The correlation between stock prices and margin debt continues to rise (to new records of exuberant "Fed's got our backs" hope) as NYSE member margin balances surge to new record highs. Relative to the NYSE Composite, this is the most "leveraged' investors have been since the absolute peak in Feb 2000. What is more worrisome, or perhaps not, is the ongoing collapse in investor net worth - defined as total free credit in margin accounts less total margin debt - which has hit what appears to be all-time lows (i.e. there's less left than ever before) which as we noted previously raised a "red flag" with Deutsche Bank. Relative to the 'economy' margin debt has only been higher at the very peak in 2000 and 2007 and was never sustained at this level for more than 2 months. Sounds like a perfect time to BTFATH...
There comes a time in every bubble's life when participants who have a stake in its continuation have to employ ever more tortured logic to justify sticking with it. We have come across an especially amusing example of this recently. “Good news!” blares a headline at CNBC “Bubble concern is at a 5-year high”. Ironically, since at least 1999 if not earlier, the source of this headline has been referred to as 'bubble-vision' by cynical observers (or alternatively as 'hee-haw'). It definitely cannot hurt to be aware of market psychology and sentiment. However, the argument that a surge in searches for the term 'bubble' on Google can be interpreted as an 'all clear' for a bubble's continuation seems to have things exactly the wrong way around. The misguided behavior of financial market participants that can be observed during bubbles is merely mirroring the clusters of entrepreneurial error monetary pumping brings about.
What is important to understand is that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, "record" earnings or profits are generally fleeting in nature. It is at these divergences from the long term growth trends where true buying and selling opportunities exist. Are we currently in another asset "bubble?" The answer is something that we will only know for sure in hindsight. However, from a fundamental standpoint, with valuations and profitability on a per share basis well above long term trends it certainly does not suggest that market returns going forward will continue to be as robust as those seen from the recessionary lows.
It is well-known that as part of the S&P500's ascent to new records, investor margin debt has also surged to all time highs, surpassing for the past three months previous records set during both prior, the dot com and the housing, stock market bubbles. And as more attention has shifted to the topic of speculator leverage once more, inquiries into the correlation between bets upon bets and stock performance are popping up once more, in this case in a study by Deutsche Bank titled "Red Flag! - The curious case of NYSE margin debt." Of particular note here is a historical comparison of margin-debt warnings that have recurred throughout history but especially just before major stock bubble crashes, such as in the period 1999/2000, 2007/2008 and of course today, which have time and again been ignored. Here is what was said then, what is being said now, and what is ignored always.
Are we likely forming a market top? It is very possible. We saw the same type of market action towards the last two market peaks. However, it will only be known for sure in hindsight. The many similarities between the last cyclical bull market cycle and what we are currently experiencing should be at least raising some warning flags for investors. The levels of speculation, leverage, price extensions, duration of the rally, earnings trends and valuations are all at levels that have historically led to not so pleasant outcomes. The reality, however, is that the current "liquidity driven exuberance" could keep the markets "irrational" longer than logic, technicals or fundamentals would dictate.
One of the problems with QE is that the Fed is forcing people to buy riskier investments than they otherwise would have. The immorality of their actions aside, they create a significant psychological mismatch between assets and their holders. Stocks are in weak hands, insuring one great stampede for the chairs when the music stops.
Another day, another ugly glimpse of economic reality, another volume-less bid for every dip in stocks as momentum is all. Today, it seems, the bullish meme remains: earnings, which we know were abysmal if judged correctly (and appear extended longer-term); valuations, which we know are higher than at the previous peak on a forward P/E (and are notably expensive on a long-term cycle basis); dividends and cash on the balance sheet (which has been created by relevering firms significantly and in no way represents 'flexibility'); and buybacks - if management is buying then we're all in - which, based on SocGen's Albert Edwards' excellent works, turns out to be a great market-timing tool for bulls to run for the hills. Four charts for the bullish faint of heart...
Turning your growth trade into a value trade is the quintessential sign of a losing trader on Wall Street.
Most Wall Street pundits just follow the crowd....
Presenting Dave Collum's now ubiquitous and all-encompassing annual review of markets and much, much more. From Baptists, Bankers, and Bootleggers to Capitalism, Corporate Debt, Government Corruption, and the Constitution, Dave provides a one-stop-shop summary of everything relevant this year (and how it will affect next year and beyond).
Is There a Better Way to Allocate Stocks?
From Albert Edwards: "In 2005 when Alan Greenspan was being hailed as a “maestro” I wrote that his policies would ruin the world and history would judge him to be “an economic war criminal”. I now think Ben Bernanke’s policies will prove even more ruinous than Sir Alan’s (yes unbelievably he still retains his honorary knighthood). Hence we are lowering our equity weighting to 30%, the minimum possible. The last time I did this was 8 May 2008.... I'm reading some insanely stupid stuff at the moment. Okay, I know some of my writing is pretty insane, but when I read direct quotes and commentary about Bernanke's policy of driving up asset prices in general and equity prices in particular, I almost want to cry over the ludicrousness of this position. The Fed is pursuing the same road to ruin as it did between 2003-2007. I'm becoming more and more convinced that, Gloom, Boom, & Doom's Marc Faber is right when he says that "the Fed will destroy the world."
But I would contend that you need to be careful for what you wish for as something has happened to the relationship between bonds and stocks over the past 2 years.
Forget Competing Theories … What Do the Facts Say about Quantitative Easing?