It has been a very interesting week as the Government shutdown/debt ceiling debate debacle moves into the background. The focus has now turned back towards the fundamentals of the market, economic environment and the ongoing Federal Reserve interventions. What is becoming increasingly evident is that market participants are once again potentially throwing "caution to the wind" betting on a belief that the Fed's ongoing Q.E. programs will continue to trump valuations and economics. After all, that has seemingly been the case up to this point. The problem is that no one really knows how this will turn out. However, as we discussed earlier this week, it is likely that we are close to finding out answer. In the meantime, here is our weekly list of "things to ponder this weekend."
In the long term, it will ultimately be the fundamentals that drive the markets. Currently, the deterioration in the growth rate of earnings and economic strength are not supportive of the speculative rise in asset prices or leverage. The idea of whether, or not, the Federal Reserve, along with virtually every other central bank in the world, are inflating the next asset bubble is of significant importance to investors who can ill afford to lose a large chunk of their net worth. It is all reminiscent of the market peak of 1929 when Dr. Irving Fisher uttered his now famous words: "Stocks have now reached a permanently high plateau." Does an asset bubble currently exist? Ask anyone and they will adamantly say 'NO.' However, maybe it is precisely that tacit denial which might be an indication of its existence
"It is really going to end badly," is the ominous warning that Damien Cleusix has issued to his clients as he believes we are now reaching the top of the secular bull market. Crucially, he sees US stock markets as "grossly over-valued" but that it is hidden from most people's perceptions because (just as in 2000 and 2007) there are marginal sectors that make the 'aggregate' seem reasonable (not to mention the dreams of forward earnings.) His novel approach of a point-in-time Price-to-Sales comp shows the median valuation its highest in 23 years.. and Alan Greenspan's infamous "exuberance" valuations in 1996 were 40% below current levels of elation. Today, the big difference with 2000 and 2007 is that government and central banks have already spend a lot of firing power to "make believe" that everything is fine again. He concludes, "there will be no place to hide when the tide turns."
As markets twiddle their thumbs waiting on Washington to come up with a political solution to the Federal Debt Limit/budget debate, ConvergEx's Nick Colas decided it would be a good time to review the academic literature on how markets discount expectations in the first place. Behavioral finance posits that human nature skews perceptions of risk and return, causing everything from irrational risk aversion to asset price bubbles. Against this current backdrop of theoretical uncertainty, measures like the VIX are currently somnambulant. So, using the modern vernacular, WTF? The bottom line, Colas explains, is that Wall Street thinks it has the current "Crisis" all figured out: a last minute deal with no Treasury default. And just as we haven’t sold off materially during this drama, don’t expect a huge (+5%) lift afterwards.
David Stockman, author of The Great Deformation, summarizes the last quarter century thus: What has been growing is the wealth of the rich, the remit of the state, the girth of Wall Street, the debt burden of the people, the prosperity of the beltway and the sway of the three great branches of government - that is, the warfare state, the welfare state and the central bank...
What is flailing is the vast expanse of the Main Street economy where the great majority have experienced stagnant living standards, rising job insecurity, failure to accumulate material savings, rapidly approach old age and the certainty of a Hobbesian future where, inexorably, taxes will rise and social benefits will be cut...
He calls this condition "Sundown in America".
San Francisco Fed head John Williams - known for his extremely dovish views on monetary policy (and support of record accomodation) - appears to have taken some uncomfortable truth serum this morning. In a speech reminiscent of previous "froth" discussions and "irrational exuberance" admissions, Williams explained:
- *WILLIAMS SAYS POLICY MAY YIELD ASSET BUBBLES, UNINTENDED RESULT
- *WILLIAMS: ASSET-PRICE BUBBLES AND CRASHES 'ARE HERE TO STAY'
- *WILLIAMS: ASSET-PRICE BUBBLES ARE 'CONSEQUENCE OF HUMAN NATURE'
His words appear to reflect heavily on the Fed's Advisory Letter (from the banks) from 3 months ago - warning of exactly this "unintended consequence." This, on the heels of Plosser's recent admission that the Fed was responsible for the last housing bubble, suggests with the black-out period before September's FOMC about to begin, the Fed is sending us a message that Taper is coming - as we know they are cornered for four reasons (sentiment, deficits, technicals, and international resentment).
