Obscene Risk Hidden In Plain Sight

Recently there have been numerous major economic agencies warning of the growing and severe risks in the debt markets. Investors have shrugged them off as they seem to think that their bond fund is immune as are equities. They’re not.

The Geneva Report, released last month, revealed that there has been no progress made in reducing debt levels around the world in the years since the financial crisis. In fact, debt levels have only grown over that time, even here in the US. This should be worrisome, they report, because, “there is considerable evidence that a high stock of debt increases vulnerability to the risk of a financial crisis.”

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Chart via Geneva Report

Clearly, the BIS is looking at the same research because back in July they warned these growing debt levels could kick off ‘another Lehman.’ BIS General Manager, Jaime Caruana, told the Telegraph, “We are watching this closely. If we were concerned by excessive leverage in 2007, we cannot be more relaxed today.”

This week, the IMF joined the chorus:

…Prolonged monetary ease has encouraged the buildup of excesses in financial risk-taking. This has resulted in elevated prices across a range of financial assets, credit spreads too narrow to compensate for default risks in some segments, and, until recently, record-low volatility, suggesting that investors are complacent. What is unprecedented is that these developments have occurred across a broad range of asset classes and across many countries at the same time.

For all of these bankers, economists and regulators, there’s just too much debt for their liking and much of it carries too much risk – and it’s spread beyond the debt markets to a broad variety of other asset classes. That’s funny because even the Fed has been warning about the very same thing lately! And they’ve pointed their finger directly at the leveraged loan market.

There’s not really one definition for these things but leveraged loans are typically floating-rate loans made to companies that carry an above-average amount of debt and, for this reason are labeled, “high-yield” or “high-risk.” The “high-yield” might actually be a misnomer because lately these things have been issued at a rate of around 5%. Many of these loans are used for leveraged buy-outs and the “high-risk” label is right on the money.

Back in 2012, the volume of these sort of loans rebounded to a new all-time record as investors, hungry for yield in a zero-interest rate environment, couldn’t get enough of them. Last year blew 2012 away and this year is on track to do even more than last.

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Chart via Dallas Fed

What’s more troublesome than just the sheer volume of these loans is the quality. Although the Fed has advised bankers not to loan an amount greater than 6 times EBITDA to any given borrower, in the third quarter of this year new LBO debt levels ran 6.26 times EBITDA. This amount of leverage would normally be very risky but it is especially troublesome today because current EBITDA for these companies is based on record-high profit margins. Should margins contract at all, it would make these borrowers less likely to be able to service their debt. In other words, a simple reversion in profit margins closer to their historical average level would probably mean rising defaults, maybe dramatically so.

With yields currently at 5%, investors in these loans currently don’t need to worry about defaults hovering around the 2% level (unless you think a net 3% return is silly for the amount risk you’re taking, as I do). But prior to the financial crisis, before the s*** even began to hit the fan, default rates were nearly twice that level. At the height of the crisis defaults soared to nearly 13%. Now consider that these companies are more highly leveraged than ever and a huge portion of their debt floats at rates that are now near record lows.

On top of that, the share of “covenant-lite” loans has soared. These are loans that place fewer restrictions on the borrowers and give lenders less recourse in the event of a default. So when (not if) defaults rise again lenders will feel more pain in these sorts of loans than they ever have before.

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Chart via Dallas Fed

Richard Fisher summed it up fairly well recently saying, “the big banks are lending money on terms and at prices that any banker with a memory cell knows from experience usually end in tears.” And this time it will be more than just bankers’ tears. Shadow bankers will be affected, too. And by “shadow banking,” I mean your bond fund (among other things).

From the IMF:

While banks grapple with these challenges, capital markets are now providing more significant sources of financing, which is a welcome development. Yet this is shifting the locus of risks to shadow banks. For example, credit-focused mutual funds have seen massive asset inflows, and have collectively become a very large owner of U.S. corporate and foreign bonds. The problem is that these fund inflows have created an illusion of liquidity in fixed income markets. The liquidity promised to investors in good times is likely to exceed the available liquidity provided by markets in times of stress, especially as banks have less capacity to make markets.

This may be why the Fed has been chastising the banks so much lately. Maybe they know how much more difficult a “shadow banking” crisis would be to deal with than just your run-of-the-mill “banking crisis.”

Anyhow, what is troublesome right now is that it looks like profit margins might have already begun to revert. This  puts pressure on all of these highly leveraged companies and makes the prospect of defaults more likely. This is probably why credit spreads have recently widened to their highest levels of the year, breaking the multi-year downtrend that inspired the boom in the first place. All in all, this could be the beginning of the end of the “reach for yield” in this cycle.


