There has been much discussion as of late about the end of the current quantitative easing program and the beginning of the Federal Reserve "normalizing" interest rates. The primary assumption is that as interest rates normalize, the financial markets will continue to rise as economic growth strengthens. While this certainly seems like a logical assumption, is it really the case?
Occam’s razor is a principle that states that among various hypotheses that might be used to explain a set of observations, the hypothesis – consistent with the evidence – that relies on the smallest number of assumptions is generally preferred. Essentially, the razor shaves away what is unnecessary and retains the most compact explanation that is consistent with the data. When we observe the increasingly tortured arguments that “this time is different,” we see investors discarding straightforward explanations that are fully consistent with the evidence and opting instead for the aliens-from-Xenon theory. nothing even in recent market cycles provides any support to the assumption of permanently elevated valuations. The only support for it is the desire of investors to avoid contemplating outcomes the same as the market suffered the last two times around. “This time is different” requires a lot of counterfactual assumptions. Occam’s razor would suggest a nice shave.
While the current bull market remains "bulletproof" at the moment to geopolitical events, technical deterioration, overbought conditions and extremely complacent conditions; it is worth remembering what was being said during the third phase of the previous two bull markets...
When investors hear "bull markets are bull markets until they aren't," their initial response is "no, duh!." However, if that statement is so obvious, why do we spend so much time in trying to predict the future? It is interesting that we are extremely skeptical of fortune tellers, palm readers and psychics but flock to Wall Street analysts and economists that are nothing more than "fortune tellers" in suits. The reality is that no one is actually prescient. It is all a "best guess" with nothing assured except what "is." Currently, the bull market cycle that began in 2009 remains intact. It is, what "is." The hypnotic chant of the "bullish mantra" will lull individuals from a momentary state of consciousness back into the dream world of complacency. It is from that place that investors have typically harbored the worst outcomes.
"Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the National Debt." - Herbert Hoover
The roll off of the massive slice of the population known as "baby boomers" in the years ahead will have a significant and profound impact on the economy and the markets. In my opinion, there is simply not enough attention paid this issue and it is an important one. However, since demographic impacts take a very long time to mature, they are ignored by the mainstream media which are focused on the 24-hour news and market cycles.
"Everybody knows interest rates are going to rise." Whether you agree with this premise, or not, is largely irrelevant to this discussion. The current "bullish" mantra is the "great bond bull market is dead, long live the stock market bull." However, is that really the case? When the bond bubble ends this means that bonds will begin to decline, potentially rapidly, in price driving interest rates higher. This is the worst thing that could possible happen.
Despite much hope that the current breakout of the markets is the beginning of a new secular "bull" market - the economic and fundamental variables suggest otherwise. Valuations and sentiment are at very elevated levels while interest rates, inflation, wages and savings rates are all at historically low levels. This set of fundamental variables are normally seen at the end of secular bull market periods. It is entirely conceivable that stock prices can be driven higher through the Federal Reserve's ongoing interventions, current momentum, and excessive optimism. However, the current economic variables, demographic trends and underlying fundamentals make it currently impossible to "replay the tape" of the 80's and 90's. These dynamics increase the potential of a rather nasty mean reversion at some point in the future. The good news is that it is precisely that reversion that will likely create the "set up" necessary to launch the next great secular bull market. However, as was seen at the bottom of the market in 1974, there were few individual investors left to enjoy the beginning of that ride.
While the only fun-durr-mentals that matter appear to be global central bank liquidity injections (and thus the level of leverage entrusted to the JPY carry trade), the crowd is swayed by truthisms and "common knowledge" memes that recovery is here, that things are improving, that earnings are 'solid', that markets are still cheap, and that historical analogs are different this time. However, with monetary policy at a turning point, we also appear (fundamentally and technically) to be at "the inflection point from self-reinforcing speculation to fragile instability."
With the market more bullishly positioned, more euphoric, and more levered than almost any time in history, it is perhaps worth "pondering" what some of the risks to this optimism could be...
