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.
As the markets elevate higher on the back of the global central bank interventions it is important to keep in context the historical tendencies of the markets over time. Here we are once again with markets, driven by inflows of liquidity from Central Banks, hitting all-time highs. Of course, the chorus of justifications have come to the forefront as to why "this time is different." The current level of overbought conditions, combined with extreme complacency, in the market leave unwitting investors in danger of a more severe correction than currently anticipated. There is virtually no “bullish” argument that will withstand real scrutiny. Yield analysis is flawed because of the artificial interest rate suppression. It is the same for equity risk premium analysis. However, because the optimistic analysis supports the underlying psychological greed - all real scrutiny that would reveal evidence to contrary is dismissed. However, it is "willful blindness" that eventually leads to a dislocation in the markets. In this regard let's review the three most common arguments used to support the current market exuberance.
Corruption thrives when good people do nothing. Societies rebound when good people do something. Isn't it time to make democratic capitalism happen. Democratic capitalism is about worthwhile production and exchange by communities of people who give a damn. It is expressly not about either crony-driven concentration of wealth or government redistribution.
As the global equity and bond markets grind ever higher, abundant signs exist that we are once again living through an asset bubble – or rather a whole series of bubbles in a variety of markets. This makes this period quite interesting, but also quite dangerous. This can be summarized in one sentence: How could this be happening again so soon?
The political class set in motion the eventual obliteration of our economic system with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Placing the fate of the American people in the hands of a powerful cabal of unaccountable greedy wealthy elitist bankers was destined to lead to poverty for the many, riches for the connected crony capitalists, debasement of the currency, endless war, and ultimately the decline and fall of an empire. The 100 year downward spiral began gradually but has picked up steam in the last sixteen years, as the exponential growth model, built upon ever increasing levels of debt and an ever increasing supply of cheap oil, has proven to be unsustainable and unstable. Those in power are frantically using every tool at their disposal to convince Boobus Americanus they have everything under control and the system is operating normally. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1996 it was Alan Greenspan with his "irrational exuberance" call, is Janet Yellen sending the same message, as she warns...
- *YELLEN SEES SIGNS `SOME PARTIES ARE REACHING FOR YIELD'
- *YELLEN SAYS LOW INTEREST RATES MAY PROMPT `TOO MUCH LEVERAGE'
Did the Fed's most dovish member, and likely next chairperson just suggest that, while 'lower for longer' rates will continue, that stocks and high-yield credit look a little more than frothy.
While budgets are thrown around that tax wealth in every way possible and transfer payments are ever-increasing, it seems the post-election euphoria among the poor in the USA has worn off just as rapidly as it did in 2008. Bernanke's irrational exuberance has pushed the 'comfort' of the 'rich' (earning over $100k) to its highest since October 2010 while the comfort of the 'poor' (those earning under $15k per year) has slumped back to the lowest comfort in three months. We need moar wealth transfer.
Sam Zell: "This is a very treacherous market," thanks to the giant tsunami of liquidity, "the problems of 2007 haven't been dealt with," and given the poor macro data and earnings, "we are suffering through another irrational exuberance," leaving the entire CNBC audience speechless when he concludes, "the stock market feels like the housing market of 2006."
We live in a world that is dislocated, on a different axis, where the economy is doing one thing and the markets are doing something else that is not connected. As political nonsense becomes the world's normal banter; the official language in the Press is little more than printed or spoken noise - all caused by the Fed's outpouring of money into the system. Rational reactions become irrational when confined to an irrational world. The world will return to its senses once again either driven by some "event" or by the Fed beginning some sort of withdrawal. In the meantime the markets are beginning to back-up some as moved by becoming accustomed to the continuing flood of money. It is rather like a fine Bordeaux. One meal, two meals, a week's worth of meals and the experience is marvelous but if you drink it every night for dinner the magic begins to dissipate. It is no longer special; it is something expected, it is just the normal fare.