In recent years, equities have been carried higher by several compounding effects: the growth of the economy, expanding profit margins, and expanding multiples.
These three things, by definition, determine equity prices (if we assume that gross sales are tied to economic growth):
Price = Price/Earnings x Earnings/Sales x Sales
When all three are rising, as they have been, it is a strong elixir for stock prices. Now, this explains why stock prices are so high, but the devil lies in predicting these components of course – no mean feat.
Yet, we can make some observations. It has been the case for a while that P/E ratios have been extremely high by historical measures, with the Shiller Cyclically-Adjusted P/E ratio (CAPE) roughly doubling since the bottom in 2009. With the exception of the equity bubble in 1999-2000, the CAPE has never been very much higher than it is now, at 26.4 (see chart, source Gurufocus). This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows markets regularly.
Somewhat less obviously, recently sales have been declining. However, on a rolling-10-year basis, the rise has been reasonably steady as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) illustrates. Over the last 10 years, sales per share have risen about 2.85% per year.
Finally, profit margins have recently been elevated. In fact, they have been elevated for a long time; the 10-year average profit margin for the S&P 500 (see chart, source Bloomberg) has risen to 8% from 6% only a few years ago. Recently, however, profit margins have been receding.
Both the rise in profit margins and the current drop in them make some sense. Value creation at the company level must be divided between the factors of production: land, labor, and capital. When there is substantial unemployment, labor has little bargaining power and capital tends to claim a higher share. Moreover, labor’s share is relatively sticky, so that speculative capital absorbs much of the business-cycle volatility in the short run. This is ever the tradeoff between the sellers of labor and the buyers of labor.
I used 10-year averages for all of these so that we can use CAPE; other measures of P/E are fraught. So, if we take 26.4 (CAPE) times 7.84% (10-year average profit margin) times 1005.55 (10-year average sales), we get an S&P index value of 2081, which is reasonably close to the end-of-May value of 2097. That’s not surprising – as I said, these three things make up the price, mathematically.
So let’s look forward. Recently, as the Unemployment Rate has fallen – and yes, I’m well aware that there is more slack in the jobs picture than is captured in the Unemployment Rate, but the recent direction is clear – wages have accelerated as I have documented in previous columns. It is unreasonable to expect that profit margins could stay permanently elevated at levels above all but a few historical episodes. Let’s say that over the next two years, the average drops from 7.84% to 7.25%. And let’s suppose that sales continue to grow at roughly 2.85% per year (which means no recession), so that sales for the S&P are at 1292 and the 10-year average at 1064.15. Then, if the long-term P/E remains at its current level, the S&P would need to decline to 2037. If the CAPE were to decline from 26.4 to, say, 22.5 (the average since 1990, excluding 1997-2002), the S&P would be at 1736.
None of this should be regarded as a prediction, except in one sense. If stock prices are going to continue to rise, then at least one of these things must be true: either multiples must expand further, or sales growth must not only become positive again but actually accelerate, or profit margins must stop regressing to the mean. None of these things seems like a sure thing to me. In fact, several of them seem downright unlikely.
The most malleable of these is the multiple…but it is also the most ephemeral, and most vulnerable to an acceleration in inflation. We remain negative on equities over the medium term, even though I recently advanced a hypothesis about why these overvalued conditions have been so durable.
The ECB fired its “bazooka” today, cutting official rates more into negative territory, increasing QE by another €20bln per month, expanding the range of assets the central bank can buy to now include corporate bonds, and creating a new 4-year program whereby the ECB will loan long-term money to banks at rates that could be negative (based on bank credit extended to corporate and personal borrowers).
My point today is not to opine on the power or wisdom of these policy moves. The main thing I want to observe is this: the inflation market is pricing in what amounts to success for global central banks, with consumer inflation averaging something between 1 and 2 percent per year for the next decade (a bit lower in Japan; a bit higher in the UK). Not only are inflation swaps prices much lower than would be expected from a pure monetarists’ standpoint – but options prices are also very low. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows normalized volatilities over the last five years for a 10-year, 2% year-over-year inflation cap. That is, every year you take a look and see if inflation was over 2%. If it was, then the owner of this option is paid the difference between actual inflation and 2%; if it was not, the owner gets zero. So you get to look ten times at whether inflation has gotten above 2%, and get paid each time it has.