Chart via St. Louis Fed

What I find most fascinating about the whole thing, however, is that the demand or appetite for leveraged loans is so closely correlated to the stock market. The black line in the chart below tracks the PowerShares Senior Loan Portfolio, a leveraged loan ETF with $6.5 billion in assets, relative to the 5-Year Treasury Note price (roughly the average weighted duration in the ETF portfolio). The S&P 500 Index is also overlaid. Clearly, the risk appetite for leveraged loans is nearly perfectly mirrored by the stock market.


Chart via

Now I don’t know if this correlation will hold up going forward but it sure looks like risk appetites across asset classes are currently dancing to the same beat. And if this credit cycle is going to end in tears then it may be hard for equity investors to avoid a similar fate.

Holistic Venn Diagram - Plain

Both Valuations And Sentiment At Near-Record Extremes

FRED recently updated the data I’ve been using for my fundamental and sentiment measures from Q1 to Q2 of this year so I thought it would be a good time to post an update to my market-timing model (see “Seeing The Forest For The Trees“).

First, there is the fundamental component for which I use Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick: total market cap-to-GDP:

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Over the past 60 years there has only been one time where stocks were more highly valued and that was during the height of the internet bubble.

This component is nearly 90% negatively correlated to future 10-year returns for stocks (higher readings are correlated with lower returns and vice versa). Right now it’s forecasting a -1.5% annual return over that time.

The sentiment measure, household allocation to stocks, is also now higher than it has ever been outside the peak of the internet bubble (though the 1968 occurrence comes close):

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It’s even more highly negatively correlated to future returns and now forecasts a 2.4% annual return over the coming decade. The average of the two comes out to about 1.7% and amounts to one of the worst prospective returns in the history of the data. The risk-free rate, on the 10-year treasury, is almost a full percent higher.

So right now I’m watching the overall trend like a hawk. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq are still well above their 10-month moving averages. However, the Russell 2000 is now more than 1% below its 10-month moving average and the NYSE Composite flirting with its own.


Looking at individual sectors, those that are most in danger of losing their long-term MAs include consumer discretionary, industrials, retail and energy, perhaps the most cyclical sectors of the ten or so I follow. Consumer staples and healthcare, widely considered the most defensive sectors, remain the two strongest. It may be too early to read anything into this but it also may have implications for what’s currently going on in the land of profit margins and the economy.

Ultimately, the uptrend remains in place. However, there are signs that it could be at risk over the next couple of months. With both our fundamental and sentiment measures showing near-record extremes there’s real reason to worry about what the next down cycle will look like. Stay tuned.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Vince and Larry crash test dummy public service campaign, and donated artifacts are welcomed at a ceremony at the Smithsonian American History museum in Washington, DC.

Desperately Seeking A Margin Of Safety

Back in 2000, I had one of my best years as an investor. You may remember that year marked the peak of the greatest stock market bubble in history. Anyhow, while everyone and their mom was buying internet stocks I was loading up on the exact opposite.

One of the unique things about that time was that the bubble was really concentrated in the technology sector. Outside of that there were some great values to be found in the old “bricks and mortar” types of companies.

I found a couple of those great values in Abercrombie & Fitch and Washington Mutual. I think ANF was trading around 8 times earnings despite the fact that it was still growing pretty fast and had incredible returns on new stores. And this was back when WaMu was still just a boring old thrift trading for 5 times earnings. When investors finally gave up on the high flyers they took refuge in names like these and both ANF and WaMu soared.

In 2007, things were very different. Although valuations didn’t get anywhere near those 2000 levels, there was even more pain felt as a result. There just wasn’t really anywhere to hide during the financial crisis as everything seemed to get hammered to the same degree.

Today’s market feels like a combination of these two and it honestly worries me. We currently have even higher valuations than we did in 2007 – in some cases, even higher than in 2000 (median price-to-sales ratios at all-time record highs). And the overvaluation feels just as pervasive as it did in 2007, maybe even more so (note record “median” valuations, not “mean”).

In other words, the diving board (valuation) is higher now and there’s even less water (pockets of value) in the pool than there was.

This is why I’ve spent so much time researching ways to avoid the next major bear market. Because I think it’s gonna be a doozy. So I think it’s probably wise for most investors in US stocks, at this point, to switch from buy-and-hold to a trend-following approach. Still, this assumes that the selling window, when it comes, will be wide enough and open long enough for everyone to casually exit through which is not always the case.

