Market bears take the position that stocks are expensive, citing a variety of indicators and arguing that profit margins should “mean revert” from record highs. On the other side, market bulls dispute the indicators and propose that fat margins are no big deal – they might just remain at record highs indefinitely.
“High margins reflect a long-term structural change, not a short-term cyclical one,” according to one account of a popular position. Or “It’s a mistake to think that margins will revert to a long-term mean just for the sake of reverting to a mean.”
The message seems to be that mean reversion is for losers. This is a new era, or it’s a new economy, or whatever. We're paraphrasing, but the story sounds a lot like the capital letter New Economy of the late 1990s. There’s even a technology angle once again, along with huge confidence in monetary policy and recession-free growth. Above all, there’s a notion that the world might be different. Needless to say, the new, new economy story comes with plenty of red flags.
Bill Gross lost "Bob" this week. The death of his cat sparked some longer-term reflection on the hubris of risk-takers, the mirage of magnificent performance, and the ongoing debate in bond markets - extend duration (increase interest rate risk) or reduce quality (increase credit risk). As the PIMCO boss explains, a Bull Market almost guarantees good looking Sharpe ratios and makes risk takers compared to their indices (or Treasury Bills) look good as well. The lesson to be learned from this longer-term history is that risk was rewarded even when volatility or sleepless nights were factored into the equation. But that was then, and now is now.
Howard Marks once wrote that being a "contrarian" is a lonely profession. However, as investors, it is the downside that is far more damaging to our financial health than potentially missing out on a short term opportunity. Opportunities come and go, but replacing lost capital is a difficult and time consuming proposition. So, the question that we will "ponder" this weekend is whether the current consolidation is another in a long series of "buy the dip" opportunities, or does "something wicked this way come?" Here are some "words of caution" worth considering in trying to answer that question.
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.
"Property taxes are equitable and efficient, but underutilized in many economies. The average yield of property taxes in 65 economies (for which data are available) in the 2000s was around 1 percent of GDP, but in developing economies it averages only half of that (Bahl and Martínez-Vázquez, 2008). There is considerable scope to exploit this tax more fully, both as a revenue source and as a redistributive instrument, although effective implementation will require a sizable investment in administrative infrastructure, particularly in developing economies (Norregaard, 2013)." - IMF
As the markets push once again into record territory the question of valuations becomes ever more important. While valuations are a poor timing tool in the short term for investors, in the long run valuation levels have everything to do with future returns. The current levels of profits, as a share of GDP, are at record levels. This is interesting because corporate profits should be a reflection of the underlying economic strength. However, in recent years, due to financial engineering, wage and employment suppression and increase in productivity, corporate profits have become extremely deviated. This deviation begs the question of sustainability. As we know from repeatedly from history, extrapolated projections rarely happen. Could this time be different? Sure. However, believing that historical tendencies have evolved into a new paradigm will likely have the same results as playing leapfrog with a Unicorn. There is mounting evidence, from valuations being paid in M&A deals, junk bond yields, margin debt and price extensions from long term means, "irrational exuberance" is once again returning to the financial markets.
The default cycle that should have occurred, given historical patterns of issuance cycles, has morphed (thanks to the Fed) into a refinancing cycle; but while DoubleLine's Jeff Gundlach suggests that fundamentals are supportive, "the valuation of junk bonds as a category is at its all-time overvalued versus long-time treasury bonds." So despite Yellen exclaiming that she sees no bubbles, one of the world's largest bond fund managers has never seen corporate bonds (investment grade and high yield) more expensive. Gundlach goes on to note he has sold some Apple (but believes it will remain range-bound), is baffled by the valuation of Chipotle, and sees 10Y Treasury yields dropping to 2.5% or lower.
I vividly remember how low interest rates and the Fed Model were used as propaganda tool in the late ’90s to justify the stock market’s “this time is different” sky-high valuation
While stock prices can certainly be driven much higher through the Federal Reserve's ongoing interventions, the inability for the economic variables to "replay the tape" of the 80's and 90's increases the potential of a rather nasty mean reversion at some point in the future. Inflation-adjusted, the current rally of 115.56% is the 6th longest in history with the market still below its 2000 peak. We are currently at valuation levels where previous bull markets have ended rather than continued. Understanding the bullish arguments that support markets rise is important, however, the real risk to investors is the eventual and inevitable "reversion to the mean". In other words, what comprises that "light at the end of the tunnel" is critically important to the future of your investment success.
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 which is the opposite of what has been seen previously. Interest rates, inflation, wages and savings rates are all at historically low levels which are normally seen at the end of secular bull market periods. Lastly, the consumer, the main driver of the economy, will not be able to again become a significantly larger chunk of the economy than they are today as the fundamental capacity to releverage to similar extremes is no longer available.
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...
SHLD is making the cut for one of my top 3 picks of 2014.
The past can offer clues to the future but it doesn’t give us a blueprint. The bigger message is that today’s valuations don’t bode well for long-term returns, where long-term means beyond the next market peak. Prices could surely bubble upwards from here, but bubbles are invariably followed by severe bear markets. More importantly, we shouldn’t be fooled by traditional valuation measures. P/Es, in particular, have several flaws. We’ve shown in past articles that we get completely different results when we adjust earnings to account for mean reversion. Either way, our conclusions are a far cry from the “nothing to see here” that we keep hearing from the Fed.
- BAD TRADE #1 For 2014: Ignoring Mean Reversion
- BAD TRADE #2 For 2014: Which-flation?
- BAD TRADE #3 For 2014: Forgetting Late Cycle Dynamics
- BAD TRADE #4 For 2014: Blind Faith In Policy
- BAD TRADE #5 For 2014: Reaching for Yield During Late Cycle
Keep a close eye on China: it is on the cusp between the end of the leverage cycle (where as we reported over the past two days, it has been pumping bank assets at the ridiculous pace of $3.5 trillion per year) and on the verge of having its debt bubble bursting. What happens then is unclear.