I haven’t written in a few weeks. It has been, generally, a fairly boring few weeks in terms of market action, with inflation breakevens oscillating in a narrow range and equities also fairly somnolent. But I can’t blame my lack of posts on a lack of interesting things to remark upon, nor on March Madness, nor on New Jersey Transit (although each of these is a very valid excuse for the general lackadaisical nature of trading in recent weeks). In my case, I plead business exigencies as we are working on a few very exciting projects, one of which I expect to be able to announce in the next week or two.
But writing a blog post/article is never far from my mind. I’ve been doing it for far too long – since the ‘90s if you count the daily letters I wrote for client distribution when I was on Wall Street – and when I haven’t written something in a while it is a bit like an itch on the sole of my foot: I am constantly being reminded about it and the only way to make it stop is to rip the shoe off and scratch. Which tickles. But I digress. What I mean to say is that I have a long list of things I’ve written down that I could write about “if I have time this afternoon,” and it’s only the lack of time that has stopped me. (Some of these are also turning into longer, white-paper type articles such as one I am writing right now estimating the cost of the “Greenspan Put.”)
Some of these ideas are good ideas, but I can’t figure out how to address my hypothesis. For example, I suspect that inflation swaps or breakevens, now that they are near fair value for this level of interest rates, have some component in them right now that could be interpreted as the probability that the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) eventually becomes law. If the BAT is implemented, it implies higher prices, and potentially much higher depending on the competitive response of other countries. If the BAT fails, then breakevens may not set back very much, but they should decline some; if the BAT looks like it is fait accompli, then inflation quotes could move sharply higher (at least, they should). But prediction markets aren’t making book on the BAT, so I don’t have a way to test (or even illustrate) this hypothesis.
But enough about what I can’t do or won’t be doing; today I want to revisit something I wrote back in December about the stock market. In an article entitled “Add Another Uncomfortable First for Stocks,” I noted that the expected 10-year real return premium for equities over TIPS was about to go negative, something that hadn’t happened in about a decade. In fact, it did go slightly negative at the end of February, with TIPS guaranteed real return over ten years actually slightly above the expected (risky) real return of equities over that time period. At the end of March, that risk premium was back to +3bps, but it’s still roughly the same story: stocks are priced to do about as well as TIPS over the next decade, with the not-so-minor caveat that if inflation rises TIPS will do just fine but stocks will likely do quite poorly, as they historically have done when inflation has risen.
But I got to wondering whether we can say anything about the current market on the basis of how far stocks have outperformed the a priori expectations. That is, if we made a forecast and a decade goes by and stocks have shattered those expectations, does that mean that the forecast was bad or that stocks just became overvalued during that period so that some future period of underperformance of the forecast is to be expected? And, vice-versa, does an underperformance presage a future outperformance?
The first thing that we have to confess is that the way we project expected real returns will not produce something that we expect to hit the target every decade. Indeed, the misses can be huge in real dollar terms – so this is not a short-term or even a medium-term trading system. Consider the following chart (Source: Enduring Investments), which shows the difference of the actual 10-year return compared with the a priori forecast return from 10 years prior. A positive number means that stocks over the period ending on that date outperformed the a priori forecast; a negative number means they underperformed the forecast. In context: a 5% per year miss in the real return means a 63% miss on the 10-year real return. That’s huge.
What you can really see here is that stocks have – no surprise – very long ‘seasons’ of bear and bull markets where investors en masse are disappointed with their returns, or excited about their returns. But let me update this chart with an additional observation about real yields. During the period covered by this chart, there have been three distinct real yield regimes. In the 1960s and 1970s, real yields generally rose. In the late 1970s, 10-year real yields rose to around 4.25%-4.50%, and they didn’t begin falling again in earnest until the late 1980s. (This is in contrast to nominal yields, which started to fall in the early 1980s, but that was almost entirely because the premium for expected inflation was eroding). Between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, real yields were more or less stable at a high level; since the late 1980s they have been declining. In the following chart (Source: Enduring Investments), I’ve annotated these periods and you may reasonably draw the conclusion that in periods of rising interest rates, stocks underperform a priori expectations in real terms while in periods of falling real interest rates, stocks outperform those expectations.
