Market Roulette: Dimes On Black, Dynamite On Red
Submitted by John Hussman via his Weekly Market Comment,
The stock market is presently a roulette wheel with dimes on black and dynamite on red. We continue to have extreme concerns about the extent of potential market losses over the completion of the present market cycle. At the same time, we have very little view with regard to short-term market action. If one reviews market action surrounding major pre-crash peaks such as 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000 and 2007, you’ll observe a sort of “resilience” in the major indices on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis even after market internals had already corroded. In 1987, for example, the break following the August bull market peak was largely recovered over the course of several weeks before failing rapidly in October. In 2000, the market actually experienced a series of 10-12% corrections and recoveries before a final high in September that was followed by a loss of half the market’s value. In 2007, the initial break in mid-summer was fully recovered, with the market registering a fresh nominal high in early October that marked the end of the bull market and the start of a 55% market collapse.
As economic historian J.K. Galbraith wrote about the advance leading up to the 1929 crash, the market’s gains
“had an aspect of great reliability… Indeed the temporary breaks in the market which preceded the crash were a serious trial for those who had declined fantasy. Early in 1928, in June, in December, and in February and March of 1929 it seemed that the end had come. On various of these occasions the Times happily reported the return to reality. And then the market took flight again. Only a durable sense of doom could survive such discouragement. The time was coming when the optimists would reap a rich harvest of discredit. But it has long since been forgotten that for many months those who resisted reassurance were similarly, if less permanently, discredited.”
None of this implies that the market will or must collapse in short order. Stocks remain strenuously overvalued, overbought, and overbullish, but those conditions have persisted uncorrected much longer in the present instance than they have historically. That doesn’t encourage us to abandon our concerns, but it does make us less aggressive about investment stances that rely on any immediate unwinding of what we continue to view, along with 1929 and 2000, as one of the three most reckless equity bubbles in the historical record.
Our perspective is straightforward: on the basis of measures that have been reliably correlated with actual subsequent market returns in market cycles across a century of data, we estimate that the S&P 500 Index will be no higher a decade from now than it is today. On the basis of nominal total returns (including dividends), we estimate zero or negative returns for the S&P 500 on every horizon shorter than about 8 years. See Ockham's Razor and the Market Cycle for a review of the total return arithmetic behind these estimates, and Yes, This is An Equity Bubble for additional background on our present concerns.
At the same time, we don’t have strong views about immediate market prospects. Still, even a run-of-the-mill completion to the present market cycle would wipe out more than half of the market’s gains since the 2009 low, so whatever gains the market experiences in the interim are likely to be transitory, and few investors will retain them by exiting anywhere near the top. Frankly, we doubt that the present cycle will be completed with the S&P 500 even above 1000 (a level that we would associate with historically normal subsequent total returns of roughly 10% annually). We readily accept that 3-4 more years of zero interest rate policy would justify market valuations 12-16% above what would otherwise be “fair value,” but we also recognize that the vast majority of bear markets have overshot to the downside. In short, an informed view of market history easily admits the likelihood that the S&P 500 will lose half of its value over the completion of the present cycle.
We could certainly observe very constructive or even aggressive opportunities without that outcome. Those opportunities are most likely to coincide with a material, if less extreme, retreat in valuations, coupled with an early improvement in market internals. But here and now, we don’t observe any investment merit in equities, and with market internals deteriorating, any remaining speculative merit has also receded quickly.
As I emphasized last week,
“While we’re already observing cracks in market internals in the form of breakdowns in small cap stocks, high yield bond prices, market breadth, and other areas, it’s not clear yet whether the risk preferences of investors have shifted durably. As we saw in multiple early selloffs and recoveries near the 2007, 2000, and 1929 bull market peaks (the only peaks that rival the present one), the ‘buy the dip’ mentality can introduce periodic recovery attempts even in markets that are quite precarious from a full cycle perspective. Still, it's helpful to be aware of how compressed risk premiums unwind. They rarely do so in one fell swoop, but they also rarely do so gradually and diagonally. Compressed risk premiums normalize in spikes.”
Those spikes will make it quite difficult to exit in the nice, orderly manner that speculators seem to imagine will be possible. Nor are readily observable warnings (beyond those we already observe) likely to provide a clear exit signal. Galbraith reminds us that the 1929 market crash did not have observable catalysts. Rather, his description is very much in line with the view that the market crashed first, and the underlying economic strains emerged later:
“the crash did not come – as some have suggested – because the market suddenly became aware that a serious depression was in the offing. A depression, serious or otherwise, could not be foreseen when the market fell."
There is still the possibility that the downturn in the indexes frightened the speculators, led them to unload their stocks, and so punctured a bubble that had in any case to be punctured one day. This is more plausible...
Some people who were watching the indexes may have been persuaded by this intelligence to sell, and others may have been encouraged to follow. This is not very important, for it is in the nature of a speculative boom that almost anything can collapse it.
Any serious shock to confidence can cause sales by those speculators who have always hoped to get out before the final collapse, but after all possible gains from rising prices have been reaped. Their pessimism will infect those simpler souls who had thought the market might go up forever but who now will change their minds and sell. Soon there will be margin calls, and still others will be forced to sell. So the bubble breaks.”
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