The chart shows that whatever inflation is expected to be, the price to cover the risk that inflation is actually somewhat higher is very low. So, not only is inflation expected to be low, but it is expected to be not volatile either.
Look, we’re talking about bazookas, helicopters…does something not seem right about pricing in very little risk of screwing up?
Whether you believe my thesis in my freshly-released book What’s Wrong With Money? that the likely course of inflation over the next few years is higher and potentially much higher, or you agree with those who think deflation is imminent, shouldn’t we agree that bazookas introduce volatility?
Central banks are attempting to do something that has never been done. Shouldn’t we at least be a teensy bit nervous, as they line up to perform the first-ever quintuple-lutz, that no one has ever landed one before? That no one has ever landed a commercial passenger jet on an aircraft carrier?
Uncertainty is supposed to lower asset values, all else being equal. So even if you think stocks at these levels are “fair,” in an environment with earnings and interest rates where they are now and projected earnings following a certain path, an increase in the volatility of those outcomes should lower the clearing price of those assets since the buyer of the asset (which has positive value) is also assuming the volatility (which has a negative value).
But the market also says that uncertainty right now is low. Yes, the VIX is well off its lows and seems to suggest greater short-term uncertainty (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – but I would argue that the long-term volatility of the economic fundamentals has rarely been this high.
Supposedly you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but we also have never tried to do it. There’s a reason we haven’t tried to do it!
But the Fed, and the rest of the world’s central banks, are not only roller skating in a buffalo herd – the world’s markets seem to be suggesting that investors are sure they’re going to succeed. Regardless of whether you’re optimistic about the outcome, I would argue it’s nearly impossible to be both optimistic and highly confident!
 This means something to options traders but can be glossed over by non-options traders. Essentially the point is that you can’t use a regular Black-Scholes model to price options if the strike and/or the forward can have a negative value!
 #1 on Amazon in “Economic Inflation,” thanks largely to all of you!
It fascinates me how bear markets all feel alike in some ways. What I remember very clearly from the equity bear markets of 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 is that bulls wanted to bottom-tick the market at every imagined opportunity. Every “support level,” for the first half of each decline at least, saw bulls pile in as if the train were about to leave the station without them on it. Of course, the train was about to leave the station, but it was backing up.
Today, the S&P didn’t quite touch 1810 on the downside, basically matching the 1812 low from January. Bulls love double-bottoms. Of course, many of those turn out not to be double-bottoms after all, but the ones that are look very nice on the charts. So stocks rocketed off the lows, rising 25 S&P points in a matter of minutes after briefly being down 51. The rally was helped ostensibly by comments from the UAE oil minister, who claimed OPEC is ready to cooperate on a production cut. But that isn’t really why stocks rallied so dramatically; after all the news only pushed crude oil itself up about a buck. The real reason is that bulls are crazy maniacs.
They’re that way for a reason. If you are benchmarked against an equity index, it is very hard for an unlevered fund manager to beat that index in an up market. Once you subtract fees, and a drag from whatever cash holding you must have, you’re doing well to match the index since your limitation is (by definition of ‘unlevered’) 100% long. Where a fund manager must beat his index is in a down market, by participating less than 100% in a selloff. But being an outperformer in a down market is less valuable since customer outflows are likely to outweigh the inflows if there is a serious bear market. Therefore, fund managers naturally fall into a pattern of scalping small selloffs for outperformance. But since they can’t really afford to miss being long in a bull market, there is a serious tendency to dive back in at any hint that the decline may be over.
So we get these entertaining, furious bear market rallies, which tend not to last very long. Of course, my entire premise is that this is an equity bear market, and I could be completely wrong on that. If I am, then ignore the prior paragraphs.
