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I Have One Question For Warren Buffett At The Next Berkshire Meeting

I’ve been dying to ask this question of Mr. Buffett for the past few months. After reading his 50th annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders over the weekend I submitted it to Carol Loomis in hopes she would ask it at the upcoming shareholders meeting:

In November 1999 in Fortune magazine you wrote that you believed the coming decade couldn’t possibly witness returns in the stock market similar to those of the prior decade. That forecast proved very prescient as it preceded what is now called the “lost decade.” Considering the fact that stocks are just as highly valued today as they were then, in terms of your market cap-to-GNP valuation yardstick, do you feel the same about the coming decade for the stock market as you did then? If not, why?

Fingers crossed.

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“The Wisdom Of Insecurity” In The Stock Market

Over the past few years, the idea of “passive investing” has increasingly resonated with the general public. Money has rushed out of actively-managed mutual funds and into index funds at a rapid rate. Most recently, the passive investing ethos has grown so strong it now reminds me of some hard-core religions that take an unwaveringly literal interpretation of their founding texts.

In the case of passive investing, these founding texts are the “efficient-market hypothesis” (EMH) and “modern portfolio theory” (MPT). Created and developed by ingenious men with noble intentions, these theories put forth wonderful arguments for the wisdom of the crowd and the incredible value of diversification, among others.

Like most religious texts, however, the main problems arise in their interpretation and implementation. As Alan W. Watts explains in The Wisdom Of Insecurity, “the common error of ordinary religious practice is to mistake the symbol for reality, to look at the finger pointing the way and then to suck it for comfort rather than follow it.” Investors, too, must think critically about the effectiveness of these theories when it comes to practical application rather than take them literally on blind faith.

It pays to remember that blind faith in these sorts of mathematical models leads even nobel prize winners to disastrous results. As my friend Todd Harrison likes to say, “respect the price action but never defer to it.” Clearly, there is value in understanding and incorporating the ideals of these theories. There is also danger in simply deferring to them because the costs of their shortcomings can, at times, overwhelm the benefits of their wisdom. Like the Long-Term Capital boys learned, as soon as you really need to lean on them they vanish like a cheap magic trick.

Where these theories go wrong in their practical application is that they both assume there are only rational participants in the markets. While the crowd may be right most of the time, there are clearly times when the crowd is not rational (note the preponderance of manias throughout the history of finance). In fact, the proprietors of these models have acknowledged this Achilles’ heel themselves.

The most successful professional investors like Warren Buffett, Paul Tudor Jones, John Templeton, George Soros and Jim Rogers, know this well. Their methodologies are even built upon the idea that an intelligent investor can get ahead by taking advantage of those times the crowd becomes irrational, the antithesis of the EMH and MPT.

So saying you believe in passive investing is fine and, in fact, I’ll grant it’s better than most of the alternatives. It will work great most of the time. But know that, just like some fanatics deny evidence that disproves the idea that cavemen and dinosaurs coexisted, you are denying the overwhelming evidence that suggests its foundations are simply not to be relied upon during those rare times when market participants abandon rational thought for panic or euphoria.

Make no mistake, those selling this idea of passive investing are selling a very good product. I firmly believe it’s a large step above most of the alternatives out there, more so in the case of those selling it at a minimal cost. But I fear investors are also being sold a false sense of security today.

I believe investors passively buying equities today are doing so under one of two false assumptions. They either believe that future returns will look something like they have over the past 40 years or that because the market is totally efficient it’s currently priced to deliver risk-adjusted returns that are acceptable given the current low-yield environment.

The first assumption is something I have called the “single greatest mistake investors make” and it’s a trap even the Federal Reserve admits it regularly falls into. The second assumption runs into the problem of the evidence which suggests there is a very good likelihood returns from current prices will be sub-par, if not sub-zero over the next decade.

And the reason returns are likely to be poor going forward is investors have pushed prices to levels that nearly guarantee it. In my view, passive investors have irrationally relied upon the idea that the market is rational, and therefore attractively priced, in pouring money into equity index funds, sending equity values to heights never before seen (on median valuations) virtually guaranteeing themselves they’ll be disappointed.