These rolling 10-year rate-of-change figures are interesting but it is hard to see whether periods of outperformance are followed by underperformance etc. It doesn’t look like it, except in the really big macro picture where a decade of outperformance might set the stage for a decade of underperformance. I like the following look at the same data. I took the a priori 10-year real return forecast and applied it to the then-current real price level of the S&P 500 (deflated by the CPI). That produces the red line in the chart below (Source: Enduring Investments). The real price level of the S&P is in black. So the red line is the price level forecast and the black line shows where it ended up.
As I said, this is not a short-term trading model! It is interesting to me how the forecast real level of equities didn’t change much for a couple of decades – essentially, the declining market (and rising price level) saw the underperformance impounded in a higher forecast of future returns. So the “negative bubble” of the 1970s is readily visible, and the incredible cheapness of stocks in 1981 is completely apparent. But stocks were also cheap in real terms in 1976…it was a long wait if you were buying then because they were cheap. Value investing requires a lot of patience. Epic patience.
However, once equity returns finally started to outpace the a priori forecast, and the actual line caught up with the forecast line, the market leapt higher and the twin bubbles of 1999 and 2006 are also apparent here (as well as, dare I say it, the current bubble). But since the forecast line is climbing too, how bad is the current bubble? By some measures, it’s as large or nearly as large as the 1999 bubble. But if we take the difference between the black line and the red line from the prior chart, then we find that it’s possible to argue that stocks are only, perhaps, 30% overvalued and not as mispriced even as they were in 2006.
This may sound like slim solace, but if the worst we have to expect is a 30% retracement, that’s not really so terrible – especially when you realize that that’s in real terms, so if inflation is 3% per year then you’re looking at a loss of 10-15% per year for two years. That’s almost a yawner.
On the other hand, if we are entering an up cycle for real interest rates, then the downside is harder to figure. In the last bear market for real yields, stocks got 60% cheap to fair!
None of this is meant to indicate that you should make major changes in your portfolio now. If all of the evidence that stocks are rich hasn’t caused you to make alterations before now, then I wouldn’t expect this argument to do it! Rather, this is just a different rationality-check on the idea that stocks are overvalued, and my words could actually be taken as soothing by bulls. The chart shows that stocks can be overvalued, and outperform a priori expectations that incorporate valuation measures, for years, even decades. Maybe we’re back in one of those periods?
But we have to go back to the very first point I made, and that’s that if you don’t feel like betting the 30% overvaluation is going to get worse, you can lock in current real return expectations with zero risk and give up nothing but the tails – in both direction – of the equity bet. The equity premium, that is, is currently zero and stocks are additionally exposed to rising inflation. I see nothing tantalizing about stocks, other than the possibility that the downside is perhaps not as bad as I have been fearing.
Administrative Note: Our website at EnduringInvestments.com is about five years overdue for a facelift. We are currently considering how we want to change it, the look & feel we want, and the functionality we desire and require. If you have a suggestion for something you think would be helpful for us to include, please let me know. (Note that this is not a solicitation for web design services so please do not ask! We have picked a firm to do that. I’m just curious what customers and potential customers might want.)
This will be a very short remark, partly because I am certain that someone else must have observed this already.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined on Tuesday after having risen in each of the preceding 12 days. I was curious, and the DJIA has data going back more than a century (unlike, for example, the S&P 500, the Russell, or other indices), so I checked to see how often that has happened before.
It turns out that only three times before in history has the Dow advanced in 12 consecutive sessions. The dates of those occurrences are (listed is the last day of advance before the first decline):
July 8, 1929
December 7, 1970
January 20, 1987
The latter of these three was actually a 13-day advance, and the longest in history.
Now, the 1970 occurrence seems to be nothing special. It occurred five years into a 15-year period that saw the Dow go nowhere in nominal terms, but there was nothing special about 1971. However, anyone who invests in the stock market ought to know the significance of 1929 and 1987. It also bears noting that current market valuations are higher (in terms of the Cyclically-Adjusted PE ratio) than on any of those three days – quite a bit higher, in fact.
