Why take the concerns of a “permabear” seriously?
The inclination to ignore these concerns is understandable based on the fact that I’ve proved fallible in the half-cycle advance since 2009. That’s fine – my objective isn’t to convert anyone to our own investment discipline or encourage them to abandon their own. Somebody will have to hold equities through the completion of this cycle, and it’s best to include those who have thoughtfully chosen to accept the historical risks of a passive investment strategy, and those who have at least evaluated our concerns and dismissed them. The reality is that my reputation as a “permabear” is entirely an artifact of two specific elements since the 2009 low, but that miscasting may not become completely clear until we observe a material retreat in valuations coupled with an early improvement in market internals.
For those who understand and appreciate our work, I discuss these two elements frequently because a) I think it’s important to be open about those challenges and to detail how we’ve addressed them, and b) it’s becoming urgent to clarify why we view present conditions as extraordinarily hostile, and to distinguish these conditions from others that – despite an increasingly overvalued market – our current methods would have embraced or at least tolerated more than we demonstrated in real-time.
For us, the half-cycle since 2009 has involved the resolution of two challenges.
The first: despite anticipating the 2007-2009 collapse, the timing of my decision to stress-test our methods against Depression-era data – and to make our methods robust to those outcomes – could hardly have been worse. In the interim of that “two data sets” uncertainty, we missed what in hindsight was the best opportunity in this cycle to respond to a material retreat in valuations coupled with early improvement in market internals (a constructive opportunity that we eagerly embraced in prior market cycles, and attempted to embrace in late-2008 after a 40% market plunge).
The second: I underestimated the extent to which yield-seeking speculation in response to quantitative easing would so persistently defer a key historical regularity: that extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish market conditions typically end with tragic market losses. Those extremes have now been stretched, uncorrected, for the longest span in history, including the late-1990’s bubble advance. My impression is that the completion of the present market cycle will only be worse as a result.
The ensemble approach we introduced in 2010 resolved our “two-data sets” challenge, and was more effective in classifying market return/risk profiles than the methods that gave us a nice reputation by 2009, but our value-conscious focus gave us a tendency to exit overvalued bubble periods too early. During the late-1990’s, observing that stock prices were persistently advancing despite historically overvalued conditions, we introduced a set of “overlays” that restricted our defensive response to overvalued conditions, provided that certain observable supports were present. These generally related to an aspect of market action that I called trend uniformity. In the speculative advance of recent years, we ultimately re-introduced variants of those overlays to our present ensemble approach.
As I observed in June, the adaptations we’ve made in recent years have addressed both of these challenges. See the section “Lessons from the Recent Half-Cycle” in Formula for Market Extremes to understand the nature of these adaptations. When we examine the cumulative progress of the stock market in periods we classify as having flat or negative return/risk profiles (and that also survive the overlays), the chart looks like the bumpy downward slope of a mountain. Present conditions are worse, because they feature both a negative estimated return/risk profile and negative trend uniformity on our measures. The cumulative progress of the stock market under these conditions – representing less than 5% of history – looks like the stairway to hell, and captures periods of negative market returns even during the bull market period since 2009. The chart below shows cumulative S&P 500 total returns (log scale) restricted to this subset of history. The flat sideways sections are periods where other return/risk classifications were in effect than what we observe today.
Though we’ve validated our present methods of classifying market return/risk profiles in both post-war and Depression-era data, in “holdout” validation data, and even in data since 2009, there’s no assurance they’ll be effective in the current or future instances. As value-conscious, historically-informed investors, we remain convinced that the lessons of history are still relevant. Our efforts have centered on embodying those lessons in our discipline.
While all of these considerations are incorporated into our approach, we’ve had little opportunity to demonstrate the impact we expect over the course of the market cycle. Applied to a century of historical market evidence, including data from the present market cycle, we’re convinced that the adaptations we’ve made have addressed what we needed to address.
Our concerns at present mirror those that we expressed at the 2000 and 2007 peaks, as we again observe an overvalued, overbought, overbullish extreme that is now coupled with a clear deterioration in market internals, a widening of credit spreads, and a breakdown in our measures of trend uniformity. These negative conditions survive every restriction that we’ve implemented in recent years that might have reduced our defensiveness at various points in this cycle.
My sense is that a great many speculators are simultaneously imagining some clear exit signal, or the ability to act on some “tight stop” now that the primary psychological driver of speculation – Federal Reserve expansion of quantitative easing – is coming to a close. Recall 1929, 1937, 1973, 1987, 2001, and 2008. History teaches that the market doesn’t offer executable opportunities for an entire speculative crowd to exit with paper profits intact. Hence what we call the Exit Rule for Bubbles: you only get out if you panic before everyone else does.
Meanwhile, with European Central Bank assets no greater than they were in 2008, and more fiscally stable European countries quite unwilling to finance the deficits of unstable ones, the ECB has far more barriers to sustained large-scale action than Draghi’s words reveal. Moreover, to the extent that the ECB intends to buy asset-backed securities (ABS), which have a relatively small market in Europe, the primary effect (much like the mortgage bubble in the U.S.) will be to encourage the creation of very complex, financially engineered, and ultimately really junky ABS securities that can be foisted on the public balance sheet. Watch. In any event, even if such monetary interventions continue indefinitely, I have no doubt that we’ll have the opportunity to respond more constructively at points where we don’t observe upward pressure on risk-premiums and extensive deterioration in market internals.
I should be clear that market peaks often go through several months of top formation, so the near-term remains uncertain. Still, it has become urgent for investors to carefully examine all risk exposures. When extreme valuations on historically reliable measures, lopsided bullishness, and compressed risk premiums are joined by deteriorating market internals, widening credit spreads, and a breakdown in trend uniformity, it’s advisable to make certain that the long position you have is the long position you want over the remainder of the market cycle. As conditions stand, we currently observe the ingredients of a market crash.