Earlier this week, Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, spoke at the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference at the IMF headquarters in Washington, D.C. In addition to pontificating about the state of the global economy and the direction of interest rates, she also decided to chime in with her two cents regarding the stock market by warning stock values are “quite high.” She went on to emphasize “there are potential dangers” in the equity markets.
Unfortunately, those investors who have hinged their investment careers on the forecasts of economists, strategists, and Fed Chairmen have suffered mightily. Already, Yellen’s soapbox rant about elevated stock prices is being compared to former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “Irrational Exuberance” speech, which I have previously discussed on numerous occasions (see Irrational Exuberance Déjà Vu).
Yellen vs Greenspan on “bubbles”
Greenspan’s bubble warning talk was given on December 5, 1996 when the NASDAQ closed around 1,300 (it closed at 5,003 this week). Greenspan specifically said the following:
“But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”
After his infamous speech, the NASDAQ index almost quadrupled in value to 5,132 in the ensuing three years before cratering by approximately -78%,
Greenspan’s successor, economics professor Ben Bernanke, didn’t fare much better than the previous Fed Chairmen. Unlike many, I give full credit where credit is due. Bernanke deserves extra credit for his nimble but aggressive actions that helped prevent a painful recession from expanding into a protracted and lethal depression.
With that said, as late as May 2007, Bernanke noted Fed officials “do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy.” Moreover, in 2005, near the peak in housing prices, Bernanke said the probability of a housing bubble was “a pretty unlikely possibility.” Bernanke went on to add housing price increases, “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.” Greenspan concurred with Bernanke. Just a year prior, Greenspan noted that the increase in home values was “not enough in our judgment to raise major concerns.” History has proven how Bernanke and Greenspan could not have been more wrong.
If you still believe Yellen is the bee’s knees when it comes to the investing prowess of economists, perhaps you should review Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) debacle. In the midst of the 1998 Asian financial crisis, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, two world renowned Nobel Prize winners almost single handedly brought the global financial market to its knees. Merton and Scholes used their lifetime knowledge of economics to create complex computerized investment algorithms. Everything worked just fine until LTCM lost $500 million in one day, which required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks.
NASDAQ 5,000…Bubble Repeat?
Janet Yellen’s recent prognostication about the valuation of the U.S. stock market happens to coincide with the NASDAQ index breaking through the 5,000 threshold, a feat not achieved since the piercing of the technology bubble in the year 2000.Investing Caffeine readers and investors of mine understand today’s NASDAQ index is much different than the NASDAQ index of 15 years ago (see also NASDAQ Redux), especially when it comes to valuation. The folks at Bespoke put NASDAQ 5,000 into an interesting context by adding the important factor of inflation to the mix. Even though the NASDAQ index is within spitting distance of its all-time high of 5,132 (reached in 2000), the index would actually need to rally another +40% to reach an all-time “inflation adjusted” closing high (see chart below).
Economists and strategists are usually articulate, and their arguments sound logical, but they are notorious for being horribly bad at predicting the future, Janet Yellen included. I agree valuation is an all-important factor in determining future stock market returns. Howeer, by Robert Shiller, Janet Yellen, and a host of other economists relying on one flawed metric (CAPE PE), they have not only been wildly wrong year after year, but they are recklessly neglecting many other key factors (see also Shiller CAPE Smells Like BS).
I freely admit stocks will eventually go down, most likely a garden variety -20% recessionary decline in prices. While from a historical standpoint we are overdue for another recession (about two recessions per decade), this recovery has been the slowest since World War II, and the yield curve is currently not flashing any warning signals. When the eventual stock market decline happens, it likely will not be driven by high valuations. The main culprit for a bear market will be a decline in earnings – high valuations just act as gasoline on the fire. Janet Yellen will continue to offer her opinions on many aspects of the economy, but if she steps on her soapbox again and yells about stock market valuations, you will be best served by purchasing a pair of earplugs.