None of which is to say that we won’t have another 10, 20, or 30-day streak ahead of us. I suspect the bulls will say “see? This same occurrence in 1929 and 1987 happened months before the denouement. We still have time to party!” And they may be right. This isn’t predictive. But it, especially when compared to valuation levels second only to those seen at the peak of the “Internet Bubble,” is ominous. This is a party I wouldn’t mind missing.
It hasn’t happened yet, but it is about to.
Not since just before the financial crisis has the expected 10-year real return from stocks been below the 10-year TIPS yield. But with TIPS selling off and stocks rallying, the numbers are virtually the same: both stocks, and TIPS, have an expected real return of about 0.70% per annum for the next 10 years.
A quick word about my method is appropriate because some analysts will consider this spread to already be negative. I use a method similar to that used by Arnott, Grantham, and other well-known ‘value’ investors: I add the dividend yield for equities to an estimate of long-run real economic growth, and then assume that cyclical multiples pull two-thirds of the way back to the long-run value, over ten years. (By comparison, Grantham assumes that multiples fully mean-revert, over seven years, so he will see stocks as even more expensive than I do – but the important point is that the method doesn’t change over time).
Somewhat trickier is the calculation of 10-year real yields before 1997, when TIPS were first issued. But we have a way to do that as well – a method much better than the old-fashioned approach of taking current ten-year yields and subtracting trailing 1-year inflation (used by many notables, including such names as Fama). That only matters because the chart I am about to show goes back to 1956, and so I know someone would ask where I got 10 year real yields prior to 1997.
The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the “real equity premium” – the expected real return of stocks, compared to the true risk-free asset at a 10-year horizon: 10-year TIPS.
The good news is that in this sense, stocks are not as expensive relatively as they were in the late 1990s, nor as expensive (although much closer) relatively as they were prior to the global financial crisis. Nor even as they were (although even closer) just prior to the 1987 stock market crash. Yay.
The bad news is that they are every bit as expensive as they were in early 1973, just before the ten-year bear market that was, in real terms, every bit as bad as the 2000-2009 bear market. From 1973 to mid-1982, stocks lost roughly 60% of their value in real terms – just about what they lost in real terms between 2000 and 2009. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the S&P 500 divided by CPI, on a log scale so you can see the similar percentage moves.
The parallels with 1999 don’t scare me. There isn’t the same exuberance over companies with no earnings and “new world” “new paradigm” chatterings. But the parallels with the late 1960s/early 1970s frighten me quite a bit more. The hippies are out protesting, and everything! The interest rate cycle in 1973 had already long-since bottomed, as had core inflation – although in 1972 and 1973 inflation had actually come back down from the Vietnam War-induced bump of the late 1960s. In 2016, we also face an interest rate cycle that has turned, and core inflation that bottomed more than six years ago. In 1973, a Republican President had just been (re-)elected and stocks rallied into the inauguration. And that, my friends, was that. Poor central bank policy – encouraged by a certain Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers named Alan Greenspan – ensured that even when stocks bottomed in nominal terms in 1974, they continued to lose value to accelerating inflationary dynamics.
I could go on, but these are merely my own qualms. The quantitative fact, and not the story, is what matters: stocks now no longer offer an expectation of return in excess of the risk-free return. They may keep rallying for years since the US dollar is the high-yielding currency and money needs to go somewhere, but we are into the realm of speculative finance. For a while, the argument for stocks was “sure, they’re expensive, but with yields this low they are still relatively better.” They’re no longer even relatively better.
 With the exception of Tesla.
**NOTE – please see the announcement at the end of this article, regarding a series of free webinars that begins next Monday.**
Whatever else the election of Donald Trump to be President of the United States has meant, it has meant a lot of excitement in precincts that worry about inflation. This is usually attributed, among the chattering classes, to the faster growth expected if Mr. Trump’s expressed preference for tax cuts and spending increases obtains. However, since growth doesn’t cause inflation that isn’t the part of a Trump Presidency that concerns me with respect to a continuing rise in inflation.
