Evergreen GaveKal: Future Bull by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics
In a conversation this morning, I remarked how rapidly things change. It was less than 20 years ago that cutting-edge tech for listening to music was the cassette tape. We blew right past CDs, and now we all consume music from the cloud on our phones. Boom. Almost overnight.
A lot has changed about the global economy and politics, too. Things that were unthinkable only 10 years ago now seem to be reality. What changes, I wonder, will we be writing about a few years from now that will seem obvious with the advantage of hindsight?
In today’s Outside the Box, my good friend David Hay of Evergreen Capital sends us a letter written from the perspective of a few years in the future. I find myself wishing that some of the more hopeful events he foresees will come true, and my optimistic self actually sees a way through to such an outcome. In that future, I will join David as a bull. But the path that he proposes to take to that more optimistic future is not one that most investors will enjoy, so on the whole it’s a very sobering letter and one that should make all of us think.
I’m back from San Antonio, where I spent four enjoyable days with my friends and participants at the Casey Research Summit. I tried to attend as many of the conference sessions as I could, and I intend to get the “tapes” for some of the ones I missed.
I did a lot of video interviews while in San Antonio, too. And finished up a major documentary. Mauldin Economics will be making all of these available very soon. It’s hard to recommend one interview over another, but Lacy Hunt is just so smart.
And with no further remarks let’s turn it over to David Hay and think about how the next few years will play out. Have a great week.
Your wishing his crystal ball was clearer analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
By David Hay
“Money amplifies our tendency to overreact, to swing from exuberance when things are going well to deep depression when they go wrong.”
– Economist and historian Niall Ferguson
Future bull. Let me admit up front that this EVA has been rolling around in my mind for quite awhile. Its genesis may be directly related to the fact that I’ve been desperately yearning to write a bullish EVA – besides on Canadian REITs or income securities that get trounced by the Fed’s utterances. In other words, I want to return to my normal posture of being bullish on the US stock market.
It wasn’t long ago, like in 2011, that clients were chastising me for believing in what I formerly referred to as “the coiled spring effect.” By this I meant that corporate earnings had been rising for over a decade, and yet, stock prices were much lower than they there were in 1999. Consequently, price/earnings ratios were compressed down to low levels, though certainly not to true bear market troughs. My belief was that stocks were poised for an upside explosion once the inhibiting factors, primarily extreme pessimism on the direction of the country, were removed. I even remember one long-time client dismissing my “Buy America” argument on the grounds that in my profession I had to be bullish (regular EVA readers know that is definitely not the case!).
Well, a funny thing happened to my “coiled spring effect” – namely, it became a reality. Additionally, the upward reaction was much stronger than I envisioned. But what really caught me by surprise was that it played out with virtually no improvement on the “extreme pessimism on the direction of the country” front. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has ever been a rally that has taken stocks to such high valuations (time for my usual qualifier – based on mid-cycle profit margins, not the Fed-inflated ones we have today) concurrent with such pervasive fears America is on the wrong track.
Undoubtedly, the pros among you who just read that last sentence are thinking: “That’s great news! All that pessimism will keep this market running. We’re not even close to the peak.” Not so fast, mon amis (and amies)! We’re not talking market pessimism here. As numerous EVAs have documented, US investors are as heavily exposed to stocks as they have ever been, other than during the late 1990s, when stocks bubbled up to valuations that made 1929 look restrained.
Further, please check out the chart below from still-bullish Ned Davis regarding investment advisor sentiment. The bearish reading is the lowest since the fateful year of 1987, while bulled-up views are in the excessively optimistic zone. (See Figure 1.)
It is my contention that there are currently millions of fully-invested skeptics. They aren’t bullish long-term – in fact, they believe the underlying fundamentals are alarming (with the usual perma-bull exceptions) – but they feel compelled by the lack of competitive alternatives to remain at their full equity allocation. Disturbingly, professional investors are increasingly doing so even with money belonging to retired investors who need both cash flow and stability.
Okay, with all that history out of the way, let’s go the other direction – into the future, to a time several years from now, when conditions are nearly the polar opposite of where they are today.
The Evergreen Virtual Advisor (EVA)
At long last, reforms! Do you remember back in 2014 when the stock market was as hot as napalm? When it just never went down? When millions believed the Fed could control stock prices by whipping up a trillion here and a trillion there?
Looking back from the vantage of today, it all seems so obvious. We should have known better than to believe that the S&P 500 had years more of appreciation left in it after having already tripled by the fall of 2014 from the 2009 nadir. The warning signs were there. But, before we rehash what went wrong, let’s focus on the upside of what some are calling “The Great Unwind” – the hangover after years and years of the Fed recklessly driving asset prices to unsustainable heights.
First of all, let me start with what I think is the biggest positive of all: the end of the central banks’ era of omnipotence. While that might sound like a major negative, you may have noticed that with the crutch of binge-printing taken away, our nation’s leaders are finally getting around to implementing reforms that should have been enacted years ago. The history of our country is that we are energized by crises, and the latest is no exception. Our most recent financial convulsions have galvanized a bipartisan coalition to attack an array of long-festering problems that have hobbled our country since the start of the millennium.
Arguably, the most important was the recently enacted tax reform legislation. Skeptics believed the US could never move toward the type of simple tax system that has long been used in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Estonia. It took the realization by both parties that lower tax rates with almost no deductions