With the Case-Shiller 20-City index up double-digits for the 4th straight month, Bob Shiller has some choice words for the CNBC interviewers about the 'housing recovery'. "Housing is a market with momentum," he notes, "and right now, the momentum is up;" but he adds that while house prices are 'recovering', he remains much less sanguine about this recent move. But it is once he has explained the potential concerns that may weigh on the housing market that Shiller comes into his own as he explains "none of this is real, the housing market has gotten very speculative."
Must see clip as Shiller scoffs at the current sentiment, the resurgence of 'flipping', and that the housing market is "driven by irrational exuberance."
With all eyes fixed on GDP and unemployment data this week (and all their revised and propagandized unreality) for more hints at if (not when) the Fed will Taper; the dismal reality that few seem willing to admit is that it is when (not if) and that the announcement of a "Taper" has nothing to do with the economy. There are three key factors driving this decision: Bernanke's bubble-blowing and bond-market-breaking legacy, the political 'clean slate' his successor needs, and, most importantly, the fear that QE will be discovered for what it is - monetization. As BoJ's Kuroda admitted last night "if QE is seen as financing debt, this could lead to rise in yields." With deficits falling, the Fed's real actions will be exposed (unless QE is tapered) and as Kyle Bass has explained before, it was out of the hands of the BOJ (or The Fed) and entirely up to market psychology.
This might just be the cruelest time to be an asset allocator. Normally we find ourselves in situations in which at least something is cheap; for instance when large swathes of risk assets have been expensive, safe haven assets have generally been cheap, or at least reasonable (and vice versa). This was typified by the opportunity set we witnessed in 2007. Likewise, during the TMT bubble of the late 1990s, the massive overvaluation of certain sectors was offset by opportunities in “old economy” stocks, emerging market equities, and safe-haven assets. However, today we see something very different. As Exhibit 2 shows, today we see something very different. As Exhibit 2 shows, today’s opportunity set is characterized by almost everything being expensive. As I noted in “The 13th Labour of Hercules,” this is a direct effect of the quantitative easing policies being pursued by the Federal Reserve and their ilk around the world.
You might think that we have been living in a post-bubble world since the collapse in 2006 of the biggest-ever worldwide real-estate bubble and the end of a major worldwide stock-market bubble the following year. But talk of bubbles keeps reappearing – new or continuing housing bubbles in many countries, a new global stock-market bubble, a long-term bond-market bubble in the United States and other countries, an oil-price bubble, a gold bubble, and so on. Speculative bubbles do not end like a short story, novel, or play. There is no final denouement that brings all the strands of a narrative into an impressive final conclusion. In the real world, we never know when the story is over.
The volatility of recent weeks is but a mere small taste of the volatility in store for all markets in the coming months and years. The global debt crisis is likely to continue for the rest of the decade as politicians and central bankers have merely delayed the day of reckoning. They have ensured that when the day of reckoning comes it will be even more painful and costly then it would have been previously.
“That’s the whole dilemma!” As the G-20 is already getting cold feet....
Reuters reports that Japan's public pension fund, the world's largest with a pool of $1.1 trillion, and which until recently was the mystery buyer ex machina that was supposed to buy up the Nikkei past 16,000 and on its way to 20,000, 30,000 and more (a dream that fizzled as quickly as it appeared following our explanation that buying stocks means selling bonds), may start buying real estate to boost returns in a move that could involve tens of billions pouring into cities such as London and Paris. Or New York.
Is recent market behavior the beginning of a market turndown? No one knows, although it is easy to find people providing “answers.” The value of these predictions approach those of astrologers and fortune-tellers.
Fear, like greed, makes people, and that would include investors, behave irrationally. Two major equity bear markets in the last 13 years have traumatized investors. The belief in Modern Portfolio Theory in general and the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) in particular has been shaken and finance theory will have to be re-written. So, Absolute Return Partners' Niels Jensen asks, what is it specifically that has changed? Human behavior certainly hasn’t. Greed and fear have been factors to be reckoned with since day nought. When faced with the unknown, people (in this case, fund managers) will use whatever information they can get hold of. Hence we shouldn’t really be surprised that fund managers extrapolate current earnings trends when forecasting future earnings, despite the evidence that it is a futile exercise. Occasionally, the Wisdom of Crowds turns into the Madness of Mobs and all rational behavior goes out the window. History provides many examples of that. EMH is entirely unsuited to deal with froth. What made economists love the EMH is that the maths behind it is so neat whereas the alternative truth is a little messy.