In the club where all stock market investors meet every morning when they wake up, the room occupied by those who “don’t understand what is going on” is not as crowded as you might expect. I admit I’m not lonesome – I have plenty of fellow “confusees” to talk with – but I am told they are having to add some more space for the growing crowd in the “it’s a bull market and those stupid old bears just don’t get it” section of the club.
This week’s Outside the Box is a selection from two essays written by an old friend of my readers (and my good friend), Dr. John Hussman. His recent work has been rather forceful in pointing out that expectations of total returns from the US market over the next seven to ten years are dismal. That conclusion agrees with work I have done in conjunction with Ed Easterling, with Jeremy Grantham’s posts at GMO, and with the work of Robert Shiller (mentioned below). There are numerous other analysts who approach the market differently, but the general conclusion is this: investors with a five- or ten-year time horizon are going to be very disappointed unless they have some methodology to deal with the risk of a significant market downturn.
It’s fascinating how investors come to forget that markets move in cycles and not in perpetual diagonal lines. As value investor Howard Marks wrote in The Most Important Thing, “Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical. Rule number two: some of the greatest opportunities for gain and loss come when other people forget rule number one.”
I was writing in 1999 about secular bear markets. I noted then and in 2003 in Bull’s Eye Investing that it typically takes three significant events to end a secular bear market. We have had two so far in this cycle. The opportunities for stock pickers and traders have been phenomenal. Long-term investors, for their part, have certainly been disappointed. If there is one thing that I believe we can truly “know,” it is that long-term future returns are based on the valuations in place when you invest. The relationships between long-term valuations and returns are fundamental in nature. Yes, there are variations in the actual outcomes, but they are rather minor when considered from a long-term perspective.
Let me put it another way as bluntly and forcefully as I can. If you are “long” the market today, without an exit strategy or a hedge position, your long-term returns are at major risk. I totally understand that you have to be in the market to participate in the returns. I am not a perma-bear. There are clearly ways to be involved in this market without blindly assuming that it will be what John Hussman calls a perpetual motion machine.
Without a lot of comment, let’s go straight to John’s work. I’m actually going to take excerpts from his most recent essay first, as I think that is the logical way to approach the material. You can read all of his work at www.hussmanfunds.com.
Have a great week. And if your country is still in the World Cup chase, enjoy it while it lasts. It was a fun ride for the US, but the script seems to be turning out as forecast, with Argentina and Brazil working their way through the ranks. Maybe someone can stop those juggernauts; they don’t look that invincible. The race, we are told, is not always to the swift or strong – but that is the way to bet, whether in markets or in fútbol.
Your thinking about cycles analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
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The Delusion of Perpetual Motion
John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
June 30, 2014
“I am definitely concerned. When was [the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio or CAPE] higher than it is now? I can tell you: 1929, 2000 and 2007. Very low interest rates help to explain the high CAPE. That doesn’t mean that the high CAPE isn’t a forecast of bad performance. When I look at interest rates in a forecasting regression with the CAPE, I don’t get much additional benefit from looking at interest rates… We don’t know what it’s going to do. There could be a massive crash, like we saw in 2000 and 2007, the last two times it looked like this. But I don’t know. I think, realistically, stocks should be in someone’s portfolio. Maybe lighten up… One thing though, I don’t know how many people look at plots of the market. If you just look at a plot of one of the major averages in the U.S., you’ll see what look like three peaks – 2000, 2007 and now – it just looks to me like a peak. I&rsq uo;m not saying it is. I would think that there are people thinking – way – it’s gone way up since 2009. It’s likely to turn down again, just like it did the last two times.”
Professor Robert Shiller, June 25, 2014, The Daily Ticker
The central thesis among investors at present is that they have no other choice but to hold stocks, given the alternative of zero short-term interest rates and long-term interest rates well below the level of recent decades (though yields were regularly at or below current levels prior to the 1960s, which didn’t stop equities from being regularly priced to achieve long-term returns well above 10% annually). In this environment, many analysts have argued that elevated stock market valuations are “justified” by the depressed level of interest rates. As I observed the last time around (see Explaining isn’t Justifying):
If you examine the full historical record, you’ll find that the relationship between S&P 500 earnings yields and 10-year Treasury yields (or other interest rates for that matter) isn’t tight at all. The further you look back, the weaker the relationship. To a large extent, the relationship we do observe is linked to the single inflation-disinflation cycle that began in the mid-1960’s, hit its peak about 1980, and then gradually reversed course over the next two decades. Still, it’s clear that during the past few decades, however one wishes to explain it, earnings yields and interest rates have had a stronger relationship than they have exhibited historically (though not nearly as strong as the Fed Model implies).
So why isn’t it correct to say that lower interest rates justify today’s elevated P/E ratios? It’s in the meaning of the word ‘justify’ where things get interesting. To most investors, a justified valuation is the level of prices that would still be likely to deliver a reasonable return. Unless that’s true, being able to explain the price/earnings ratio is not enough to say that it’s a justified valuation. While it’s true that lower yields have been associated with higher P/E ratios in recent decades, the meaning of that for investors isn’t positive or even neutral, it’s decidedly negative. Stocks since 1970 have been heavily sensitive, and possibly overly sensitive, to interest rate swings. While lower interest rates have supported higher P/E ratios, those lower rates and higher P/E ratios, in turn, have been associated with poorer subsequent stock market performance. In short, if investors want to argue that low interest rates help to explain today’s elevated P/E ratios, that’s fine, as long as they also recognize that subsequent returns on stocks are likely to be dismal in the future as a result.
The corollary to the belief that zero interest rates “justify” elevated valuations is that investors seem to believe that as long as interest rates are held near zero, stocks will continue to advance at a positive or even average or above-average rate.
It’s certainly true that from a psychological standpoint, the Federal Reserve has induced the same sort of yield-seeking speculation that drove investors into mortgage securities (in hopes of a “pickup” over depressed Treasury-bill yields), fueled the housing bubble, and resulted in the deepest economic and financial collapse since the Great Depression. This yield-seeking has clearly been a factor in encouraging investors to forget everything they ever learned from finance, history, or even two successive 50% market plunges in little more than a decade.
But the finance of all of this – the relationship between prices, valuations and subsequent investment returns – hasn’t been altered at all. As the price investors pay for a given stream of future cash flows increases, the long-term rate of return that they will achieve on their investment declines. Zero short-term interest rates may “justify” the purchase of stocks at higher valuations so that stocks promise equally dismal future returns. But once stocks reach that point, investors should understand that those dismal future returns will still arrive.
Let me say that again. The Federal Reserve’s promise to hold safe interest rates at zero for a very long period of time has not created a perpetual motion machine for stocks. No – it has simply created an environment where investors have felt forced to speculate, to the point where stocks – despite their dramatically greater risk – are now alsopriced to deliver zero total returns for a very long period of time. Put simply, we are already here.
Based on valuation measures most reliably associated with actual subsequent market returns, we presently estimate negative total returns for the S&P 500 on every horizon of 7 years and less, with 10-year nominal total returns averaging just 1.9% annually. I should note that in real-time, the same valuation approach allowed us to identify the 2000 and 2007 extremes, provided latitude for us to shift to a constructive stance near the start of the intervening bull market in 2003, and indicated the shift toundervaluation in late 2008 and 2009 (see Setting the Record Straight).
I should also note that despite challenges since 2009 related to my insistence on stress-testing against Depression-era data, our valuation methods haven’t missed a beat, and we’ve used the same general approach for decades now. Criticize my fiduciary stress-testing inclinations in response to the credit crisis (which we correctly anticipated). Decry the as-yet