In our latest Quarterly Inflation Outlook, I wrote a short piece on the significance of the de-globalization movement for inflation. That is an area where, if the President-Elect delivers on his promises, a lot of damage could be done in the growth/inflation tradeoff. I have written before about how a big part of the reason for the generous growth/inflation tradeoff of the 1990s was the rapid globalization of many industries following the end of the Cold War. Deutsche Bank recently produced a research piece (I don’t recall whether it had anything to do with inflation, weirdly) that contained the following chart (Source: as cited).
This chart is the “smoking gun” that supports this version of events, in terms of why the inflation dynamic shifted in the early 1990s. Free trade helped to restrain prices in certain goods (apparel is a great example – prices are essentially unchanged over the last 25 years), by allowing the possibility of significant cost savings on production.
The flip side of a cost savings on production, though, is a loss of domestic manufacturing jobs; it is this loss that Mr. Trump took productive advantage of. If Mr. Trump moves to increase tariffs and other barriers to trade, and to reverse some of the globalization trend that has driven lower prices for the last quarter-century, it is potentially very negative news for inflation. While there was some evidence that the globalization dividend was beginning to get ‘tapped out’ as all of the low-hanging fruit had been harvested – and such a development would cause inflation to be higher than otherwise it would have been – I had not expected the possibility of a reversal of the globalization dividend except as a possible and minor side-effect of tensions with Russia over the Ukraine, or the effect the Syrian refugee problem could have on open borders. The election of Mr. Trump, however, creates the very real possibility that the reversal of this dividend might be a direct consequence of conscious policy choices.
I don’t think that’s the main reason that people are worried about inflation, though. Today, one contributor is the news that OPEC actually agreed to cut production, in January, and that some non-OPEC producers agreed to an additional cut. U.S. shale oil producers are clicking their heels in delight, because oil prices were already high enough that production was increasing again and they are more than happy to take more market share back. Oil prices are up about 15% since the announcement.
But that’s near-term, and I don’t expect the oil rally has legs much beyond current levels. Breakevens have been rallying, though, for weeks. Some of it isn’t related to Trump at all but to other initiatives. One correspondent of mine, who owns an office-cleaning business, sent me this note today:
“Think of you often lately as I’m on the front line out here of the “instant” 25% increase in min wage. Voters decided to move min wage out here from 8.05 to $10 jan 1. Anyone close to 10/hr is looking for a big raise. You want to talk about fast dollars, hand a janitor a 25% pay bump and watch the money move. Big inflation numbers pending from the southwest. I’m passing some through but market is understandably reacting slower than the legislation.”
Those increases will definitely increase measured inflation further, though by a lot less than it increases my friend’s costs. Again, it’s an arrow pointing the wrong way for inflation. And, really, there aren’t many pointing the right way. M2 growth continues to accelerate; it is now at 7.8% y/y. That is too fast for price stability, especially as rates rise.
All of these arrows add up to substantial moves in inflation breakevens. 10-year breaks are up 55bps since September and 30bps since the election. Ten-year inflation expectations as measured more accurately by inflation swaps are now at 2.33%. Almost all of that rise has been in expectations for core inflation. The oft-watched 5y5y forward inflation (which takes us away from that part of the curve which is most impacted by energy movements) is above 2.5% again and, while still below the “normal” 2.75%-3.25% range, is at 2-year highs (see Chart, source Bloomberg).
So what is an investor to do – other than to study, which there is an excellent opportunity to do for the next three Mondays with a series of educational webinars I am conducting (see details below)? There are a few good answers. At 0.46%, 10-year TIPS still represent a poor real return but a guaranteed positive 1/2% real return beats what is available from many risky assets right now. Commodities remain cheap, although less so. You can invest in a company that specializes in inflation, if you are an accredited investor: Enduring Investments is raising a small amount of money for the management company in a 506(c) offering and is still taking subscriptions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to own inflation expectations directly – and in any event, the easy money there has been made.