Where I am more confident that I am right is on the monetary policy side. Get this: since the Fed hiked rates, year-over-year M2 money growth has gone from 5.7% to…5.7%. Lest you think this anomaly (because tightening is supposed to involve a deceleration in money growth, right?!?), the 26-week growth rate in M2 has gone from 5.3% to 6.8%, and the 13-week growth rate from 2.9% to 7.3%. The annualized growth rate of M2 from mid-December to February 1st (the figure that was released today) is 11.2%. In other words, money supply growth is clearly not decelerating.
Now, in a traditional tightening, the Fed would restrict reserves and this would have the effect of reducing, or at least causing a deceleration in the growth rate of, M2 through the money multiplier. As a side effect, interest rates would rise but the point of tightening is to reduce the growth rate of money. Or, at least, it used to be.
With the Fed’s current operating framework, in which interest rates are moved around like magnets on a refrigerator to the desired level, there should be no meaningful effect on money supply growth. That’s not to say that money growth rates should accelerate (as they evidently have), merely that the growth rates should be stochastic with respect to authoritarian interest-rate manipulation. They may fall, or they may rise, but it should not be related to the Fed’s “tightening.” I’ve been saying this for a long, long time and the first evidence is in. The Fed’s rate hike has done nothing to reduce the growth rate of money, and therefore ought to do nothing to restrain inflation. Indeed, if higher interest rates follow from a series of Fed hikes – which they haven’t, but mainly because no one believes the Fed is going to hike again while their precious stocks are only 35% above fair value rather than 50% – then the expected effect would be for monetary velocity to rise and inflation to accelerate.
At this point, the Fed can thank the market that their moves haven’t accelerated the already-established trend towards higher inflation. But the clock is ticking. If the Fed does indeed hike rates next month, the bond market may start taking it seriously and start the rates-inflation spiral.
 Unless, of course, you’re adding alpha. But the universe of fund managers adds approximately zero alpha – slightly positive, and negative net of fees. Except whoever your manager is, of course. I’m sure he’s the best. Good job finding him!
“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”
Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.
Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).
In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.
(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)
We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).
But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.
If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.
I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.
Some days make me feel so old. Actually, most days make me feel old, come to think of it; but some days make me feel old and wise. Yes, that’s it.
It is a good time to remember that there are a whole lot of people in the market today, many of them managing many millions or even billions of dollars, who have never seen a tightening cycle from the Federal Reserve. The last one began in 2004.
There are many more, managing many more dollars, who have only seen that one cycle, but not two; the previous tightening cycle began in 1999.
This is more than passing relevant. The people who have seen no tightening cycle at all might be inclined to believe the hooey that tightening is bullish for stocks because it means a return to normalcy. The people who have seen only one tightening cycle saw the one that coincided with stocks’ 35% rally from 2004-2007. That latter group absolutely believes the hooey. The fact that said equity market rally began with stocks 27% below the prior all-time high, rather than 32% above it as the market currently is, may not have entered into their calculations.
On the other hand, the people who dimly recall the 1999 episode might recall that the market was fine for a little while, but it didn’t end well. And you don’t know too many dinosaurs who remember the abortive tightening in 1997 in front of the Asian Contagion and the 1994 tightening cycle that ended shortly after the Tequila crisis.
Moreover, it is a good time to remember that no one in the market today, or ever, can remember the last time the Fed tightened in an “environment of abundant liquidity,” which is what they call it when there are too many reserves to actually restrain reserves to change interest rates. That’s because it has never happened before. So if anyone tells you they know with absolute certainty what is going to happen, to stocks or bonds or the dollar or commodities or the economy or inflation or anything else – they are relying on astrology.
Many of us have opinions, and some more well-informed than others. My own opinion tends to be focused on inflationary dynamics, and I remain very confident that inflation is going to head higher not despite the Fed’s action today, but because of it. I want to keep this article short because I know you have a lot to read today, but I will show you a very important picture (source: Bloomberg) that you should remember.
