Market bears take the position that stocks are expensive, citing a variety of indicators and arguing that profit margins should “mean revert” from record highs. On the other side, market bulls dispute the indicators and propose that fat margins are no big deal – they might just remain at record highs indefinitely.
“High margins reflect a long-term structural change, not a short-term cyclical one,” according to one account of a popular position. Or “It’s a mistake to think that margins will revert to a long-term mean just for the sake of reverting to a mean.”
The message seems to be that mean reversion is for losers. This is a new era, or it’s a new economy, or whatever. We're paraphrasing, but the story sounds a lot like the capital letter New Economy of the late 1990s. There’s even a technology angle once again, along with huge confidence in monetary policy and recession-free growth. Above all, there’s a notion that the world might be different. Needless to say, the new, new economy story comes with plenty of red flags.
The current rally off the 2009 lows is echoing rather strongly the surge off the 1982 lows and lining up uncomfortably close to the Black Monday Crash that took the S&P 500 down over 20% in 1987. Of course, it's always different this time; but the market's confidence that the Fed has your back and that computers are there to help not hinder leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu all over again.
As promised, the Johnson/Crapo bill has finally arrived. There are 442 pages of legal mumbo jumbo, guaranteed to cure all forms of insomnia and those suffering from low blood pressure. The agencies have been providing cheap financing to borrowers, courtesy of the Fed. The agencies have been providing cheap and bullet proof insurance for bond investors, courtesy of the Treasury. The Bill somehow expects some mysterious private capital will come in to insure the first loss position and the Government (including the FOMC) can gracefully exit its role in the mortgage monopoly. That is more than overly optimistic. Can anyone quantify that in dollars as well as mortgage rates? In summary, the Bill is going to increase mortgage compliance costs. It will confuse, rather than clarify, the mortgage application and approval process. It is a disaster. Fortunately, we suspect the Bill has no chance of passing in its present form.
Despite the total collapse (flattening) in the Treasury yield curve in the last 2 days, Citi's FX Technicals group is convinced that we have seen a turn in fixed income that will see significantly higher yields in the years ahead and notably higher yields by this yearend also. Furthermore, they believe this will initially come from the belief in a continued taper, and the curve will initially steepen (2’s versus 5’s and 2’s versus 10’s). This normalization, they add, will be a good thing - QE encourages misallocation of capital and poor business decisions which has a negative feedback loop into the economy - but add (as long as yields do not go too far too fast like last year).
The biggest news this past week was Janet Yellen's first post-FOMC meeting speech and press conference as the Federal Reserve Chairwoman. While some have the utmost respect for her accomplishments, every time we hear her speak all we can think of is a white haired, 75-year old grandmother baking cookies in her kitchen. This week's "Things To Ponder" covers several disparate takes on what she said, didn't say and the direction of the Federal Reserve from here.
"All the Trumans – the economists, fund managers, traders, market pundits –know at some level that the environment in which they operate is not what it seems on the surface…. But the zeitgeist is so damn pleasant, the days so resplendent, the mood so euphoric, the returns so irresistible, that no one wants it to end."
Klarman is here referring to the waning days of this third and greatest financial bubble of this century. But David Stockman's take is that the crack-up boom now nearing its dénouement marks not merely the season finale of still another Fed-induced cycle of financial asset inflation, but, in fact, portends the demise of an entire era of bubble finance.
There are three things that are often spotted, widely believed, and actively sought after with little evidence they actually exist: Big Foot, Ghosts and Economic "Soft Landings." Over the past 159 years, there is not much evidence that an economic "soft landing" has ever occurred. However, it is not without precedent that as the economy reaches the latter stage of the growth cycle that the words "soft landing" are uttered by economists and Federal Reserve members. Why do we bring this up? Bihnamin Appelbaum, via the New York Times, recently interviewed John Williams, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, who stated: "John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, is feeling pretty good about the economy. He is ready to continue the Fed’s retreat from bond-buying and forward guidance. And he says he’s optimistic that this time, the Fed will manage to produce a soft landing."