An alternative or complementary solution I’ve spent some time looking at is a “global value” approach. I got turned on to Meb Faber’s work a few months ago and I think this idea of his has so much merit, especially for investors in US stocks right now. There may not currently be those pockets of value within the US stock market that will help to weather the next storm but there are pockets around the world that may fit the bill.

Do yourself a favor and go read Meb’s book. It just might help you manage the next market meltdown.


Profit Margins And Major Stock Market Peaks

The chart above plots corporate profit margins as a percent of GNP alongside the Wilshire 5000 Index. I ran it because I was curious to look at profit margin cycles and how they relate to stock market cycles.

It’s probably an understatement to say that the current bull market has had a strong profit margin tailwind. Margins in this cycle have surged to all-time record highs. This has amounted to what could be considered rocket fuel for valuations, which are now, according to some measures, as stretched as they have ever been:

Looking back through history, it’s interesting to note that each of the major peaks in the stock market over the past 40 years has been preceded by a peak in profit margins.

In 2007, the stock market peaked about four quarters after profit margins did. In 2000, stocks peaked about ten quarters later. Stocks peaked about eight quarters after profit margins leading up to the 1987 crash. The only outlier I found (I admit it’s a small sample size) was the 1973-74 bear market where profit margins and stocks peaked simultaneously.

How is this relevant to today’s market? Well, profit margins peaked this cycle way back during Q3 of 2011 (eleven quarters ago) but they never really dropped much until Q1 of this year.

I have argued that a reversion in profit margins poses the “dominant risk” to stocks. Now that they seem to be reverting, we will soon find out if that’s true.


“The Dominant Risk For Wall Street” May Be Manifesting In Small Caps

A good deal of attention has already been paid to the growing divergence between small cap and large cap stocks so far this year. The former have seen a small decline while the latter have risen about 8%. But I’ve seen very little commentary regarding WHY this might be happening. Of the many divergences the market has seen recently I think this one may be the most significant as the small caps could be the “canary in the coal mine” for the broader market.

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It all comes back to what I have argued amounts to a bubble in corporate profit margins. Jeremy Grantham has used a 2-standard deviation event as one benchmark for a bubble. Using that definition, it’s hard to argue that profit margins are not currently in a bubble.

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Warren Buffett also weighed in on unsustainably high margins back in 1999:

In my opinion, you have to be wildly optimistic to believe that corporate profits as a percent of GDP can, for any sustained period, hold much above 6%. One thing keeping the percentage down will be competition, which is alive and well. In addition, there’s a public-policy point: If corporate investors, in aggregate, are going to eat an ever-growing portion of the American economic pie, some other group will have to settle for a smaller portion. That would justifiably raise political problems—and in my view a major reslicing of the pie just isn’t going to happen.

Note that margins are now nearly twice the 6% level that Buffett considered a long-term upper threshold. Now I haven’t heard him say anything about current levels of profit margins (and I’d love for somebody to ask!) but I think his logic is still valid. At some point, the pendulum will have to swing the other way and profits will revert to some extent.

Like the price divergence between small and large caps, the forces behind the scenes here have also been the subject of much ink. It’s that 99% versus the 1% thing. You see over the past few years as the economy has slowly recovered in the wake of the financial crisis companies have seen their revenues grow but have been reluctant to add to their employee base. The result is that a larger and larger portion of these revenues fall to the bottom line. This goes on for a period of five years and, voila! Record profit margins. The 1% (owners of these companies) celebrate while the 99% stagnate.

Until now…

There are signs recently that this dynamic is shifting. After all, you can only milk your current employee base so much before they become overextended and your product or service suffers or you can’t meet the growing demand, etc. At some point in the recovery or expansion process you have to start adding employees AND paying your current employees a little better in order to retain them.

And it’s beginning to look like this is exactly what’s starting to happen. As the BLS reported a couple of weeks ago, job openings are improving pretty dramatically. July saw a 22% gain year-over-year. And as we learned today, real wage growth spiked in August by the largest amount in years.

This is fantastic news for the 99%. It looks like more jobs and better pay are finally on the way. And it’s exactly the result the FOMC, with their albeit super-blunt tools, have been trying so hard to create. As Pimco’s Paul McCulley writes:

But as Martin Luther King intoned long ago, the arc of the universe does bend toward justice. And as I wrote in July, I think it will do so with the Fed letting the recovery/expansion rip for a long time, fostering real wage gains for Main Street. This implies that the dominant risk for Wall Street is not bursting bubbles, but rather a long slow grind down in profit’s share of GDP/national income.

