A reader of
this commentary recently asked us if we were “throwing in the towel? The reader was, of course, referring to our
long running bearish outlook for the U.S. stock market. To quote the great Bob Dylan, “The times they
are a changin”…for the bulls, but not for us!
We remain in the bearish camp as firmly as we have in the past. So below
is a summary of our latest thoughts as to where things stand.
Let’s start with
the root cause of what we believe will be among the most vicious bear markets
in history, when it does occur. The
major central banks of the free world have, since the Great Recession hit with
full force as the Housing Bubble burst in the fall of 2008, expanded their
balance sheets and printed money like no central bank has ever done before. The term for this is Quantitative
Easing. The Fed, European Central Bank
(ECB), Bank of Japan (BOJ), and Bank of England (BOE) have all purchased
trillions of dollars of government debt and related securities. The ECB has also purchased large amounts of
corporate debt, and the BOJ has upped the ante by even purchasing Japanese
equity ETFs. They have yet to reduce
their balance sheets by the equivalent of a single penny, and we believe they
will find it very difficult, it not nearly impossible, to extricate themselves
from the situation without highly negative effects on the markets. If Quantitative Easing was largely
responsible for creating the bubble in financial assets we believe exists, it
stands to reason that when they start doing the reverse the results could be
very negative for the markets.
One of the
major effects of Quantitative Easing is to drive interest rates lower than the
free market would otherwise price them.
In the case of Europe and Japan this has even resulted in negative
interest rates. This is a first in the
history of financial markets. Low and
negative rates mainly punish savers.
This has resulted in overpricing of stocks and bonds as investors from
the developed countries, in particular, have chased returns.
mispriced are the markets? Let’s start
with U.S. equities. As of 8/31/17,
the S&P 500 Reported Earnings were 23.8X Trailing Twelve Months (TTM). This is with the index less than 1% from its
all-time high. By way of contrast, the
Housing Bubble burst in 2008, but the market actually peaked in October of
2007. At the end of September 2007, the
TTM P/E was 19.4X. Admittedly, the TTM P/E
was higher before the DOT Com Bubble burst.
The number was 29.4X and was skewed by the Tech sector. Though quarterly earnings peaked coincident
with the highs, both earnings and prices continued to decline dramatically for
the next two years. Other metrics, like
price to sales, are by far the highest ever for the S&P 500 median company.
government bonds? Here is a recent cross
section of ten year Government rates: United States
2.07%, Italy 2.02%, Spain 1.55%, United Kingdom 1.04%, France .67%, Germany
.36%, and Japan .006%. Ask
yourself. Does this make any sense? Could it exist in any world but a world where
the central banks have run amok, and distorted financial asset relationships
like never before. Clearly, at these
prices, the bond markets are pricing in little, if any, growth. And apparently pricing in little, if any,
default risk. Is Italy a better credit
than the U.S.?
We are not
the first to point out the dichotomy between the pricing of stocks versus
bonds. In the US, 23.8X TTM earnings and
a 2.07% ten year just doesn’t jive.
Stocks are saying growth and bonds are saying no growth. We believe the bond market will be right for
reasons we have stated in the past. The
recent 3% print in Q2 GDP will, we believe, prove to be a blip. The long term population demographics, trends
in numbers of both employed and those out of the workforce, low long term growth
in productivity, and skilled immigration (or lack thereof) will all prove to be
a long term inhibitor to growth.
As far as
President Trump’s ability to get his agenda through congress it is not at all
clear that he will be successful. And even
if he is, in our view, it is already priced in.
There used to be a saying that “politics stops at the waterline”. This referred to the fact that even though we
Americans have our differences, we are still Americans and when a foreign
threat arises, we are united as one and all politics cease. Today that old saying seems to have morphed
into “politics stops at the center of the aisle”. Anyone that thought that acrimony had peaked
at the end of the Obama administration, (naively) thought wrong! Never before have we witnessed such political
division that seems to be mainly for the sake of division. So we’ll see where that all goes, but it
doesn’t appear to be a good development given we are hovering near all-time
highs in the major indexes.
We thank our
readers for their loyalty and attention and assure them that the towel still
rests in the corner. We’ve wiped some
sweat from our brow, but are standing and waiting for the bell and the next
round, when the central banks reverse what they have been doing for the past
few years (8 years for the Fed). And when they reverse, it
could be very detrimental for stocks.