The problem with speculation is that there’s usually a gap between the underlying risk and the inevitable outcome.
As of Friday, December 16, the S&P 500 Index is down -19.7% from the most speculative level of valuations in U.S. history – exceeding even the 1929 and 2000 extremes, based on the valuation measures we find best-correlated with actual subsequent market returns in cycles across history.
We continue to believe that a value-conscious, risk-managed, full-cycle discipline, focused on the combination of valuations and market internals, will be essential in navigating market volatility in the years ahead.
Two aspects of the financial markets operate simultaneously. Emphatically, they do not operate alternately, but simultaneously. One aspect is driven entirely by arithmetic. Every security is a claim to some long-term stream of cash flows that will be delivered to the holder, or series of holders, over time.
At the beginning of 2022, our most reliable stock market valuation measures stood at record levels, beyond even their 1929 and 2000 extremes. The 10-year Treasury yield was at 1.5%, the 30-year Treasury bond yield was at 1.9%, and Treasury bill yields were just 0.06%. By our estimates, that combination produced the most negative expected return for a conventional passive investment portfolio in U.S. history.
Surveying the current condition of the financial markets, we presently observe a combination of still historically-extreme valuations, rising yet still only normalizing interest rates, measurably inadequate risk-premiums in both equities and bonds, and ragged, unfavorable market internals, suggesting continued risk-aversion among investors.
After more than 40 years of work in the financial markets, studying all the data I could get my hands on, I’ve found it to be universally true that those who argue “history doesn’t matter” have never actually studied history.
Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
A fascinating aspect of the financial markets is that long-term returns are driven almost entirely by math, while short-term returns are driven almost entirely by psychology.
The most challenging financial event for investors in the coming decade will be the repricing of securities to valuations that imply adequate long-term returns, following more than a decade of reckless and intentional Fed-induced yield-seeking speculation.
The expected return from a roulette spin is negative: -5.26%.
Why is it so hard to accept that speculative bubbles can burst?
In an economy where the Fed has lost every systematic tether to common sense, empirical evidence, and concern for financial stability, it’s worth beginning this first market comment of 2022 by recalling the ways we’ve adapted in order to navigate that environment.
Whether investors are ready or not, global monetary tightening cycles are fast approaching.
There are certain features of valuation, investor psychology, and price behavior that emerge, to one degree or another, when the fear of missing out becomes particularly extreme and the focus of speculation becomes particularly narrow. We’ve suddenly hit a motherlode of those conditions. Emphatically, this is not a forecast. It's a statement about current, observable conditions.
Speculative psychology is the only thing standing between an hypervalued market that continues to advance and a hypervalued market that drops like a rock. Our best gauge of that psychology - the uniformity of market internals - remains divergent enough to keep market conditions in a trap-door situation.
Among the illusions encouraged by every speculative bubble is the idea that wealth is embodied in the prices of securities – that higher prices inherently represent greater “wealth.” The fact is that every security is, at base, a claim to some future stream of cash flows that will be delivered into the hands of investors over time.
Among the most persistent questions I hear is why we don’t just adapt to the reality that the Federal Reserve will never again “allow” the market to experience a serious decline. The problem with this view is that it rests on the premise that Federal Reserve policy supports the market in a clear-cut and mechanical way, when its effectiveness actually relies on the speculative psychology of investors.
A remarkable feature of extended bull markets is that investors come to believe – even in the face of extreme valuations – that the world has changed in ways that make steep market losses and extended periods of poor returns impossible.
The title of this comment may seem odd, given that – as I write this on July 14, 2021 – the S&P 500 is at a record high.
Coherent thinking is interested in how things are related; where they come from, where they go, and the mechanisms by which they affect each other.
There’s an old bit of advice that one shouldn’t count one’s chickens before they’re hatched.
From 1949 through 1964, the S&P 500 enjoyed an average annual total return of 16.4%. In the 8 years that followed, through 1972, the total return of the index averaged a substantially lower 7.6% annually; strikingly close to the 7.5% projection that Graham had suggested based on prevailing valuations, yet still providing what Graham had suggested would likely “carry a fair degree of protection” against inflation, which averaged 3.9% over that period.
The word “bubble” is tossed around quite a bit in the financial markets, but it’s rarely used correctly.
Nothing so animates a speculative herd as a parabolic price advance in an asset detached from any standard of value. I am convinced that future generations will use the present moment to define the concept of a reckless speculative extreme, in the same way our generation uses “1929” and “2000.”
The speculative “V” is one of the most interesting and challenging features of the market cycle. For passive investors, it can be a period of exhilaration followed by panic.
I should start by saying that I’ve got great admiration for Robert Shiller. Even three decades ago when I was completing my doctorate at Stanford, I avidly embraced his work, including his studies on excess volatility. He has originated an impressive range of useful tools, including the Case-Shiller housing price indices. As the tech bubble was peaking in 2000, I doubt that any 30-something in finance was more pleased to see Shiller become a widely-quoted figure in the financial markets. All of that is important to say, before I tear into this particular metric.