But do bubbles usually unwind in a “long slow grind down”? Maybe. But sometimes they burst. Either way, this is not so good for the 1% and those record-high profit margins. And we’re seeing this happen already in what area of the market? You guessed it – the small caps and “middle market” companies. Sober Look reports:

While over 50% of [middle market] companies are seeing revenue growth, the fact that over 50% are experiencing EBITDA declines suggests margin compression. For the sixth consecutive quarter, more middle market companies experienced EBITDA declines than gains.

It’s been six consecutive quarters now that these smaller companies have experienced, “margin compression.” UBS recently confirmed this data noting the recent plunge in EBIT margins at small cap companies.

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Chart via Business Insider

Make no mistake, this epic stock market rally has been built on the back of this profits boom. It’s been the source of much of the earnings growth we’ve seen and inspired investors to bid valuations to what has historically been rarified air. Should profits decline it would mean already extended valuations are even more inflated than they currently appear and would remove a major underpinning of the bull market.

What I worry about even more, however, is the amount of risk that has been assumed recently based upon the expectation that profit margins will remain at these record levels indefinitely. As Sober Look recently reported, leveraged buy out valuations are at heights not seen at any other time during the past 14 years. More importantly the amount of debt in relation to targets’ EBITDA is also at a record:


Chart via Sober Look

If EBITDA at more than half of these companies is actually declining now these multiples will soon look even more inflated than they already do and the massive amount of debt used in buying them is at risk even greater risk of becoming unsustainable than it originally appears.

Speaking of the “massive amount of debt,” It’s important to note that the volume of leveraged loans has far surpassed it’s highs of 2007…

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Chart via Dallas Fed

…and the risk controls embedded in these loans has fallen dramatically as covenant-lite’s share of overall issuance is now twice what it was prior to the financial crisis.

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Chart via Dallas Fed

So it looks as if we may have more built up risk on the debt side of things than we did prior to the financial crisis. If margins are actually beginning to revert, as the small cap/middle market is suggesting, at 2-standard deviations above their long-term average, they potentially have a very long way to fall. And with so much risk betting against this possibility the fallout could be dramatic.

Perhaps this is why spreads have finally begun to widen just a bit over the past few months in the high-yield market.

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Chart via Charlie Bilello

All in all, this is clearly a very complex system with various intermarket relationships. But we are seeing some signals that point to the fact that the Fed may be close to achieving it’s goals of increasing employment and wages. While this is good news for the labor force, it’s bad news for companies and investors because the resulting margin compression would remove the main driving force of this bull market along with causing potential problems (defaults) in the high-yield bond market. So keep your eyes on the small caps; there are big implications in that divergence everyone’s looking at.

Holistic Venn Diagram - Plain

Seeing The Forest For The Trees

Yesterday morning I came across a piece over at Harvard Business Review titled, “To Make Better Decisions, Combine Datasets.” I began reading it and realized that’s exactly the key to investment success and what I’ve tried to do with my market timing model: combine a variety of predictive datasets to create a holistic forecasting and timing model.

The stock market is driven not just by fundamentals or sentiment or technicals alone but by all of them in concert with one another. It follows then that an investor should try to incorporate each of them into her investment process in order to maximize its effectiveness.

And this is where I think many investors get lost. They try to focus on only one of these three. Fundamentals alone may work over the long run but cheap stocks can always get much cheaper in the short-term or they could just be cheap for a very good reason (I’ve learned this lesson more than a few times). Sentiment can also be very helpful but the crowd isn’t always wrong and markets can ‘stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.’ And, as many traders know, the ‘trend is only your friend until it comes to an end.’

What I’ve found in my 20+ years of observing and trading markets is that looking at the forest, by putting all of these together, rather than the trees alone is absolutely crucial to making good decisions. So I thought it might be fun to look at the individual components of the model to see not only what they are saying about the markets but how they might be misleading when taken on their own.

For my fundamental component I use Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick, total market capitalization-to-GDP. On its own it has roughly an 83% negative correlation with future 10-year returns in the stock market (based on 65 years worth of data). This means higher levels for this indicator are correlated with lower future returns and vice versa. Here’s what it looks like over the past 65 years or so:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 9.38.05 AMEven considering the fact that the internet bubble has pushed the average higher over the past ten or fifteen years, this measure still suggests stocks are priced significantly above their historical range. Based on its high correlation with future returns this suggests investors should expect a very low return from present levels over the next decade.

