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?
There are things going on with the financial markets currently that seem just a bit "out of balance." For example, asset prices are rising against a backdrop of global weakness, deflationary pressures and rising valuations. More importantly, there is a rising divergence between sentiment and hard data. While weather can't be blamed yet, it will likely be the main "excuse" in the months ahead as early record snowfall is already impacting economic production. However, it isn't just the manufacturing data that seems "out of whack."
"The multiple expansion phase of the current bull market ended in 2013. The strong S&P 500 YTD price gain of 10% roughly matches the realized year/year EPS growth of the index. The index has climbed by 17% annually during the past three years as the consensus forward P/E multiple surged by nearly 60% from 10x to 16x. ... We forecast US stocks will deliver a modest total return of 5% in 2015, in line with profit growth. The US economy will expand at a brisk pace. Corporations will boost sales and keep margins elevated allowing managements to both invest for growth and return cash to shareholders via buybacks and dividends. Investors will cheer these positive fundamental developments."
While the argument that declines in energy and gasoline prices should lead to stronger consumption sounds logical, the data suggests that this is not actually the case.
The markets have been pushing new all-time highs this past week as earnings season begins to wind down. Starting next week, much of the focus will shift back to the economy and holiday retail sales. Expectations are for a robust season but the early arrival of winter could have a more negative effect on the economy than anticipated should current weather patterns persist.
A normalization effort is going to then basically expose that the stock market is roughly overvalued by 100%? "100%, yes. I actually think the case is a little bit harsher than that; in fact, quite a bit harsher than that."