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John Hussman: Dancing at the Edge of a Cliff

May 14, 2012

In recent weeks, I've emphasized that our estimate of prospective market return/risk in stocks has slipped into the most negative 0.5% of historical data (reflecting a range of horizons from 2 weeks to 18 months). Last week that estimate actually deteriorated, but I am reluctant to make comments on such a small sample, as the only more negative estimate in post-Depression history was on September 16, 2000. Even in the conditions that match the worst 2% of our return/risk estimates (which is the part of the tail we have been in since late-February), the market has lost an average of 20-25% just in the following 6-month period. As much as I try to maintain equanimity - focusing on the average outcome of a particular set of market conditions rather than the specific instance at hand - it is very difficult to do so at present.

The green bands in the chart below depict all of the points since 1980 in the neighborhood of present conditions - having a nearly similar prospective return/risk profile, coupled with a particularly hostile "exhaustion syndrome" that has been a hallmark of the worst market outcomes in recent decades. The blue line shows the S&P 500 Index. As I noted in Goat Rodeo, "what this combination picks up is an already fragile set of market internals that has enjoyed an 'exhaustion rally' that both exceeds earnings growth and is met with overbullish sentiment."

I usually show longer-term charts, but there are no green bands prior to 1987. Before that point, valuations had never been as extended as they are today - on the basis of normalized earnings - except in the quarters leading up to the 1929 crash. Exhaustion syndromes prior to 1987, while still very hostile to stocks, didn't occur in valuation conditions as rich as we have today. It's worth noting that there is a very narrow band in 2006 that was followed by a decline of only a few percent, but even the seemingly benign instances in 1998 and early 2000 represented losses exceeding 10%. I suspect we're at risk of something far more significant. Importantly, the drivers of our market risk estimates are largely independent of our measures of recession risk. This may provide some insight into why my concerns have become so strident in recent weeks.


Present market risks involve a confluence of factors. First, valuations remain unusually rich. Though prospective returns are better than at the 2000 and 2007 peaks, valuations remain more elevated than at any point prior to the late-1990's bubble, save for the period before the 1929 plunge. Notably, valuations only seem "reasonable" on the basis of "forward operating earnings" if one ignores the fact that profit margins are 50-70% above historical norms, and are dependent on unsustainably large fiscal deficits and depressed household saving in order for that to continue (see Too Little to Lock In).

Second, market internals have deteriorated, with an uncomfortably familiar "two-tier" profile developing between a handful of speculative momentum stocks and the broader market. Coupled with an active new issues calendar, near-panic levels of selling by corporate insiders, heavy beta exposure among mutual funds and institutional managers, record-low mutual fund cash levels, and advisory bearishness at just 20.5% (a level last seen before the steep 2011 decline), there appears to be a lopsided exposure to risk among speculators, and a divestment among issuers.

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