A critical element for investors to consider is that the Fed is not forward thinking when it comes to monetary policy. Indeed, if we reflect on the last 15 years, we see that the Fed has been well behind the curve on everything.
Does anything about 2014 remind you of 2008? The long lists of visible stress in the global financial system and the almost laughably hollow assurances that there are no bubbles, everything is under control, etc. etc. etc. certainly remind me of the late-2007-early 2008 period when the subprime mortgage meltdown was already visible and officialdom from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan on down were mounting the bully pulpit at every opportunity to declare that there was no bubble in housing and the system was easily able to handle little things like defaulting mortgages. The party, once again, is clearly ending and raises the question: "If asset bubbles no longer boost full-time employment or incomes across the board, what is the broad-based, “social good” justification for inflating them?"
As the markets push once again into record territory the question of valuations becomes ever more important. While valuations are a poor timing tool in the short term for investors, in the long run valuation levels have everything to do with future returns. The current levels of profits, as a share of GDP, are at record levels. This is interesting because corporate profits should be a reflection of the underlying economic strength. However, in recent years, due to financial engineering, wage and employment suppression and increase in productivity, corporate profits have become extremely deviated. This deviation begs the question of sustainability. As we know from repeatedly from history, extrapolated projections rarely happen. Could this time be different? Sure. However, believing that historical tendencies have evolved into a new paradigm will likely have the same results as playing leapfrog with a Unicorn. There is mounting evidence, from valuations being paid in M&A deals, junk bond yields, margin debt and price extensions from long term means, "irrational exuberance" is once again returning to the financial markets.
The divergence between the NAHB index and other housing indicators has continued to suggest that sentiment was “getting ahead of itself" and as Citi's Tom Fitzpatrick warns would suggest that the qualitative nature of the overall housing recovery is less robust than one would like. Housing should pause/consolidate possibly even for most of this year as the weather argument that is trotted out by so many commentators does not seem to hold up to even a basic examination with the worst data coming from the West Coast. Simply put, Citi warns, we think housing sentiment got carried away as it did into 1994 and 1998 post the housing/savings and loan crisis of 1989-1991.
When it comes to complex systems and unintended consequences, the key phrase is "be careful what you wish for." A lot of people are remarkably certain that their understanding of how systems will respond in the future is correct. Alan Greenspan was certain there was no housing bubble in 2007, for example (or he did a great job acting certain). Some are certain the U.S. stock market is going to crash this year, while others are equally certain that stocks will continue lofting higher on central bank tailwinds. Being wrong about the way systems responded in the past doesn't seem to deter people from being certain about the future. Complex systems don't act in the linear way our minds tend to work.
Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly, for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.
A classicial economist... and Harvard professor... preaching to the world that one's money is not safe in the US banking system due to Ben Bernanke's actions? And putting his withdrawal slip where his mouth is and pulling $1 million out of Bank America? Say it isn't so...
In economics the chicken must always come home to roost. Man can only live beyond his means for so long. Bernanke’s reputation hinges upon the market not tanking as his successors close up the spout of gushing currency. The endpoint is coming. When it happens, the house of cards will tumble down. And with it will come the livelihoods and hopes of many. With every boom there is a bust. It’s an immutable fact of government intervention into the economy. As Bill Bonner writes, articles full of lavishing praise for Bernanke will begin appearing in coming weeks. Writing puff pieces on state bureaucrats is often a high-paying gig. But they all reveal a particular trend: celebrating the wise achievements of someone empowered to govern society. When businessmen are praised in print, their accomplishments are chalked up as minor victories reserved for the few. When the selfless man of charity is given his due, the praise is mild. When a lord of government sees the pages of a major periodical, it’s the kind of brown-nosing that would make a teacher’s pet uncomfortable. For now, Bernanke will bask in exaltation. But his just deserts are coming. You can bet $4 trillion on it.