Just because the future of the stock market is bleak doesn’t mean investors should ignore these facts or have them withheld from them. Ignorance may be bliss but it is not a valid investment methodology. Those with a religious sort of belief in passive investing and its main tenets need not abandon it to acknowledge its limitations. In fact, a little insecurity would go a long way for the growing hoard of passive investors in today’s market.

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Here’s Why Investors Are Now Facing Another “Lost Decade” In The Stock Market

In my last piece, I wrote that stock market valuations are currently at the same level they were when Warren Buffett, in November 1999, wrote his famous op-ed for Fortune magazine explaining that investors would inevitably be disappointed by returns over the coming decade. The stock market actually declined 30% over the following 10 years. “Disappointed” was actually an understatement as investors were downright despondent (which set up a wonderful opportunity to be greedy).

In fact, when looking at median valuations in today’s market, stocks are even more overvalued than they were at the peak of the internet bubble, some 3 or 4 months after Buffett’s piece was published. Considering valuations are roughly equivalent, or even worse than back then, what are the odds that we see another “lost decade”?

This is actually fairly easy to answer. The valuation indicator we looked at in the last post, total stock market capitalization in relation to Gross National Product, has actually been 83% negatively correlated to future 10-year returns dating back to 1950 (high valuations mean low forward returns and vice versa). Based on this correlation, this measurement of valuations, Buffett’s favorite, currently forecasts an annual return over the coming decade of about -0.88%. Yes, that’s losing almost 1% per year over the next decade – the very definition of a lost decade, even if it’s not quite as bad as the 1999-2009 period.

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Now there certainly is a possibility that stocks do significantly better than that dour forecast but it’s not very likely, at least not from a historically-informed perspective. (I should note here that other measures that are very highly correlated to future returns essentially agree with this one, as well.) This is why some of the most respected firms in the world, like GMO and Bridgewater, are informing clients of this very same fact.

And if I were forced to take the over/under on a 0% forecast over the next decade I would take the “under” for one simple but significant reason. The decade following Buffett’s op-ed saw stocks decline 30% but the Fed recently published research suggesting the decline from today’s level could be even greater than that simply due to demographics. Their study implied a decline of closer to 40% was very possible, if not probable.

The thesis suggests that equity valuations will be under pressure until 2025 as baby boomers age and reduce exposure to risk assets. Intuitively, this makes sense. During their peak earning years, the baby boomers poured money into the stock market driving the greatest equity bubble in history. As they now enter their later years the demand for equities, or lack their of, from this generation could have the opposite effect.

A chart from Ned Davis, in his terrific book “Being Right Or Making Money,” shows that this is not just theory. The chart below plots equities alongside births in the United States shifted forward 46 years (to the beginning of peak earning age). Clearly, over the long-term, equities benefit or suffer based simply on the general demand from the relative size of a given generation. Demand, as evidenced by births, has been waning since 2005. Another plunge in births begins right about now and looks to bottom sometime after 2020 before picking up again in 2025.

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At best, equity returns over the coming decade will simply reflect earnings growth, assuming valuations can remain elevated. Historically, this has averaged about 3.8% over time. At worst, valuations will revert to an undervalued state and stocks will decline about 40% or more, as the Fed study suggests. Either way, the odds for another “lost decade” in the stock market are far higher than most people currently believe.

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The Single Greatest Mistake Investors Make

The single greatest mistake investors make is to extrapolate recent history out into the future. They take the financial returns of the past 5 days or 5 years or even 50 years and assume the next few days or years will look just the same without any consideration for the historical context or conditions that provided for those returns.

They forget that, while ‘history may rhyme, it doesn’t repeat itself’ (Twain). Or that, “the only thing that is constant is change” (Heraclitus). These two famous quotes apply to the financial markets as much as anything.