The white line is the Federal Funds target rate (although that meant less at certain times in the past, when the rate was either not targeted directly, as in the early 1980s, or the target was represented as a range of values). The yellow line is core inflation. Focus on the tightening cycles: in the early 1970s, in the late 1970s, in 1983-84, in the late 1980s, in the early 1990s, in 1999-2000, and the one beginning in 2004. In every one of those episodes, save the one in 1994, core inflation either began to rise or accelerated, after the Fed began to tighten.
The generous interpretation of this fact would be that the Fed peered into the future and divined that inflation was about to rise, and so moved in spectacularly-accurate anticipation of that fact. But we know that the Fed’s forecasting abilities are pretty poor. Even the Fed admits their forecasting abilities are pretty poor. And, as it turns out, this phenomenon has a name. Economists call it the “price puzzle.”
If you have been reading my columns, you know this is no puzzle at all for a monetarist. Inflation rises when the Fed begins to tighten because higher interest rates bring about higher monetary velocity, because velocity is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when interest rates rise you are less likely to leave money sitting idle; therefore, investors and savers play a game of monetary ‘hot potato’ which gets more intense the higher interest rates go – and that means higher monetary velocity. This effect happens almost instantly. After a time, if the Fed has raised rates in the traditional fashion by reducing the growth rate of money and reserves, the slower monetary growth rate comes to dominate the velocity effect and inflation ebbs. But this takes time.
And, moreover, as I have pointed out before and will keep pointing out as the Fed tightens: in this case, the Fed is not doing anything to slow the growth rate of money, because to do that they would have to drain reserves and they don’t know how to do that. I expect money growth to remain at its current level, or perhaps even to rise as higher interest rates provoke more bank lending without and offsetting restraint coming from bank reserve scarcity. By moving interest rates by diktat, the Fed is increasing monetary velocity and doing nothing (at least, nothing predictable) with the growth rate of money itself. This is a bad idea.
No one knows how it will turn out, least of all the Fed. But if market multiples have anything to do with certainty and low volatility – then we might expect lower market multiples to come.
Walmart (WMT) didn’t have its best day today. The bellwether retailer forecast a profit decline of 6-12% in its 2017 fiscal year, in some part because of a $1.5bln increase in wage expenses; the stock dropped 10% to its lowest level since 2012 and off about 33% from the highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).
I mention Walmart neither to recommend it nor to pan it, but only because in the absence of news from WMT I would have been inclined to ignore the modest downside surprise in Retail Sales today; September Retail Sales ex-auto-and-gasoline were unchanged versus expectations for a +0.3% rise. But Retail Sales, like Durable Goods, is a wildly volatile number (see chart, source Bloomberg).
This was a bad month, but it wasn’t the worst month in 2015. It wasn’t even the second or third-worst month in 2015. Looking at a monthly figure, it is difficult to reject any null hypothesis; put another way, you really cannot discern whether +0.5% is statistically different from +0.0%. [I didn’t actually do the test…I am just making the general statistical observation.] Today’s data will tweak the Q3 forecasts a bit lower, but isn’t anything to be upset about. Except, that is, for the fact that Walmart is bleeding.
There is something else that is different about this decline, and really about this whole year. I have documented in the past the steady decline in equity volumes that has been occurring for almost a decade now. The chart below shows the cumulative NYSE volume, by trading day of the year, for 2006 through present. Note the steady march lower in volumes year after year after year. 2014 and 2013 were almost mirror images, so you can’t see 2014. But notice the thicker black line: that is 2015.
|Number of sub-billion share days|
In 2015, we are on pace for a mere 228 sub-billion share days.
I guess by now my point is plain, but here is one more chart and that is the rolling 20-day composite volume for 2014 (lower line) and 2015 (upper line).
In general, volumes have been higher this year, but the real divergence began at the end of July, when the lines began to move away from each other more rapidly. The equity breakdown started on August 20th.