What you don’t want to do if you are worried about inflation is own stocks as a “hedge.” Multiples move inversely with inflation.
Unlike prior equity market rallies, I understand this one. It is plausible to me that a very business-friendly President, who cuts corporate and personal taxes and reduces regulatory burdens, might be good for corporate earnings and even for the economic growth rate (although the bad things coming on trade will blunt some of that). But before getting too ebullient about the potential for higher corporate earnings, consider this: if Trump is business-friendly, then surely the opposite must be said about President Obama who did essentially the reverse. But what happened to equities? They tripled over his eight years (perhaps they “only” doubled, depending on when you measure from). That’s because lower interest rates and the Fed’s removal of safe securities in search of a stimulus from the “portfolio balance channel” caused equity multiples to expand drastically. So, valuations went from low, to extremely high. Multiples matter a lot, and right now even if you think corporate earnings over the next four years might be stronger than over the last four you still have to confront the fact that multiples are more likely to move in reverse. In short: if stocks could triple under Obama, there is no reason on earth they can’t halve under a “business-friendly” President. That’s not a prediction. (But here is one: equities four years from now will be no more than 20% higher than they are now, and might well be lower.)
Also, remember Ronald Reagan? He who created the great bull market of the 1980s? Well, stocks rallied in the November he was elected, too. The S&P closed November 1980 at 140.52. Over the next 20 months, the index lost 24%. It wasn’t until almost 1983 before Reagan had a bull market on his hands.
An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:
On consecutive Mondays spanning December 5, December 12, and December 19 at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.
Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.
So much has happened since the Presidential election – and almost none of it very obvious.
The plunge in equities on Donald Trump’s victory was foreseeable. The bounce was also foreseeable. The fact that the bounce completely reversed the selloff and took the market to within a whisker of new all-time highs was not, in my mind, an easy prediction. I understand that Mr. Trump intends to lower corporate tax rates (and he should, since it is human beings – owners, customers, and employees – that end up paying those taxes; taxing a company is just a way to hide the fact that more taxes are being layered on those human beings). And I understand that lowering the corporate tax rate, if it happens, is generally positive for corporate entities and the people who own them. I’m even willing to concede that, since Mr. Trump is – no matter what his faults – certainly more capitalism-friendly than his opponent, his election might be generally positive for equity values.
But the problem is that equities are already, to put it generously, “fully valued” for very good outcomes with Shiller multiples that are near the highest ever recorded.
I think that investors tend to misunderstand the role that valuation plays when investing in public equities. Consider what has happened to the economy over the last eight years under President Obama: if you had known in 2008 that growth would be anemic, debt would balloon, government regulation would increase dramatically, taxes would increase, and a new universal medical entitlement would be lashed to the backs of the American taxpayer/consumer/investor, would you have invested heavily in equities? Yet all stocks did was triple. The reason they did so was that they started from fairly low multiples and went to extremely high multiples. This was not unrelated to the fact that the Fed took trillions of dollars of safe securities out of the market, forcing investors (through the “Portfolio Balance Channel”) into risky securities. By analogy, might stocks decline over the next four years even if the business climate is more agreeable? You betcha – and, starting from these levels, that’s not terribly unlikely.
I am less surprised with the selloff in global bond markets, and not really surprised much at all with the rally in inflation breakevens. As I’ve said for a long time, fixed-income is so horribly mispriced that you should only hold bonds if you must hold bonds, and then you should only hold TIPS given how cheap they were. Because of their sharp outperformance, 10-year TIPS are now only about 40-50bps cheap compared to nominal bonds (as opposed to 110 or so earlier this year), and so it’s a much closer call. They are not relatively as cheap as they were, but they are absolutely less expensive as real rates have risen. 10-year real rates at 0.37% aren’t anything to write home about, but that is the highest yield since March.
Some analysis I have seen attributes the large increase in market-based measures of inflation expectations on Mr. Trump’s victory. For example, 10-year breakevens have risen 20bps, from about 1.70% to about 1.90%, since Mr. Trump sealed the win (see chart, source Bloomberg).
