Timing Bear Markets
My personal view is that the Greenspan-Bernanke regime of excessive stimulus, now administered by Yellen, will proceed as usual, and that the path of least resistance, for the market will be up. I believe that it would take a severe economic shock to outweigh the effect of the Fed’s relentless pushing of the market. Look at the market’s continued advance despite almost universal disappointment in economic growth. Exhibit 3 below shows the economic forecasts for major economic countries made a year ago by the IMF compared to what actually happened. Only Japan was a modest pleasant surprise at 0.7% ahead of forecast and the U.K. and Switzerland scraped home by the skin of their teeth. Everyone else fell short. There have been few such occasions when such broad disappointment with economic growth still allowed the U.S. and most other major economies to make material upward moves in their stock markets. It is yet another testimonial to the global reach of the Fed’s stimulus of equities (as was the very substantial decline in emerging market equities on just talk of tapering!)
In equities there are few signs yet of a traditional bubble [like in 1999]. In the U.S. individuals are not yet consistent buyers of mutual funds. This time [the bubble] is unprecedented [corporate profit] margins, usually the most dependably mean reverting of all financial series, which are apparently now the new normal. By June this year, markets felt relatively quiet and under the surface there was still a considerable undertow of risk aversion in the institutions. The Russell 2000 and the GMO High Quality universe were both just level with the S&P, all up 16%. Normally we would have expected the Russell to outperform handsomely. However, since then speculation has perked up so that today, the broad U.S. market is up 20% and the Russell 2000 is a more typical six points ahead while stocks in the GMO High Quality universe are several points behind. We have also had a sharp and unexpected uptick in parts of the IPO market in the U.S., so I would think that we are probably in the slow build-up to something interesting – a badly overpriced market and bubble conditions.
My personal guess is that the U.S. market, especially the non-blue chips, will work its way higher, perhaps by 20% to 30% in the next year or, more likely, two years, with the rest of the world including emerging market equities covering even more ground in at least a partial catch-up. And then we will have the third in the series of serious market busts since 1999 and presumably Greenspan, Bernanke, Yellen, et al. will rest happy, for surely they must expect something like this outcome given their experience. And we the people, of course, will get what we deserve.
We acclaimed the original perpetrator of this ill-fated plan – Greenspan – to be the great Maestro, in a general orgy of boot licking. His faithful acolyte, Bernanke, was reappointed by a democratic president and generally lauded for doing (I admit) a perfectly serviceable job of rallying the troops in a crash that absolutely would not have occurred without the dangerous experiments in deregulation and no regulation (of the subprime instruments, for example) of his and his predecessor’s policy. At this rate, one day we will praise Yellen (or a similar successor) for helping out adequately in the wreckage of the next utterly unnecessary financial and asset class failure. Deregulation was eventually a disappointment even to Greenspan, shocked at the bad behavior of financial leaders who, incomprehensibly to him, were not even attempting to maximize long-term risk-adjusted profits. Indeed, instead of the “price discovery” so central to modern economic theory we had “greed discovery.”
(Memo: “price discovery” is the process that happens in an open and competitive and unregulated market, where the interplay of supply, demand, and cost structures determines the efficient price. “Greed discovery” is the process by which a vastly and unnecessarily complicated fi nancial system is exploited by expert insiders. These insiders have far more knowledge than the lambs – formerly known as clients – and without adequate regulations the lambs are defleeced in a surge of “rent seeking.”)
In the meantime investors should be aware that the U.S. market is already badly overpriced – indeed, we believe it is priced to deliver negative real returns over seven years – and that most foreign markets having moved up rapidly this summer are also overpriced but less so. In our view, prudent investors should already be reducing their equity bets and their risk level in general. One of the more painful lessons in investing is that the prudent investor (or “value investor” if you prefer) almost invariably must forego plenty of fun at the top end of markets. This market is already no exception, but speculation can hurt prudence much more and probably will. Ah, that’s life. And with a Fed like ours it’s probably what we deserve.
Be prudent and you’ll probably forego gains. Be risky and you’ll probably make some more money, but you may be bushwhacked and, if you are, your excuses will look thin. Your call. We of course are making our call.
What can go wrong for the market? There is a slow and for me rather sinister slowing down of economic growth, most obviously in Europe but also globally, that could at worst overwhelm even the Fed. [see my blog Is the World Headed for Recession?] The general lack of fiscal stimulus globally and the almost precipitous decline in the U.S. Federal deficit in particular do not help. What are the odds in the next two years? Perhaps one in four.