What does this all mean? Rising trading volumes while markets are declining suggests we should consider imputing more significance to what many are calling a correction but which may be the beginning of something deeper. There are re-allocations happening, and outright sales – not just fast money slinging positions around. Technically, this is supposed to put more weight on the “damage” done by this correction, and raise a bit of a warning flag about the medium-term set-up.
Incidentally, you can buy warning flags cheaply at Walmart.
Yesterday, I mentioned the likelihood that a recession is coming. The indicators for this are mostly from the manufacturing side of the economic ledger, and they are at this point merely suggestive. For example, the ISM Manufacturing Index is at 50.2, below which level we often see deeper downdrafts (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Capacity Utilization, which never got back to the level over 80% that historically worries the Fed about inflation, has been slipping back again (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Now, we have to be a bit careful of these “classic” indicators because of the increased weight of mining and exploration in GDP compared with the last few cycles. A good part of the downturn in Capacity Utilization, I suspect, could be traced to weakness in the oil patch. But at the same time, we cannot blithely dismiss the manufacturing weakness as being “all about oil” in the same way that Clinton supporters once dismissed Oval Office shenanigans as being “all about sex.” Oil matters, in this economy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while historically a declining oil price was a boon to the nation as a whole (which is why we never suffered much from the Asian Contagion: the plunge in commodity prices tended to support the U.S., which is generally a net consumer of resources), in this cycle low oil prices are probably neutral at best, and may even be contractionary for the country as a whole.
Whether we have a recession in the near term (meaning beginning in the next six months or so) or further in the future, here is one point that is important to make. It will not be a “garden variety” recession, in all likelihood. That is not because we have boomed so much, but because we are levered so much. There are no more “garden variety” recessions.
Financial leverage in an economy, just as in individual businesses, increases economic volatility. So does operational leverage (which means: deploying fixed capital rather than variable inputs such as labor – technology, typically). And our economy has both in spades. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the debt of domestic businesses as a percentage of GDP. Businesses are currently more levered than they were in 2007, both in raw debt figures and as a percentage of GDP.
Investors fearing recession should shift equity allocations (to the extent some equity allocation is retained) to less-levered businesses. But be careful: some investors think of growth companies as being low-leverage but tech companies (for example) in fact have very high operating leverage even if financial leverage is low. Both are bad when earnings decline – and growth firms typically have less of a margin of safety on price. I tried to do a screen on low-debt, low-PE, high-dividend non-tech companies with decent market caps and didn’t find very much. Canon (CAJ), Guess? Inc (GES) to name a couple of examples…and neither of those have low P/E ratios. (I don’t like to invest in individual stocks in any event but I mention these for readers who do – these aren’t recommendations and I neither own them nor plan to, but may be worth some further research if you are looking for names.)
On the plus side, economically-speaking, relatively heavy personal income taxation also acts as an automatic stabilizer. On the minus side, this is less true if the tax system is heavily progressive, since it isn’t the higher-paid employees who tend to be the ones who are laid off (except on Wall Street, where it is currently de rigueur to cut experienced, expensive staff and retain less-experienced, cheaper staff). Back on the plus side, a large welfare system tends to be an automatic stabilizer as well. On the minus side, all of these fiscal stabilizers merely move growth from the future to the present, so the deeper the recession the slower the future growth.
And, of course – there is nothing that central banks can really do about this, unless it is to make policy rates negative to spur additional extension of negative-NPV loans (that is, loans to less-creditworthy borrowers). I am not sure that even our central bank, with its unhealthy fear of the cleansing power of recession, thinks that’s a good idea.
There is some good news, as we brace for this next recession: while overall levels of debt are higher for businesses, financials, and households, the debt burden compared to GDP is lower for households and especially for domestic financial institutions (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Our banks are in relatively good health, compared with their condition headed into the last downturn. So this will not be a calamity, as in 2008. But I don’t expect it to only be a “mild” recession, either – as if any recession ever feels mild to individuals!