BUT… this has been the case for most of the past 20 years! An investor looking at this measure alone might have sat out a couple of major bear markets but also would have missed a couple of the most massive bull markets in history! So it’s probably not smart to use this measure in isolation. Adding other related asset classes (like bonds – we’ll come back to that) and other, unrelated indicators should help give a bit more clarity.

My sentiment measure tracks the percent of household financial assets invested in equities. Believe it or not this measure is even more highly negatively correlated with future returns than Buffett’s valuation measure above (closer to 90% – hat tip, Jesse Livermore). Here’s what it looks like over the same time frame:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 12.54.35 PMIt’s also currently sitting significantly above its long run average suggesting returns should be far below average going forward. As I mentioned this is a better forecasting mechanism than the fundamental measure but even if the incredible euphoria of the internet bubble got you out of the stock market you may not have gotten back in over the past 15 years because we haven’t seen anything like the pessimism witnessed at the 1982 low.

Finally, I’ve added a third component to the model, inspired by Doug Short: a simple trend regression model based on Robert Shiller’s data going back nearly 150 years. With a negative correlation of roughly 74%, it’s not quite as effective at forecasting future returns as these other two but I think adding it, as a third independent component based on a very long-term trend, helps to make the model more robust. So here’s what the S&P 500 looks like relative to a regression trend line over the full time period:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.01.27 PMOnce again this indicator shows the stock market to be trading very close to the top of its historical range. Still, like the fundamental model this one might have had you sitting out of the stock market for perhaps the past 20 years!

So even though we have three independent models we need a way to put them together and then to put them into some sort of context. What I’ve done is used each indicator individually to create a 10-year forecasting model. Then I’ve simply averaged them together each quarter. All told, the combination results in a correlation to future 10-year returns of about 90%. Here’s a chart of the model’s forecast returns as compared to actual 10-year returns for the stock market:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.05.21 PMWhere the model is farthest off the mark (where you see the yellow line far above the blue line) is in the late 80’s early 90’s. Stocks surged further and faster during the internet bubble than the model forecast they would. Removing those years, the model’s correlation value rises to about 94%.

So we know what the individual readings look like. What’s the model saying about future returns from here? As the chart below shows, the model forecasts a return of just 1.2% per year over the next decade:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.10.16 PMTo add some context, in addition to the 10-year forecast I’ve put the yield of the 10-year treasury note on the chart, as well. Investors don’t look at potential returns in a vacuum; they compare potential returns of different opportunities, many times looking at the “risk-free” rate of treasury notes in the process. This next chart shows the difference between the model’s forecast return and the yield on the 10-year treasury note:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.17.48 PMWhen the blue line is above zero, stocks offer the better return; when it’s below, bonds do. And as I’ve shown before in “How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett” this timing model works very well. Just buy whatever asset class is more attractive – trading only once per year – and you’ll kill a buy-and-hold approach.

I think this alone is validation of a multi-disciplinary approach. But adding one more super-simple component makes it that much more effective: before we go and sell our stocks because bonds are more attractive, we want to make sure we don’t sell too early in a bull market or buy to early in a bear market. As the chart above shows this model would have had you sell your stocks and shift into bonds all the way back in April of 1996 and then miss all the gains of the next 3 1/2 years.

Adding a very simple trend-following approach solves this problem (hat tip, Meb Faber). Rather than sell right when bonds become more attractive it’s much more advantageous to wait for the trend to end. And as a representation of the trend, we can simply use a 10-month moving average. Below is a chart of the S&P 500 and this moving average:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.23.36 PMTo be clear we’re not trend followers all the time with this model. We buy-and-hold until the model tells us that stocks are not attractively priced and then we become pure trend followers. Once the model tells us stocks have become less attractive than bonds we wait for the S&P 500 to close at least 1% below its 10-month moving average at which point we sell our stocks and sit in cash, buy bonds or even short stocks (the latter generates the best returns over the period studied).

Should the index at any point close back above its 10-month moving average by at least 1% we buy stocks again. Like I said, so long as stocks are less attractive than bonds we are pure trend followers. Only when the model suggests stocks are once again more attractively priced than bonds AND the trend has turned up (as indicated by a monthly close above the 10-ma) do we buy stocks and abandon trend-following for buy-and-hold.

