Ignoring Occam's Razor (Or Why It's Not Different This Time)
Excerpted from John Hussman's Weekly Market Comment,
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.
As much as investors seem to want to believe that aliens from Xenon have brought some brave new world, our valuation approach is consistent with a century of market history and has not missed a beat even in recent market cycles. We continue to view long-term prospects for the stock market as dismal at present valuations.
We increasingly see investors believing that history is no longer informative, and that the Federal Reserve has finally discovered how to produce perpetually rising markets and can intervene without consequence to support the markets and the economy indefinitely. Maybe it’s no longer true that valuations are related to subsequent returns. Maybe, contrary to all historical experience, reliable measures of valuation that have had a 90% correlation with actual subsequent market returns can now remain at double their historical norms forever, thereby allowing capital gains to be unhindered by any future retreat in valuation multiples as fundamentals grow over time. It’s just that one must also rely on valuations never retreating, because even if earnings grow at 6% annually indefinitely, and the CAPE simply touches a historically-normal level of 16 even 20 years from today, the total return on stocks, including dividends, would still be expected to average only 5% annually over that horizon. That’s just arithmetic.
Meanwhile, 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.
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