnessed since the financial crisis, right? Slower economic growth has been partially masked by rising asset prices and the wealth effect. Slower profit growth has been masked by the “financial engineering” Druck mentioned above. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are now facing a post-steroid era for the economy.

“We brought consumption forward and issued one giant credit card for the past 30 years. Now the bill is coming due. Investors need to get used to low returns, and low growth, inflation, and interest rates for a long time.” -Bill Gross

What’s probably most troublesome about the whole situation is that now that rates are zero or negative, debt levels have reached their maximum capacity and asset prices are already inflated (and spreads flattened), central banks no longer have the ability to ameliorate an economic slowdown by easing monetary policy.

“Central banks have largely lost their power to ease… We now have a situation in which we have largely no spreads and so as a result the transmission mechanism of monetary policy will be less effective. This is a big thing… So I worry on the downside ’cause the downside will come.” -Ray Dalio

With corporate debt levels twice what they were before the financial crisis, the covenants on much of that debt weaker than ever before and liquidity in the bond market disappearing, the next downturn could present a unique challenge for the Fed. And their traditional tool to address these sorts of challenges is now essentially impotent. No wonder Dalio is worried.

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Don’t Kid Yourself: Stocks Are Just As Overvalued Today As They Were In 2000

As the Nasdaq approaches its 2000 highs people are talking about the similarities and the differences between the market then and now. Most seem to be focusing on the differences, on how much more attractively-priced stocks are today than they were then. From Barron’s:

“What was propelling the Nasdaq in the year 2000 was a dream. What’s driving the Nasdaq today is reality,” says Gavin Baker, who runs the Nasdaq-focused Fidelity OTC Portfolio fund (FOCPX). “The current valuation is very well supported by earnings and cash flows and if those earnings and cash flows continue growing, the Nasdaq should continue going up.”

ON-BI695_NasThe_G_20150220201918

The article continues by predicting the index not only surpasses the 5,000 mark but surges as far as 7,000 in “coming years.” This is certainly possible but using the table above to make the case that the Nasdaq, or stocks generally, are cheaper today than they were then is just faulty.

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The internet bubble was characterized by incredible euphoria and unbelievable valuations in just one group of companies. What investors fail to recall is that at the same time there were incredible values to be had in other sectors. The “old economy,” “bricks and mortar” companies had been left for dead as investors believed the internet revolution would put them out of business.

We don’t have a sector today that is nearly as overvalued at the tech/internet sector was in 2000 but we also don’t have any sector that is significantly undervalued:

In fact, virtually every sector is historically overvalued. This is why active managers and value investors are pulling their hair out right now:

Rather than prove that stocks are cheaper today, that first chart above from Barron’s merely demonstrates why the stock market appeared to be more expensive back then even if it wasn’t. Because the indexes are market cap weighted, that relatively small number of incredibly overpriced companies in 2000 skewed the overall valuation of the market much higher than was true for the majority of stocks in the market and obscured the segments of the market that were actually cheap.

If we look at median valuations of the market then and now we see a completely different story. The median number, rather than the aggregate number, is a much better indicator of the valuation of the average stock in the market because it eliminates the bias of market cap weighting toward only the biggest companies. Whether you look at price-to-earnings or price-to-cash flow, the average stock in the market has never been more highly valued than it is today:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.12.15 PMScreen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.12.32 PMCharts via Wells Capital

So don’t kid yourself. Stocks aren’t any cheaper today than they were at the height of the internet bubble. What’s truly “different this time” is that, rather than seeing incredible overvaluation confined to just one segment of the market, it is far more pervasive than it was back then. In my view, this also makes it far more insidious.

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Why Today’s Ultra-Low Interest Rates Are Actually Bearish For Stocks

There are plenty of pundits out there arguing that today’s record-high valuations in the stock market are validated by ultra-low interest rates (see Fed Model). The problem with this idea is it really only tells us how we got here. What investors should really care about is where we’re going and ultra-low interest rates are not at all bullish for future returns in the stock market.

In some respects, the idea that low rates should mean higher equity valuations makes perfect sense. If the 10-year treasury bond only pays 1.7% and the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is closer to 1.9% why wouldn’t I be more inclined to buy stocks? Good question! And this is probably why investors bid stocks up to astronomical valuations in the first place.

The major problem with this line of thinking is that it is backward-looking and it is no justification for valuations to remain high going forward. I’ll let Cliff Asness explain:

It is true that all-else-equal a falling discount rate raises the current price. All is not equal, though. If when inflation declines, future nominal cash flow from equities also falls, this can offset the effect of lower discount rates.

