This weekend's reading list is a smattering of articles to enjoy between your favorite beverage, grilled meat and really fattening desert. Just remember to go back to the gym on Monday...
Since the beginning of this year the markets have primarily treaded water. The primary support for the bulls has been continued acknowledgement by the Fed on an inability to remove accommodative policy by raising interest rates. (Which should make you question what happens the first time they do.) The bears have been feasting on weak economic data and deteriorating fundamentals.
"It's starting to get ugly..."
"But aren't stocks "cheap relative to bonds"? Unfortunately, the evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Indeed, despite a yield to maturity of hardly more than 2% annually, Treasury bonds are still likely to outperform the total return of the S&P 500 over the coming decade... Frankly, history suggests that a rather ordinary completion to the present market cycle would involve the S&P 500 losing more than half of its value."
There are many half-truths perpetrated on individuals by Wall Street to sell product, gain assets, etc. However, if individuals took a moment to think about it, the illogic of many of these arguments are readily apparent...
Like Houston, the financial system has been flooded with liquidity over recent years which has ultimately only had one place to flow - the financial markets. That excess liquidity has sent prices soaring to record highs despite weakting macro economic data. While many hope that the Central Banks can somehow figure out how to keeps the rivers of liquidity from overflowing their banks, history suggests that eventually bad things will happen. Of course, for investors, that translates into a significant and irreperable loss of capital.
It is unknowable how much more pronounced these excesses can become, especially in light of extremely loose monetary policy around the world. Things could easily become quite dicey as soon as tomorrow, but it is just as easily possible that valuations will continue to expand for some time yet. However, these data do indicate one thing: risk has increased enormously, and it will keep increasing the longer the bubble persists. Frankly, the situation also scares us a bit, because we expect that governments and their agencies (such as central banks) will find it extremely difficult to deal with the next crisis. They have become quite overstretched as a result of the last one. After having gone “all in” last time around, what are they supposed to do for an encore? The only options that come to mind are repressive measures such as capital controls, confiscation of private wealth, and a host of other unpleasantries.
Markets are not cheap by any measure. If earnings growth continues to wane or interest rates rise, the bull market thesis will collapse as "expectations" collide with "reality." This is not a dire prediction of doom and gloom, nor is it a "bearish" forecast. It is just a function of how markets work over time. This time is "not different." The only difference will be what triggers the next valuation reversion when it occurs.
“Things always become obvious after the fact” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
It’s not monetary easing, but the attitude of investors toward risk that distinguishes an overvalued market that continues higher from an overvalued market that is vulnerable to vertical losses. That window of vulnerability has been open for several months now, and the immediacy of our downside concerns would ease (despite obscene valuations) only if market internals and credit spreads were to shift back toward evidence of investor risk-seeking. Eventually, the final refuge of speculation is to abandon historically reliable measures wholesale, resting faith instead on the advent of some new era in which the old rules simply don’t apply.
Money doesn’t go “into” the stock market – it goes through it from a buyer to a seller. The resulting price changes are purely changes in the relative value that people place on these pieces of paper, and amount to changes the amount of “paper wealth” in the economy. These changes should emphatically be distinguished from the real wealth of the economy, and the underlying stream of cash flows that will be generated over time.
"...the deterioration in both economic data and profitability data leave a good bit of cause for near-term concern..."
The American economic and financial landscape is vastly different than it was following World War II. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor has shifted sharply to the upper 10% of the population. For that group, the economic picture is considerably brighter than for those in the bottom 80%. For Byron, whose personal net worth is in the billions, this is truly a "Picasso economy," for the majority of everyone else it is more like a "starving artist sale."
"I was having lunch with a very dear friend of mine yesterday, who is also a very successful financial planner and advisor, who stunned me with an obvious question: 'Has the dumb money become the smart money?'"
When investor preferences are risk-seeking, overly loose monetary policy can have a disastrous effect by promoting reckless speculation and enhancing the ability of low-quality borrowers to issue debt to yield-starved investors. This encourages malinvestment and financial distortions that then collapse, as we saw following the tech and housing bubbles. Those seeds have now been sown for the third time in 15 years. In fact, the present moment likely represents the best opportunity to reduce exposure to stock market risk that investors are likely to encounter in the coming 8 years.