One of the most insidious ideas foisted on investors by Wall Street, in tacit cooperation with activist policy makers at the Federal Reserve, is the fiction that zero interest rates offer investors “no alternative” but to speculate in risky securities.
In calling the current market the third “Real McCoy” bubble of recent decades, Jeremy Grantham described, in his own words, what I call the Iron Law of Valuation: a security is nothing more than a claim on some set of future cash flows that investors expect to be delivered into their hands over time. The higher the price an investor pays today for some amount of cash in the future, the lower the long-term return the investor can expect on that investment.
Here in the U.S., I estimate that the actual number of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 to-date is currently just over four times the number of reported cases. Actual cases are undercounted partly because, based on very large-scale, unbiased testing, roughly 45% of people who acquire SARS-CoV-2 infection are asymptomatic.
You know it’s a bubble when you have to edit the Y axis on all of your charts because valuations have broken above every historical peak, and estimated future market returns have fallen beyond the lowest points in history, including 1929.
About two-thirds of this month’s comment is about COVID-19 and the risk of a second wave. This is not only for the sake of public health, which would be enough, and not only to contribute to a better understanding of the epidemic.
Saying that extreme stock market valuations are “justified” by low interest rates is like saying that poking yourself in the eye is “justified” by smashing your thumb with a hammer.
Severe economic recessions often feature what might be called an “incubation phase,” where an exuberant rebound from initial stock market losses becomes detached from the quiet underlying deterioration of economic fundamentals and corporate balance sheets.
A compassionate society has both economic reason and ethical responsibility to provide a social safety net to its most vulnerable members. It is an act of both economic insanity and ethical corruption to provide a financial safety net to its most reckless speculators.
Amid the current crisis, a forceful economic policy response is essential. The central principle here is that the closer we can get economic support to the point where current spending enters the “circular flow” – basic incomes, net rent and lease obligations, utilities, contractual payments, even net interest payments, the better we can support the entire economy.
I expect that the most valuable aspect of our investment discipline over the completion of this cycle will be our ability and willingness to flexibly respond to changes in observable market conditions as they emerge.
From a full-cycle perspective, the decline in the U.S. stock market from its recent high remains something of a non-event, compared with the probable market loss over the completion of this cycle.
There are two key drivers of investment returns. One is valuations, which provide a great deal of information about long-term investment prospects, and about the income component of total returns. The other is the uniformity or divergence of prices across thousands of individual securities, which helps to distinguish whether shorter-term investor psychology is inclined toward speculation or risk-aversion.
Understand this. The more glorious this bubble becomes in hindsight, the more dismal future investment returns become in foresight. The higher the price investors pay for a set of future cash flows, the lower the return they will enjoy over time. Whatever they’re doing, it’s not “investment.”
One of the striking things about bull markets is that they often end in confident exuberance, while simultaneously deteriorating from the inside. We’ve certainly observed this sort of selectivity during the past year. The market advance in 2019 fully recovered the market losses of late-2018, fueled by a wholesale reversal of Fed policy, hopes for a “phase one” trade deal, and as noted below, a bit of confusion about what actually constitutes “quantitative easing.”
The recent half-cycle has been admittedly difficult. My bearish response to historically-reliable “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” syndromes proved detrimental in the face of zero-interest rate policies that amplified speculation, and we’ve adapted our discipline to give priority to our measures of market internals – which we use to gauge that speculation.
By the time a bull market reaches its peak, investors have experienced numerous instances where the market has declined by several percent, followed by an advance to fresh highs.
One of the pitfalls of identifying market conditions using labels like “bull market” and “bear market” is that the accuracy of those labels can only be verified in hindsight.
As the financial markets enter what I expect to be a rather disruptive completion to the recent speculative half-cycle, it will be helpful for investors to consider certain propositions that are readily available from history, rather than insisting on re-learning them the hard way.
Not surprisingly, the higher the valuation at the bull market peak, the longer the subsequent period of disappointing returns, in several instances extending more than a decade, though not without intermittent failure-prone bull market rallies to add excitement. This is what I often call ‘going nowhere in an interesting way.’
What distinguishes an overvalued market that continues to advance from an overvalued market that often drops like a rock? In my view, it’s the psychological disposition of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion.
While investors appear exuberant about the prospect for Fed easing, they seem largely unaware that initial Fed easings have almost invariably been associated with U.S. recessions. They’re running toward the fire.
Of all the distinctions that investors might make in the coming few years, one that I expect will serve investors particularly well is the distinction between how the market responds to monetary policy when investors are inclined toward speculation, versus how the market responds when investors are inclined toward risk-aversion.