It was several years ago when Jeremy Grantham quietly turned from stock bull to vocal permabear, and while his market notes turned breathlessly alarmist (if only to those who were long his multi-billion fund GMO), such as this from June 2020 "Stock-market legend who called 3 financial bubbles says this one is the ‘Real McCoy,’ this is ‘crazy stuff’", it wasn't until early 2021 that Grantham's warnings of an imminent crash became especially shrill... and wrong. Recall, back in January 2021, Grantham wrote that "Bursting Of This "Great, Epic Bubble" Will Be "Most Important Investing Event Of Your Lives", while was followed by warnings of a "Spectacular" Crash In "The Next Few Months."
Needless to say, no crash followed as the Fed and other central banks went all in on stabilizing the market, resulting in an epic year for risk assets which closed 2021 at all time highs, while GMO suffered not only steep losses but also substantial redemptions, a humiliating outcome for Grantham who had previously called the bursting of both the dot com and housing bubbles, but failed to account for just how determined the Fed is to avoid another bubble bursting.
Grantham then tried his market-timing luck once more, this time with somewhat better results, when in January 2022 he doubled down on the fire and brimstone. The GMO founder revisited a familiar theme, namely that we are currently living in a superbubble - only the fourth of the past century - and like the crash of 1929, the dot-com bust of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008, Grantham was "nearly certain" the bursting of this bubble has begun, sending indexes back to statistical norms and possibly further.
How much lower? The value manager saw the S&P tumbling by nearly 50% to 2,500 from its then recent all time highs of 4,800 weeks ago (he appears to enjoy forecasting 50% drops as will apparent in a second). He also predicted that the Nasdaq Composite will sustain an even bigger correction.
“I wasn’t quite as certain about this bubble a year ago as I had been about the tech bubble of 2000, or as I had been in Japan, or as I had been in the housing bubble of 2007,” Grantham told Bloomberg in a “Front Row” interview last January. “I felt highly likely, but perhaps not nearly certain. Today, I feel it is just about nearly certain.”
Well, maybe not that certain, because one year later stocks did drop, but nowhere nearly as much as Grantham predicted, with the S&P sliding 20% in 2022 and the Nasdaq losing a third. Hardly the catastrophic bursting of a superbubble which has inflated stock prices by order of magnitude.
But with Grantham, now 84 and eager to make at least one more historic call before his career is over, is not giving up and in a new paper published today titled "After a Timeout, Back to the Meat Grinder!", the value investor is doubling down on his call from last January (and January 2021... and June 2020), and warns - again - that the popping of the bubble in US stocks is far from over and investors shouldn’t get too excited about the strong start to the year for the market.
According to Grantham, the value of the S&P 500 at the end of the year should be about 3,200, which in retrospect is well above his previous bubble-bursting forecast of 2,500. That equals a 17% full-year drop and a 20% decline for the year from current levels. Not satisfied with his bearish forecast, Grantham hopes to outbear the likes of Mike Wilson, and believes the index is likely to spend some time below that level during 2023, including around 3,000.
“The range of problems is greater than it usually is — maybe as great as I’ve ever seen,” Grantham told Bloomberg in an interview from Boston.
“There are more things that can go wrong than there are that can go right,” he added. “There’s a definite chance that things could go wrong and that we could have basically the system start to go completely wrong on a global basis.”
Grantham, who is desperate to eventually "nail the crash" as the biggest bear, is also quietly doubling down on his apocalyptic call from a year ago and said he doesn’t discount the idea that the benchmark index could fall to around 2,000, a 50% drop from the current price, which he says would be a “brutal decline." He is, of course, right... if the Fed were to ever allow that to happen. The problem is that Powell would step in long before the S&P dropped anywhere near there and would instruct Blackrock to buy any and all ETFs. Meanwhile, the only brutality has been the collapse in GMO's assets which had been cut by half since 2015 through the end of 2020, as the fund kept doubling down incorrectly on ever more bearish scenarios.
The irony, of course, is that if Grantham is - finally - correct, it will only force Powell to exit from his "Fed put" hibernation and start bidding up risk assets, thus leading to even more pain for bears.
Beside Grantham's bearishness, GMO - which is a value fund - has struggled with lackluster returns in the decade following the global financial crisis as growth stocks led the longest bull market in US stocks on record. But now, as the Federal Reserve tries to tame elevated inflation with aggressive interest-rate increases, value strategies are enjoying a revival. The GMO Equity Dislocation Strategy, which is long value equities and short those the company sees as being valued at “implausible growth expectations,” had gained nearly 15% last year through November; alas it has to more than double to regain its lost AUM.
Value has worked “quite a lot better” over the past year and has outperformed growth during that stretch. Before that, growth had a solid 10-year run, though value had been outperforming in the decades prior to that, Grantham said. “In the range of value versus growth, value is still much more attractively positioned than growth,” he explained. “It’s gone half the way back, but it’s still cheaper.” Value stocks could outperform growth ones by 20 percentage points over the next year or two, he added.
As to what might be currently attractive, Grantham says an investor could divide value stocks into four quartiles. The third group — made up of “the pretty cheap” — did well last year and is no longer super attractive. But the cheapest quartile, which didn’t have the best year, could be poised to hold up best. “It will have a very good time,” he said.
Grantham views the process of further stock market pain playing out now as similar to the popping of bubbles following other rare “explosions of investor confidence” such as in 1929, 1972 and 2000. While many are attributing last year’s slide in stocks to the war in Ukraine and the surge in inflation, or reduced growth from Covid-19 and ensuing supply chain problems, Grantham believes the market was due for a comeuppance regardless.
While the first and “easiest” leg of the bubble’s bursting is over, Grantham says that the next phase will be more complicated. Seasonal strength in the market in January and during the current period of the presidential cycle could keep the market buoyant in the early part of the year.
“Almost any pin can prick such supreme confidence and cause the first quick and severe decline," he wrote echoing what he has said again, and again, and again. “They are just accidents waiting to happen, the very opposite of unexpected. But after a few spectacular bear-market rallies we are now approaching the far less reliable and more complicated final phase.”
For Grantham's sake, we hope he is right because at 84, he is rapidly running out of time for the apocalypse to finally hit.
Grantham's full note is below (pdf link).