Lord Overstone said it best. “No warning can save people determined to grow suddenly rich.” Case in point - CYNK Technology Corp, a listed company that as of this morning has a market capitalization in excess of $1 BILLION. According to official filings, the social media development company had one employee, no website, no revenue, no product, and no assets. What has effectively united this company with prudent investors is today’s central banker. Hyper-aggressive monetary policy has side effects. Getting out of this mess is not going to be easy, and it’s going to be messy.
Some basic suggestions for those who are seeking shelter from the coming storms of global financial crisis and recession.
"I am definitely concerned. When was [the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio or CAPE] higher than it is now? I can tell you: 1929, 2000 and 2007;" warned Bob Shiller this week, adding that "it's likely to turn down again, just like it did the last two times." As John Hussman reminds us this week, stock valuations now reflect not only the absence of any interest-competitive component of expected returns, but the absence of any expected compensation for the greater risk of stocks, which is not insignificant – as investors might remember from 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 plunges, despite aggressive easing by the Federal Reserve throughout both episodes. Investment decisions driven primarily by the question “What other choice do I have?” are likely to prove regrettable.
The conventional view of the Baby Boomers' retirement is a happy story: since we're living longer and remaining productive longer, Boomers will not be as much of a burden on Gen-X and Gen-Y as doom-and-gloomers assume. Not only are Boomers staying productive longer, they will draw upon their vast generational wealth as they age, limiting the financial burden on younger generations. This happy story is wrong on multiple counts.
The Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing has produced a historically prolonged period of speculative yield-seeking by investors starved for safe return. The problem with simply concluding that quantitative easing can do this forever is that even speculative assets have to compete with zero. When a safe zero return is above the medium or long-term return that one can estimate for a very risky asset, the rationale for continuing to hold the risky asset becomes purely dependent on expectations of immediate short-term price gains. If speculative momentum starts to break, participants often try to get out the door simultaneously – especially if there is some material event that increases general aversion to risk. That’s the dynamic that produces market crashes.
"In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party. The catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies. The core elements of these scenarios (debt, civic decay, global disorder) will matter more than the details, which the catalyst will juxtapose and connect in some unknowable way. At home and abroad, these events will reflect the tearing of the civic fabric at points of extreme vulnerability – problem areas where America will have neglected, denied, or delayed needed action.” - The Fourth Turning - Strauss & Howe – 1997
Market extremes generally share a common formula. One part reality is blended with one part misguided perception (typically extrapolating recent trends as if they are driven by some reliable and permanent mechanism), and often one part pure delusion (typically in the form of a colorful hallucination with elves, gnomes and dancing mushrooms all singing in harmony that reliable valuation measures no longer matter). This time is not different.
Today's financial markets make a mockery out of sanity and logic. The difference between what SHOULD happen and what IS happening is perhaps the greatest it has been in our investing lifetimes. If you're perplexed, flummoxed, frustrated, stymied, enraged, bored, irritated, insulted, discouraged -- any or all of these -- by the ever-higher blind grinding of asset prices over the past several years, despite so many structural reasons for concern, you have good reason to be.
What if all the low-hanging fruit of outsourcing jobs and financialization have already been plucked by Corporate America?
"...for those who find our work to be a constant source of irritation to be regarded with open disdain, I am retracting all of it herewith – for you alone mind you – and I leave you free to buy with both hands to whatever extent you are inclined. Not that I encourage it really – that would be bad Karma – but someone is going to have to hold equities at these prices. It would best be those who are fully aware of our concerns and prefer to reject them. So the more you dislike my work, and particularly if you are nasty about it, I have no objection to you accumulating – perhaps on margin – as much stock from other investors as possible."
After little more than a year of legitimate revaluation of equities following the 2007-2009 credit crisis, and more than three years of what will likely turn out to be wholly impermanent – if dazzling – Fed-induced speculation, investors have again pushed the stone to the top of the mountain. Despite the devastating losses of half the market’s value in 2000-2002 and 2007-2009, investors experience no fear – no suffering as a result of present market extremes. There is no suffering because at every step, as Camus might have observed, “the hope of succeeding” upholds them. As we discussed several months ago, that hope of succeeding rests on what economist J.K. Galbraith called “the extreme brevity of the financial memory.” Part of that brevity rests on ignoring the forest for the trees, and failing to consider movements further up the mountain in the context of how far the stone typically falls once it gets loose. The charts below display various journeys of Sisyphus - a chronicle of multi-year, increasingly speculative market advances that terminated in the same set of conditions that we presently observe.
“I am often asked why I do not support a more rapid deceleration of our purchases, given my agnosticism about their effectiveness and my concern that they might well be leading to froth in certain segments of the financial markets. The answer is an admission of reality: We juiced the trading and risk markets so extensively that they became somewhat addicted to our accommodation of their needs… you can’t go from Wild Turkey to cold turkey overnight."
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!
With the repeated caveat that prudent investors should invest exclusively or nearly exclusively on a multi-year value forecast, my guesses are:
- That this year should continue to be difficult with the February 1 to October 1 period being just as likely to be down as up, perhaps a little more so.
- But after October 1, the market is likely to be strong, especially through April and by then or in the following 18 months up to the next election (or, horrible possibility, even longer) will have rallied past 2,250, perhaps by a decent margin.
- And then around the election or soon after, the market bubble will burst, as bubbles always do, and will revert to its trend value, around half of its peak or worse, depending on what new ammunition the Fed can dig up.
As the Buddha taught, “This is like this, because that is like that.” Extraordinary long-term market returns come from somewhere. They originate in conditions of undervaluation, as in 1950 and 1982. Dismal long-term returns also come from somewhere – they originate in conditions of severe overvaluation. Today, as in 2000, and as in 2007, we are at a point where “this” is like this. So “that” can be expected to be like that." As Seth Klarman from Baupost Capital recently stated: "Can we say when it will end? No. Can we say that it will end? Yes. And when it ends and the trend reverses, here is what we can say for sure. Few will be ready. Few will be prepared."