Ultimately what this produces is a combination buy-and-hold/trend-following model that owns stocks roughly 80% of the time and seeks to avoid major bear markets precipitated by high valuations, high levels of bullishness and prices extended far above their regression trend. It doesn’t avoid losses entirely, though.

The model didn’t recommend a move out of stocks prior to the 1987 crash which resulted in a decline of roughly 26% (its largest drawdown). It did, however manage to avoid the ’73-’74, ’00-’02 and ’08-’09 bear markets, the latter producing about a 50% decline. In fact, this is where all of the model’s outperformance is generated: in recognizing these major turning points fairly early on – essentially giving a warning signal – and then switching from buy-and-hold to trend-following when that strategy is more effective.

The next chart shows the results of three different investors. The first is a simple buy-and-hold strategy (blue line). The second goes to cash when the model indicates (red). The third, rather than going to cash, shorts the index (green):

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.50.13 PMClearly there is significant benefit to abandoning buy-and-hold for a trend-following approach when our model suggests stocks are unattractively priced. Over the period the investor who just sits out major bear markets in cash ends up with twice as much as the investor who holds through the entire decline. And the investor who gets short, in turn, fares far better still.

I truly believe these superb results, hypothetical though they be, can be attributed to the holistic nature of the model. It combines datasets that are valuable independent of one another into something greater than its parts.

As of now, the model is telling us that stocks have once again become unattractive relative to bonds. However, the uptrend is still in tact. So it’s probably valid to be bearish for fundamental, sentiment and regression reasons. But the trend is also a valid reason to be bullish – even if it is the only reason. So I’m still looking at the market through a bearish lens right now but I’ll be watching for a monthly close at least 1% below the index’s 10-month moving average for the trend to validate the fundamentals and sentiment.

For reference I’ve put up all the spreadsheets, calculations and charts I used on a public Google Drive sheet here: Market Timing Model. I’ll be updating it as new data comes in.

Finally, I need to make the same disclaimer I’ve made over and over again during this series: because this is a hypothetical model that doesn’t incorporate taxes, transaction fees, etc. it is not representative of any real returns. It is merely for educational purposes. Clearly, past performance may not be indicative of any future results.

Robot holding money

The Problem With Index Funds

I was glad to see on Friday someone (Yahoo! Finance Editor-in-Chief, no less) concur with my concerns over the growth of index-based investing strategies (see “One reason I’m worried about the rise of the robo-adviser“). In a piece appropriately titled, “Pride cometh before the fall: indexing edition,” Aaron Task writes:

Was ‘owning the index’ a good idea in 2000, when ~50% of the S&P 500 was in tech?

Was ‘owning the index’ a good idea in 2008, when 40% of the S&P 500 was in financials?

No, of course it wasn’t.

But that’s exactly what you did if you followed an index-based approach. So while index investing is probably better than many of the alternatives that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own problems. And being valuation agnostic is probably its biggest problem.

You see when you buy an index fund you put more money into the largest companies in the index and less money into the smallest, regardless of their valuations. So when investors bid tech stocks to the moon and they become the largest component of the index (as in 2000) they carry a larger weight in the index and, in turn, you end up buying a lot of them. In effect, you become greedy when others are greedy rather than becoming fearful, as Buffett would recommend (he also recommends indexing, though, so go figure).

And taken to the extreme, the growing popularity of index-based investing could possibly be the cause of yet another stock market bubble. When a growing class of buyers is willing to continue buying regardless of how high prices rise then valuations can conceivably rise infinitely (Sound familiar? Indiscriminate buying of internet stocks in 2000? Indiscriminate buying of housing in 2007?).

What index-based strategies don’t want you to know is that ‘the price you pay DETERMINES your rate of return.’ Pay too high a price and you literally guarantee yourself horrible returns. Forget owning too much of one sector within the index; was it a good time to buy stocks at all at March of 2000 or October of 2007? Hell, no. Sky-high valuations were a big reason for that. And we may have already reached that point once again (Jesse Livermore recently wrote a wonderful piece on the topic – see “Why is the Shiller CAPE so high?“).

Finally, I personally see the growing popularity of index-based investing as a good thing for individual investors over the long-term but also as a potential contrarian indicator over the intermediate-term.

Aaron again:

The pendulum has swung way too far where everyone thinks all you have to do is index and you’re going to do better [than actively managed funds].

Once the pendulum has swung so far that many investors come to believe that all you have to do is buy the index and it’s all peaches (cap gains) and cream (dividends) then it’s probably time to look out below. I just don’t know if we’re there yet.