Among the recurring features of speculative episodes across history is the appearance of “new era” arguments to justify the elevated prices, coupled with arguments that historically reliable measures no longer apply. In our view, the problem is not that investors search for new, more reliable tools of market analysis – that should always be an objective. The problem is when investors adopt theories and models that embed the most optimistic assumptions possible, run contrary to historical evidence, or embed subtle peculiarities that actually drive the results (see, for example, the “novel valuation measures” section of The Diva is Already Singing). Eventually, the final refuge of speculation is to abandon historically reliable measures wholesale, resting faith instead on the advent of some new era in which the old rules simply don’t apply.
John Kenneth Galbraith noted this phenomenon decades ago in his book The Great Crash 1929: “It was still necessary to reassure those who required some tie, however tenuous, to reality. This process of reassurance eventually achieved the status of a profession. However, the time had come, as in all periods of speculation, when men sought not to be persuaded by the reality of things but to find excuses for escaping into the new world of fantasy.”
In late-1929, Business Week observed: “This is the longest period of practically uninterrupted rise in security prices in our history… The psychological illusion upon which it is based, though not essentially new, has been stronger and more widespread than has ever been the case in this country in the past. This illusion is summed up in the phrase ‘the new era.’ The phrase itself is not new. Every period of speculation rediscovers it… During every preceding period of stock speculation and subsequent collapse business conditions have been discussed in the same unrealistic fashion as in recent years. There has been the same widespread idea that in some miraculous way, endlessly elaborated but never actually defined, the fundamental conditions and requirements of progress and prosperity have changed, that old economic principles have been abrogated… that business profits are destined to grow faster and without limit, and that the expansion of credit can have no end.”
“This time” is not different. There’s no question that investors have come to believe that somehow quantitative easing has durably changed the world – that central banks have (or even can) put a floor under the markets as far as the eye can see. But if you examine the persistent and aggressive easing by the Fed during the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 plunges, it’s clear that monetary easing has little effect once investor preferences shift toward risk aversion –which we infer from the behavior of observable market internals and credit spreads. Monetary easing only provokes yield-seeking speculation when low-interest money is viewed as an inferior asset.
It’s not monetary easing, but the attitude of investors toward risk that distinguishes an overvalued market that continues higher from an overvalued market that is vulnerable to vertical losses. That window of vulnerability has been open for several months now, and the immediacy of our downside concerns would ease (despite obscene valuations) only if market internals and credit spreads were to shift back toward evidence of investor risk-seeking.
Zero interest rate policy has two effects on the financial markets. One is legitimate – every year in which short-term interest rates are expected to be zero instead of say, a typical 4%, should reasonably warrant a 4% valuation premium in stocks and bonds, over and above run-of-the-mill historical norms (one can demonstrate this using any discounted cash flow approach). So if investors expect short-term rates to be zero for another 4 years, it would be reasonable for stocks and bonds to be about 16% higher than historical valuation norms. At present, the most historically reliable measures we identify suggest that S&P 500 valuations are more than twice their pre-bubble norms.
The other effect of zero interest rate policy is pure delusion. It is to convince investors that there is some miraculous support, "endlessly elaborated but never actually defined," that places a floor under the financial markets. By creating that delusion, investors become prone to “carry trade” speculation – buying any risky security that offers a yield better than zero. That carry trade mentality can only survive in a world where the possibility of capital loss is quietly assumed away.
Our view is simple. The U.S. stock market is in the third valuation bubble of the past 15 years, which is likely to be resolved by losses similar to the outcomes we observed in the first two. In the face of constant cheerleading in 2000 based on theories and valuation measures that were historically unfounded, I wrote in February of that year:
“If you turn off CNBC and think about the market independently for even a few minutes, it is clear that this market displays none of the conditions which have historically been followed by sustained market advances, and all of the conditions which have historically been followed by market crashes. The aphorism ‘Buy low, sell high’ has long been discarded. The replacement ‘Buy high, sell higher’ has also been abandoned. The rallying cries of investors are now just ‘Buy’ and ‘Get me in!’
“Are we the only sane people on the planet? While investors are conditioned to think that ‘extreme risk’ means 15-20% downside, let’s not be shy… we expect a 50% plunge in the S&P 500 by the time this cycle is over. Fortunately, investors who decide to buy on a 15% drop will only lose about 41%, and investors who hold out for a 20% drop before buying will only lose about 38% by the bottom. That’s how the math works… So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the more speculative sectors of the market are likely to be hit harder… The difficult part of all of this is the short term. I have no answer for that, except that in each prior instance, every scrap of short-term gain was wiped out in the eventual downturn."
As it happened, yes, we were evidently among the only sane people on the planet. The S&P 500 went on to lose half of its value by October 2002, while the Nasdaq 100 lost 83% of its value. We expressed similar concerns (and projections of potential loss for the S&P 500) in 2007, which were validated in the financial crisis that followed.
I can write this a thousand times, but we’re still regularly asked questions that implicitly assume that we’ve neither learned anything, nor addressed anything as a result our challenge in the recent half-cycle since 2009. I’ll say this again: our central challenge was not the result of our valuation methods, which didn’t miss a beat (see Why Warren Buffett is Right and Why Nobody Cares). Rather, the challenge was the inadvertent result of my 2009 insistence on stress testing our methods of classifying return/risk profiles against Depression-era data. The ensemble methods that came out of that effort, while performing even better than our pre-2009 methods in full cycles across history, also subtly reduced the impact of various components we use to infer investor risk preferences. The one thing that QE did to make things legitimately “different this time" was to reduce the overlap between overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes and corresponding deterioration in market internals. Because those syndromes were historically a reliable warning of subsequent deterioration in market action, we responded too strongly when they emerged. Put simply, QE made that overlap unreliable. We imposed overlays in mid-2014 that essentially rule out a hard-negative outlook until that deterioration in market internals or credit spreads becomes evident (as it has at present).
Don’t imagine that our stumble in this half-cycle makes current market valuations any less breathtaking. An advancing stock market is not evidence that stocks are not obscenely overvalued. If overvalued markets always crashed immediately, extreme overvaluation could never emerge in the first place. Instead, we have to ask a different question: what distinguishes an overvalued market that continues higher from an overvalued market that crashes? History repeatedly provides the same answer (which, like most discoveries, only seems “obvious” after you’ve figured it out). What distinguished the late-1990’s valuation bubble from the crash that followed that bubble? A shift in investor risk-preferences, as revealed by a subtle (and eventually profound) deterioration of observable market internals and risk measures. What distinguished the advance to the 2007 peak from the collapse that followed? A shift in investor risk-preferences, as revealed by a subtle (and eventually profound) deterioration of observable market internals and risk measures. The same is likely to be the case in the present instance, and on historically reliable measures, that shift has already occurred. Our concerns about market risk will become less immediate if they were to improve. At present, the market remains vulnerable to losses similar to those we observed in 2000 and 2007.