Fed's Fisher Says "Investors Have Beer Goggles From Liquidity", Joins Goldman In Stock Correction WarningSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 01/14/2014 14:40 -0400
"Continuing large-scale asset purchases risks placing us in an untenable position, both from the standpoint of unreasonably inflating the stock, bond and other tradable asset markets and from the perspective of complicating the future conduct of monetary policy," warns the admittedly-hawkish Dallas Fed head. Fisher goes on to confirm Peter Boockvar's "QE puts beer goggles on investors," analogy adding that while he is "not among those who think we are presently in a 'bubble' mode for stocks or bonds; he is reminded of William McChesney Martin comments - the longest-serving Fed chair - "markets for anything tradable overshoot and one must be prepared for adjustments that bring markets back to normal valuations."
The eye of the needle of pulling off a clean exit is narrow; the camel is already too fat. As soon as feasible, we should change tack. We should stop digging. I plan to cast my votes at FOMC meetings accordingly.
Discussion of a market bubble (in stocks, credit, bonds, Farm-land, residential real estate, or art) have dominated headlines in recent weeks. However, QEeen Yellen gave us the all-clear this morning that there was "no bubble." Are we currently witnessing a market bubble? It is very possible; however, as STA's Lance Roberts notes, if we are, it will be the first market bubble in history to be seen in advance (despite Bullard's comments in opposition to that "fact"). From a contrarian investment view point, there is simply "too much bubble talk" currently which means that there is likely more irrational excess to come. The lack of "economic success" will likely mean that the Fed remains engaged in its ongoing QE programs for much longer than currently expected - and perhaps Hussman's pre-crash bubble anatomy is dead on...
Investors who believe that history has lessons to teach should take our present concerns with significant weight, but should also recognize that tendencies that repeatedly prove reliable over complete market cycles are sometimes defied over portions of those cycles. Meanwhile, investors who are convinced that this time is different can ignore what follows. The primary reason not to listen to a word of it is that similar concerns, particularly since late-2011, have been followed by yet further market gains. If one places full weight on this recent period, and no weight on history, it follows that stocks can only advance forever. What seems different this time, enough to revive the conclusion that “this time is different,” is faith in the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak...
The risk of a more meaningful reversion is rising. It is unknown, unexpected and unanticipated events that strike the crucial blow that begins the market rout. Unfortunately, due to the increased impact of high frequency and program trading, reversions are likely to occur faster than most can adequately respond to. This is the danger that exists today. Are we in the third phase of a bull market? Most who read this article will immediately say "no." However, those were the utterances made at the peak of every previous bull market cycle. The reality is that, as investors, we should consider the possibility, evaluate the risk and manage accordingly. With the current bull market now stretching into its fifth year; it seems appropriate to review the three very distinct phases of historical bull market cycles. While the current bull market cycle may not be set to end tomorrow; it seems sensible to take a pause to question mainstream beliefs.
Secular bull markets are great parties. Investors arrive from secular bears really wanting to take the edge off. As the bull proceeds, above-average returns become intoxicating. By the time it is over, the past decade or two has delivered bountiful returns. In contrast, secular bears seem like hangovers. They are awakenings that strip away the intoxication, leaving a sobering need for an understanding of what has happened. If history is a guide, the inflation rate will at some point trend away from the present price stability. The result will be a significant declining trend in P/E. If this occurs over a few years, the market losses will be dramatic. These processes take many years. Be careful not to let hope for the next secular bull mask the reality of the current secular bear.
"When things are going well people become greedy and enthusiastic, and when times are troubled, people become fearful and reticent. That’s just the wrong thing to do. Another mistake that people often make is that they compare themselves with others who are making more money than they are and conclude that they should emulate the others’ actions ... after they’ve worked. This is the source of the herd behaviour that so often gets them into trouble... As long as human nature is part of the investment environment, which it always will be, we’ll experience bubbles and crashes.... People talk about the wisdom of the free market – of the invisible hand – but there’s no free market in money today. Interest rates are not natural. They are where they are because the governments have set them at that level. Free markets optimise the allocation of resources in the long run, and administered markets distort the allocation of resources. This is not a good thing..." - Howard Marks