Market extremes generally share a common formula. One part reality is blended with one part misguided perception (typically extrapolating recent trends as if they are driven by some reliable and permanent mechanism), and often one part pure delusion (typically in the form of a colorful hallucination with elves, gnomes and dancing mushrooms all singing in harmony that reliable valuation measures no longer matter).
The technology bubble was grounded in legitimate realities including the emergence of the internet and a Great Moderation of stable GDP growth and contained inflation. But it also created a misperception that it was possible for an industry to achieve profits while having zero barriers to entry at the same time (the end of that misperception is why the dot-com bubble collapsed), a misperception that technology earnings would grow exponentially and were not cyclical (as we correctly argued in 2000 they would shortly prove to be), and the outright delusion that historically reliable valuation measures were no longer informative. Meanwhile, the same valuation measures we use today were projecting – in real time – negative 10-year nominal total returns for the S&P 500 over the coming decade, even under optimistic assumptions (see our August 2000 research letter).
The housing bubble was grounded in legitimate realities including a boom in residential housing construction and a legitimate economic recovery that followed the 2000-2002 bear market (which we responded to by shifting to a constructive stance in April 2003 despite valuations still being elevated on a historical basis). But the housing bubble also created a misperception that mortgage-backed securities were safe because housing prices had, at least to that point, never experienced a major collapse. The delusion was that housing was a sound investment at any price. The same delusion spread to the equity markets, helped by Fed-induced yield-seeking speculation by investors who were starved for safe return. Meanwhile, the same equity valuation measures we use today helped us to correctly warn investors of oncoming financial risks at the 2007 peak (see A Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest).
The 2008 credit crisis, which we anticipated, was more challenging for us because the extent of employment losses and gravity of asset price collapse was greater than we had observed in the post-war data that underpinned our methods of assessing the market return/risk profile. Our valuation methods didn’t miss a beat, and correctly identified a shift to undervaluation after the late-2008 market plunge (see Why Warren Buffett is Right and Why Nobody Cares). But examining similar periods outside of post-war data, we found that measures of market action that were quite reliable in post-war data were heavily whipsawed in the Depression, and even the valuations we observed at the 2009 market lows were followed, in the Depression, by an additional loss of two-thirds of the market’s value. My resulting insistence on ensuring our methods were robust to that “two data sets” problem was necessary, but the timing could hardly have been worse, with an initial miss in the interim of that stress-testing, and an awkward transition to our present methods of classifying return/risk profiles.
The present market environment is grounded in the legitimate reality that the labor market has recovered its losses, but not to the extent that creates resource constraints or clear interest rate pressures. Though broad measures of economic activity have actually eased to year-over-year levels slightly below those that have historically distinguished expansions from recessions, the economy seems to be treading water, and don’t observe a particularly negative tone. Still, the recent period has created a misperception that monetary easing itself will support financial markets regardless of their valuation. The error here is that we know from history that it does not. Indeed, the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 collapses both progressed in an environment of aggressive and sustained monetary easing. What’s actually true about monetary policy is that zero-interest rate policy has created a perception that investors have no alternative but to “reach for yield” in riskier assets. It’s entirely that reach for yield that investors must rely on continuing indefinitely, because there’s no mechanistic cause-effect relationship between the Fed balance sheet and stock prices, bank lending, or economic activity.
As usual, the delusion is that this Fed-induced reach for yield is enough to make equities a sound investment at any price. Ironically, the Fed itself is in the process of reversing course on this policy. Meanwhile, based on the same valuation methods that correctly projected negative 10-year returns at the 2000 peak, correctly gave us room to shift to a constructive position in early 2003, correctly helped us warn of severe market losses at the 2007 peak, and correctly identified the shift to market undervaluation in late-2008 (which those who don’t understand our stress-testing narrative may not recognize), we currently estimate prospective S&P 500 nominal total returns of just 2% annually over the coming decade, and negative returns on every horizon shorter than about 7 years.
In short, investors who are reaching for yield in stocks as an alternative to risk-free assets are most likely reaching for a negative total return in stocks between now and about 2021.
Lessons from the recent half-cycle
The half-cycle since 2009 has certainly challenged our reputation in recent years, but it has not challenged our confidence about the future a bit. To understand that, it may be helpful to look under the hood at what has been different about this period. I’ve discussed the impact of my 2009 stress-testing decision in prior comments (see Setting the Record Straight), but I’m not sure that I’ve been clear about what has legitimately been “different” about the recent half-cycle compared with historical market cycles, and how we’ve adapted to that.
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