In fact, over time corporate earnings growth tracks very closely to the rate of inflation. This is why so many people like to say stocks are a good inflation hedge because they can typically raise prices to combat rising costs in an inflationary environment. But if that’s true then they also make a very poor deflation hedge as their earnings also must also fall when the rate of inflation does. And right now the bond market is pricing in the lowest levels of inflation since the financial crisis:

fredgraphChart via FRED

This would suggest that earnings growth going forward should also be very weak. In fact, we are already seeing this reflected in companies’ fourth quarter earnings reports and in the forward guidance they are now giving. Goldman Sachs reports that guidance is now the worst ever recorded. Forward earnings estimates are beginning to reflect this as they have been falling for almost as long as long-term interest rates have been:

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 1.02.58 PMChart via Humble Student

From this perspective, it’s very hard to make the case that low-interest rates are a valid reason to be bullish on equities. It may be true that low rates encourage increasing risk taking when investors compare alternatives to the “risk-free rate” of the 10-year treasury bond. This is where the Fed’s interest rate lever and quantitative easing have obviously been successful. But at some point, plunging interest rates like we have seen over the past year, are a sign that earnings growth could be rapidly slowing if not turning negative, a development not at all supportive of risk assets.

Historically, this may be represented by the fact that low interest rates have led to the worst forward returns for stocks. The chart below separates the market into five distinct buckets ranked by the level of interest rates. Bucket 1 reflects the lowest month-end 10-year treasury rates on record during the 1965-2001 period. It’s clear that the 10 year periods leading up to those low-rate environments were fantastic for stocks. The subsequent 10 years were not nearly so kind, as investors suffered losses after adjusting for inflation.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 11.36.14 AMChart via Fight The Fed Model

There is also recent evidence in other countries that the idea of low interest rates supporting stock prices is faulty. Just take a look at Switzerland. This Swiss 10-year bond yield is now negative. Based on the idea that low rates justify higher valuations, one could make the case that an infinite price-to-earnings multiple for stocks would not be unreasonable in comparison. But what did the Swiss stock market do while their long bond yield recently plunged? It also plunged!

tumblr_nialaheKOR1smq3o4o1_1280Chart via JLFMI

The point is investors like to use low rates as justification for higher equity valuations. At some point, however, really low rates go from being benign to malignant for risk assets. No doubt low rates have supported risk assets in our markets for the past five years or longer. But the rapid decline over the past few months is now being reflected in company earnings. And investors may soon begin to question whether it still makes sense to pay record-high valuations in light of this.

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By Some Measures This Is The Most Overvalued Stock Market Of All Time

Not so long ago I wrote, “this is probably the second worst time to own stocks in history.” However, when you look at the market a bit differently you can make the case that this could be THE worst time ever to own stocks.

Most broad valuation measures are market capitalization-weighted simply because the major indexes are cap-weighted. The S&P 500, for example, currently trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of about 19. However, the p/e of the Russell 2000 small cap index is closer to 80!

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 9.28.35 AMChart via wsj.com

This disparity between the two is hidden from the valuation discussion most of the time because it usually focuses on the stock market as represented by the largest 500 companies. When you look at the broader market, though, it’s clear there’s much more to the story.

So how do we reconcile the small cap p/e that is off the charts with a large cap p/e that is elevated but not nearly as ridiculous? Looking at the median p/e (the valuation of the company in the exact middle of the pack) should do the trick. Fortunately, Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital has already gone to the trouble of putting this together:

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 9.32.03 AMChart via wellscap.com

There you have it: the most overvalued stock market of all time, based on median price-to-earnings. (For what it’s worth, Paulsen also demonstrates in the paper that on a price-to-cash flow basis stocks have also never been as highly priced as they are today.)

Here’s what I think you should take away from this. The first thing I think about when I see a chart like this is my potential reward versus the potential risk I’m assuming. The best possible situation would be for valuations to remain elevated for the foreseeable future. Then my gains should be roughly equivalent to corporate earnings growth, probably in the low to mid-single digits. However, in a worst case scenario, valuations return to the bargain bin and I’m facing steep losses (possibly 50% or more). All in all, I’m risking half my capital to make a single digit return.

The second thing I think about when looking at the chart above is my long-term rate of return is determined by the price I pay. If I’m fortunate enough to get a below-average price then over time I can reasonably expect an above-average return from stocks (10% per year or more). Pay a high price and I guarantee myself a mediocre return. Pay a record-high price and I’m essentially locking in one of the worst long-term returns in history (probably somewhere close to 0%).

Now I have to say that I believe price-to-earnings ratios are not the best way to value individual stocks or the broader market. There are other methods that are much more valuable for forecasting long-term returns like Warren Buffett’s favorite yardstick, total market cap-to-GNP. See “everything but the US stock market has already peaked” for my latest update on it and other indicators crucial to long-term equity performance.

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