Jeremy Grantham Q4 letter
Giving a Little Credit to High Yield and Part 1: The Real American Exceptionalism; Part II: 2015/2016, U.S. Equity Bubble Update, and Yet More on Oil
The 4Q15 Letter features Ben Inker answering the question as to whether high yield debt today is cheap in "Giving a Little Credit to High Yield" and is followed by a continuation of Jeremy Grantham's piece from last quarter. Part I of Jeremy’s section, “The Real American Exceptionalism” discusses the benefits of the entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes the U.S. as well as its advantage in the world given its abundant resources. Part II offers a brief review of 2015 and a look ahead to 2016, followed by an update to his views on whether the U.S. equity market is nearing bubble territory and a discussion as to how the free fall in the price of oil is playing out in the markets.
Summary ? The positive effects of low resource prices are underestimated. The U.S. and global economies are likely to do significantly better this year than recent opinions predict. The U.S. has plenty of spare capacity to grow above its longer-term limits. The biggest risk would be China’s GDP becoming much more disappointing. ? The U.S. and global markets do not look like they are in bubble territory. They can always suffer a regular bear market (and are almost in one now). But I still believe we will have to wait longer for the BIG ONE and that global equity markets will regroup once more. ? Currently ultra-low resource prices are not sustainable, particularly those of grains and oil. Oil producers need $65/barrel and rising to finance new oil exploration. Resource prices will inevitably rise and as they do they will reduce once again the growth rates of the global economy.
A quick look at 2015 and 2016 2015 Looking back to last year we could simplify it by saying that the big positive was, as usual, support from the Fed and its allies, as they continued to maintain lower than market rates. You know my view: These lower rates have surprisingly little effect on the economy but a big effect on pushing up asset prices. Historically – well for 25 years anyway – the lack of reasonable values has often not impeded the Fed’s ability to push equity prices higher. Indeed, by any traditional measure we have spent over 80% of the last 25 years overpriced. The big negative in 2015, of course, was China slowing down, especially in areas requiring raw materials. This helped to broadly lower global GDP growth.
Loosely speaking, the closer investments were to China – say, miners, countries supplying raw materials, and emerging markets with heavy Chinese trade – then the relatively worse they did. And the closer to the Fed, as the U.S. is, the less badly they did. The global bear market bias of 2015 was also helped along everywhere by the plunging oil price, which caused layoffs, reductions in capital spending, and, probably more importantly for equities, increased global uncertainties both at the company financial level and the country political level.
Right behind that as a negative, particularly in the U.S., was a decline in profit margins. Finally! But the drop was from levels so far above the old trend that even after recent declines they remain handsome. Looking at the U.S. equity market I think we might agree on how powerful the Fed is in the market equation. It approximately offset these three very large negatives: China, oil, and declining margins, which together caused disappointing global growth. But in addition, it had to neutralize the justifiable nervousness caused by increased terrorism, immigrant problems, Russia’s sharp elbows, and an apparently disheveled Europe. Not bad! 2016 Looking to 2016, we can agree that uncertainties are above average. But I think the global economy and the U.S. in particular will do better than the bears believe it will because they appear to underestimate the slow-burning but huge positive of much-reduced resource prices in the U.S. and the availability of capacity both in labor and machinery. So even though I believe our trend line growth capability is only 1.5%, our spare capacity and lower input prices make 2.5% quite attainable for this year. And growth at this level would make a major market break unlikely.
As discussed elsewhere, this situation feels at worst like an ordinary bear market lasting a few months and not like a major collapse. That, I think, will come later after the final ingredients of a major bubble fall into place. As always, though, prudent investors should ignore historical niceties like these and invest according to GMO’s rather depressing 7-year forecast. The U.S. equity market, although not in bubble territory, is very overpriced (+50% to 60%) and the outlook for fixed income is dismal. At current asset prices no pension fund requirements can be met. Thus, we should welcome a major market break that will leave us with more reasonable investment growth potential for the longer term, but I suspect that we will have to wait patiently for such a major decline. The ability of the market to hurt eager bears some more is probably not exhausted.
I still believe that, with the help of the Fed and its allies, the U.S. market will rally once again to become a fully-fledged bubble before it breaks. That is, after all, the logical outcome of a Fed policy that stimulates and overestimates some more until, finally, some strut in the complicated economic structure snaps. Good luck in 2016. U.S. equity bubble update On the evaluation front, the market is not quite expensive enough to deserve the bubble title. We at GMO have defined a bubble as a 2-standard-deviation event (2-sigma). We believe that all great investment bubbles reached that level and market events that fell short of 2-sigma did not feel like the real thing. (In our view, 2008 was preceded by an unprecedented U.S. housing bubble – a 3-sigma event.)
Today a 2-sigma U.S. equity market would be at or around 2300 on the S&P, requiring a rally of over 20%; even from the previous record daily high it would have required an 8% rally. The impressive bubble peaks of 1929 and 2008 also featured broad international overpricing of equities, measured at over 1-sigma, and this, too, was completely lacking this time. Emerging market equities were just ordinarily overpriced last year and full of investor concerns totally unlike normal bubble conditions. Europe and other developed markets were more overpriced but nowhere near bubble levels, and were also characterized by extreme nervousness. On the more touchy-feely level of psychological and technical measures, the U.S. market came closer to bubble status but, still, I think, no cigar. I had pointed out two years ago1 that nearly all major
bubbles are immediately preceded by a period when the safer blue chips outperform the riskier, higher-beta stocks on the upside. At other times this would be considered very unusual. Two years ago there was not a hint of that, but last year was a classically narrow market – i.e., led by a handful of the very largest and, on average, higher-quality companies. So the bears can claim this one, although I think with