Ignoring these truths and instead simply extrapolating is why investors are suckered into pouring money into the stock market only after a run of great performance. They believe that the recent gains are about to repeat to their great benefit when they should be thinking about what conditions allowed for those gains to take place and analyzing whether they are still relevant or not.

This is also why they are suckered into selling only after a painful decline as they did at the lows made during the financial crisis. They believe that they are about to suffer another 50% decline on top of the one they just endured when they should really be reminding themselves that change is the only guarantee in life.

I believe this is one of the biggest problems with so-called “passive” investing. It is built upon the faulty premise that it is ‘impossible to forecast’ the future returns of any asset class over any period of time so we should just own all of them all the time. My response to this is that while ‘ignorance may be bliss’ it’s not a valid investment strategy.

In his 1992 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett wrote:

We’ve long felt that the only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune tellers look good. Even now, Charlie and I continue to believe that short-term market forecasts are poison and should be kept locked up in a safe place, away from children and also from grown-ups who behave in the market like children. However, it is clear that stocks cannot forever overperform their underlying businesses, as they have so dramatically done for some time, and that fact makes us quite confident of our forecast that the rewards from investing in stocks over the next decade will be significantly smaller than they were in the last.

Much can be learned from this short passage. First, short-term stock market forecasts are, indeed, nearly worthless – essentially a guessing game. Second, long-term forecasts, on the other hand, can be made with ‘confidence.’ “How?” you ask.

It’s actually very simple. Rather than fixate on recent history and extrapolate it into the future you must abandon this natural tendency. And as I said earlier you also need to analyze the conditions that allowed for those returns to see whether they are still relevant to today’s market.

In Buffett’s example he’s referring to the wonderful returns equity investors experienced from 1982-1992. During that span investors roughly quadrupled their money. Over the coming decade they merely doubled their money so Buffett was right that the decade beginning in 1993 would fall far short of the return of the prior decade even it they were still very good.

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But Buffett made another prescient forecast in November 1999 when he wrote:

Today, staring fixedly back at the road they just traveled, most investors have rosy expectations. A Paine Webber and Gallup Organization survey released in July shows that the least experienced investors–those who have invested for less than five years–expect annual returns over the next ten years of 22.6%. Even those who have invested for more than 20 years are expecting 12.9%. Now, I’d like to argue that we can’t come even remotely close to that 12.9%… you need to remember that future returns are always affected by current valuations and give some thought to what you’re getting for your money in the stock market right now.

You probably already know that stock market returns from 1999 to 2009 were not very kind to investors.

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And Buffett tells us how he was so confident that this would be the case. He examined the conditions that allowed for returns to be so wonderful from 1982-1999 but were no longer present in 1999: wonderful valuations. Stocks were so cheap in 1982 that the coming decade was virtually guaranteed to be better than the decade that preceded it. (1972-1982 was another decade that was not fun for investors.) Then in 1999 valuations were so expensive that there was almost no possibility of decent returns going forward.

So let’s take a look at Buffett’s favorite valuation yardstick which he refers to on both of those prior writings. It tracks the total value of the stock market in relation to Gross National Product.

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From the chart, it’s plain to see that valuations were extremely attractive back in the early 1980’s. This is why stocks performed so well over the next 20 years. However, I find it absolutely fascinating that stock market valuations today are essentially equivalent to valuations in November 1999 when he wrote that latter passage. Yeah, go back and read that last line again. It’s a doozy and it’s absolutely fact.

This is also why the past 5 years or even the past 50 years are totally irrelevant to equity investors in today’s market. There is almost zero possibility today of achieving a return anywhere close to what those historical returns represent. So shun forecasts if you want. Plead ignorance if it makes you feel blissful. But at today’s valuations you should at least be aware of the fact that it’s exceedingly dangerous to fall into the trap of extrapolating without analyzing.

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Tweet Storm: Are Mom & Pop Smarter Than Jeff Gundlach And Warren Buffett?

It’s not rocket science, folks. You just have to control your emotions, tune out Wall Street’s propaganda machine and try to see the facts for what they are.

Related:

How to time the market like Warren Buffett

Don’t buy the buy and hold line of BS

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