“The economic data are wrestling between two likely possibilities and a third less likely one. The first of the likely ones remains that the U.S. already entered a recession in the third quarter of 2012. While I expect the full third-quarter GDP figure of 3.1% to remain positive post-revision, it’s not at all clear that fourth-quarter GDP (estimated to come in about 1.5%) will survive those eventual revisions – ditto for the marginal bounce in industrial production. The second likely possibility is that the enthusiasm about QEternity (combined with a positive jolt to personal income from special dividends to front-run the fiscal cliff) represented another successful round of “kick-the-can” to push a weak economy from the verge of recession for another few months. When we look at the broad evidence from a variety of good leading and coincident indicators, that’s actually the possibility that I am starting to lean toward. The unlikely possibility, in my view, is that the economy has started to walk on its own” (see Puppet Show).
With a few months of additional data in hand, the evidence further supports the "kick-the-can" interpretation. Specifically, enthusiasm about QEternity, coupled with a positive jolt to personal income from special dividends, can probably be credited for another successful round of “kick-the-can,” pushing a weak economy from the verge of recession for another few months, but not durably so.
My impression is that we have once again arrived back at that can. While there is no shortage of smug observers who believe that recession risk does not exist and never did, the fact is that the strongest leading indicators, as well as the most timely coincident data, have deteriorated and danced along the border between economic expansion and economic recession for more than two years. Meanwhile, repeated rounds of QE have produced little but short-lived bounces to defer a recession that historically would have followed such deterioration more quickly. The chart below offers a good picture of this process.
Notice the successively lower levels, as each round of quantitative easing has smaller and smaller effects on real economic activity (speculative activity in the financial markets aside). The question at present is whether the recent bounce will prove to be temporary as well. This expectation is certainly consistent with the series of rapid-fire misses from the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (particularly the new orders component), the national PMI reports for both manufacturing and services, and the unexpected weakness on both payroll and household employment surveys.
Put simply, stocks are not cheap, but are instead strenuously overvalued. The speculative reach for yield, encouraged by the Federal Reserve, has created another bubble – which is not recognized as a bubble only because distorted profit margins create the illusion that stocks are reasonably valued. We presently estimate a prospective 10-year nominal total return for the S&P 500 of less than 3.5% annually. The likelihood of even this return being achieved smoothly, without severe intervening volatility and steep market losses, is roughly zero. This does not imply or ensure immediate market losses, but it doesn’t need to. On any horizon of less than about 6-7 years, we expect that any intervening returns achieved by the S&P 500 will be wiped out, and then some. Speculate if you believe that your exit strategy will dominate that of millions of other speculators, despite market conditions that are already overvalued, overbought, overbullish. In my view, all of this will end badly.
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