The distinction between the world's only two types of traders (good vs bad) has been a very vague one. Until now. According to a new study by researchers at Caltech and Virginia Tech that looked at the brain activity and behavior of people trading in experimental markets where price bubbles formed, an early warning signal tips off smart traders when to get out even as the "dumb" ones keep ploughing in and chasing the momentum wave. In such markets, where price far outpaces actual value, it appears that wise traders receive an early warning signal from their brains—a warning that makes them feel uncomfortable and urges them to sell, sell, sell.
Janet Yellen is a chatterbox of numbers, but most of them are “noise”. And that’s her term. Yet here is a profoundly important set of numbers that you haven’t heard boo about from Yellen and her mad money printers. To wit, during the “difficult” economic times since the financial crisis began gathering force in Q1 2008, the S&P 500 companies have distributed $3.8 trillion in stock buybacks and dividends out of just $4 trillion in cumulative net income. That’s right, 95 cents of every dollar they earned - including the huge gains from restructurings, downsizings and job terminations - was flushed right back into the Wall Street casino.
There can be no doubt that computer science knowledge is currently in great demand; however, we do believe that there are some signs that the boom is - so to speak - 'getting out of hand' and is beginning to reflect the effects of the technology echo bubble on Wall Street. The give-away is the size of the demand for computer science studies relative to other fields of study. The last time enrollment in computer science peaked was in the year 2000 – concurrently with the technology mania. This is obviously no coincidence. What is slightly disconcerting is that the current peak in enrollments towers vastly above that previous bubble peak.
It is not too early to ask how the present US business cycle expansion, already more than five years old, will end. The history of the last great US monetary experiment in “quantitative easing” (QE) from 1934-7 suggests that the end could be violent. Autumn 1937 featured one of the largest New York stock market crashes ever accompanied by the descent of the US economy into the notorious Roosevelt Recession. As we noted previously - it's never different this time...
After a brief warning last week that all was not well in the world of the uber-wealthy as a couple of art auctions did not quite go as expected, The Wall Street Journal reports that there is no need to worry... the contemporary art market is on fire. Christie's in New York made auction history Tuesday when it sold $745 million worth of art - topping its $691.6 million landmark sale last November. The bid behind this record-breaking exuberance... All night long, auction regulars found themselves competing with Asian telephone bidders representing mainland Chinese collectors. Whether Tuesday's sale represents a new high point for the art market - or the next step in a developing cycle – remains to be seen... as one excited buyer noted - "The art market is hot across the board - Pop is selling, Ab-Ex is selling, New Wave is selling, it's all selling."
The "Shiller P/E" is much in the news of late, and, as ConvergEx's Nick Colas suggests, with good reason. It shows that U.S. equity valuations are pushing towards crash-worthy levels. This measure of long term earnings power to current price is currently at 25.3x, or close to 2 standard deviations away from its long run median of 15.9x. As Colas concludes, the writing is on the wall and we must all read it. Future returns are likely going to be lower. Competition for investor capital will get even tougher. That’s what the Shiller P/E says, and it is worth listening.
As another week passes by the markets have made no real movement in months. News flow, outside of Yellen's testimony, was also rather slow as first quarter's earnings season begins to come to a close. However, there were a few articles that we read this week that we thought you might find interesting as well... from the dangers of hidden leverage (in the re-burgeoning CDO markets) to the history if bubbles (and their lack of logic) and the demise of the US small business.
This time is different - check; Moral Hazard - check; Easy Money - check; Overblown growth stories - check; No valuation anchor - check; Conspicuous consumption - check; Ponzi finance - check... and, of course, Irrational exuberance: check!
Simply put, there is overwhelming evidence of inflation during the decade long era in which the central bankers have been braying about “deflation”. What is more worrisome, David Stockman presents some startling evidence of the complicity of the government statistical mills in using the inflation that is not seen (i.e. “imputed”) to dilute and obscure the inflation that is seen (i.e. utility bills).
Overnight, four months after our prediction, the FDIC-backed hedge fund not only that, but so much more that even we were shocked, because from a Q1 GDP which Goldman had originally predicted was going to be 3%, the crack team of economists - or is that team of economists on crack - lowered its Q1 GDP to, drumroll, 1%! And that's in the aftermath of the stronger than expected Durable Goods reports. Because it's only logical that good news is bad news. And vice versa.
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.
As Bill Clinton once famously stated; "What is....is" and while the current market "IS" within a bullish trend currently, it doesn't mean that this will always be the case. This is why, as investors, we must modify Clinton's line to: "What is...is...until it isn't." That thought is the foundation of this weekend's "Things To Ponder." In order to recognize when market dynamics have changed for the worse, we must be aware of the risks that are currently mounting.
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.
Back in December 2013, as we do after every periodic bout of irrational exuberance by Goldman's chief economist Jan Hatzius et al (who can forget our post from December 2010 "Goldman Jumps Shark, Goes Bullish, Hikes Outlook" in which Hatzius hiked his 2011 GDP forecast from 1.9% to 2.7% only to end the year at 1.8%, and we won't even comment on the longer-term forecasts) designed merely to provide a context for Goldman's equity flow and prop-trading axes, we said it was only a matter of time before Goldman (and the rest of the Goldman-following sellside econo-penguins) is forced to once again trim its economic forecasts. Overnight, two months after our prediction, the FDIC-backed hedge fund did just that, after Goldman's Hatzius announced that "we have taken down our GDP estimates to 2½% in Q1 and 3% in Q2, from 2.7% [ZH: actually 3.0% as of Thursday] and 3½% previously."
Markets are deteriorating around the world but what could cause a real correction in the markets?