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.
This past week has been a virtual tennis match watching the evolution of the Greek bailout negotiations. No Deal, Deal, No Deal, Deal. However, despite the fallout that would likely come from a Greek "exit," the markets have largely managed to ignore the risk and hit an all-time high this week. Market valuations, bullish sentiment and complacency are all pushing higher as the focus remains on the ignition of the ECB's QE program as a stimulus for the markets. In fact, this is so much the case that the net percentage of managers overweight Eurozone equities is at the highest level on record.
"Suffice it to say that current equity markets are no place for long-term investors, and that even a resumption of risk-seeking investor preferences would demand a considerable safety net. For now, we believe the best interpretation of recent market action is as a hopeful, low-volume short-squeeze to marginal new highs, despite early deterioration in market internals following a period of extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions. This pattern is much like we observed in September 2000 and October 2007."
It’s not entirely clear what will happen in the near term, but the financial markets are already pushed to extremes by central-bank induced speculation. With speculators massively short the now steeply-depressed euro and yen, with equity margin debt still near record levels in a market valued at more than double its pre-bubble norms on historically reliable measures, and with several major European banks running at gross leverage ratios comparable to those of Bear Stearns and Lehman before the 2008 crisis, we're seeing an abundance of what we call "leveraged mismatches" - a preponderance one-way bets, using borrowed money, that permeates the entire financial system. With market internals and credit spreads behaving badly, while Treasury yields, oil and industrial commodity prices slide in a manner consistent with abrupt weakening in global economic activity, we can hardly bear to watch...
"I am concerned that a sizable equity market correction looms. In order to justify general equity market over-weights, either risk premiums needs to fall further, or the economy and financial markets need to have reached a level of ‘escape velocity’ powerful enough to push them forward, even in the face of Fed rate hikes. I find such a ‘soft landing’ scenario improbable at best."
"Current equity valuations provide no margin of safety for long-term investors. One might as well be investing on a dare..."
Despite the authorities' best efforts to keep everything orderly, we know how this global Game of Geopolitical Tetris ends: "Players lose a typical game of Tetris when they can no longer keep up with the increasing speed, and the Tetriminos stack up to the top of the playing field. This is commonly referred to as topping out."
"I’m tired of being outraged!"
Every year, David Collum writes a detailed "Year in Review" synopsis full of keen perspective and plenty of wit. This year's is no exception. "I have not seen a year in which so many risks - some truly existential - piled up so quickly. Each risk has its own, often unknown, probability of morphing into a destructive force. It feels like we’re in the final throes of a geopolitical Game of Tetris as financial and political authorities race to place the pieces correctly. But the acceleration is palpable. The proximate trigger for pain and ultimately a collapse can be small, as anyone who’s ever stepped barefoot on a Lego knows..."
"As was true at the 2000 and 2007 extremes, Wall Street is quite measurably out of its mind. There’s clear evidence that valuations have little short-term impact provided that risk-aversion is in retreat (which can be read out of market internals and credit spreads, which are now going the wrong way). There’s no evidence, however, that the historical relationship between valuations and longer-term returns has weakened at all. Yet somehow the awful completion of this cycle will be just as surprising as it was the last two times around – not to mention every other time in history that reliable valuation measures were similarly extreme. Honestly, you’ve all gone mad."
The actions of central bankers around the globe which have been driving stock prices higher are not a sign of control. They are signs of desperation. They are losing control. Their academic theories have failed. Their bosses insist they turn it up to eleven. Something is going to blow. You can feel it. John Hussman knows what will happen. Do you?