I think we have to be careful about blaming/crediting Mr. Trump for everything. While breakevens rose in the aftermath of the election, you can see that they were rising steadily before the election as well, when everyone thought Hillary Clinton was a sure thing. Moreover, breakevens didn’t just rise in the US, but globally. That’s a very strange reaction if it is simply due to the victory of one political party in the US over another. It is not unreasonable to think that some rise in global inflation might happen, if Trump is bad for global trade…but that’s a pretty big reach, and something that wouldn’t happen for some time in any event.
In my view, the rise in global inflation markets is easy to explain without resorting to Trump. As the previous chart illustrates, it has been happening for a while already. And it has been happening because global inflation itself is rising (although a lot of that at the moment is optics, since the prior collapse of energy prices is starting to fall out of the year-over-year figures).
The bond market and the inflation market are acting, actually, like the Great Unwind was kicked off by the election of Donald Trump. We all know what the Great Unwind is, right? It’s when the imbalances created and nurtured by global central banks and fiscal authorities over the last couple of decades – but especially in the last eight years – are unwound and conditions return to normal. But if pushing those imbalances had a soothing, narcotic effect on markets, we all suspect that removing them will be the opposite. Higher rates and inflation and more volatility are the obvious outcomes.
Equity investors don’t seem to fear the Great Unwind, even though stock multiples are one of the clearest beneficiaries of government largesse over the last eight years. As mentioned above, I can see the argument for better business conditions, even though margins are still very wide. But I’m skeptical that better business conditions can overcome the headwinds posed by higher rates and inflation. Still, that’s what equity investors are believing at the moment.
A couple of administrative announcements about upcoming (free!) webinars:
On Thursday, November 17th (aka CPI Day), I will be doing a live webinar at 9:00ET talking about the CPI report and putting it in context. You can register for that webinar, and the ensuing Q&A session, here. After the presentation, a recording will be available on TalkMarkets.
On consecutive Mondays spanning November 28, December 5, and December 12, at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.
Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.
As the evening developed, and it began to dawn on Americans – and the world – that Donald Trump might actually win, markets plunged. The S&P was down 100 points before midnight; the dollar index was off 2%. Gold rose about $70; 10-year yields rose 15bps. Nothing about that was surprising. Lots of people predicted that if Trump somehow won, markets would gyrate and move in something close to this way. If Clinton won, the ‘status quo’ election would mean much calmer markets.
So, we got the upset. Despite the hyperbole, it was hardly a “stunning” upset. Going into yesterday, the “No Toss Ups” maps had Trump down about 8 electoral votes. Polls in all of the “battleground” states were within 1-2 points, many with Trump in the lead. Yes, the “road to victory” was narrow, requiring Trump to win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and a few other hotly-contested battlegrounds, but no step along that road was a long shot (and it wasn’t like winning 6 coin flips, because these are correlated events). Trump’s victory odds were probably 20%-25% at worst: long odds, but not ridiculous odds. (And I believe the following wind to Trump from the timing of Obamacare letters was underappreciated; I wrote about this effect on October 27th).
And yet, stock markets in the two days prior to the election rose aggressively, pricing in a near-certainty of a Clinton victory. Again, recall that pundits thought that a Clinton victory would see little market reaction, but a violent reaction could obtain if Trump won. Markets, in other words, were offering tremendous odds on an event that was unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. The market was offering nearly-free options. The same thing happened with Brexit: although the vote was close to a coin-flip, the market was offering massive odds on the less-likely event. Here is an important point as well – in both cases, the error bars had to be much wider than normal, because there were dynamics that were not fully understood. Therefore, the “out of the money” outcome was not nearly as far out of the money as it seemed. And yet, the market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before the Brexit vote. The market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before yesterday’s election results were reported. And, patting myself on the back, I said so.
This is not a political blog, but an investing blog. And my point here about investing is simple: any competent investor cannot afford to ignore free, or nearly-free, options. Whatever you thought the outcome of the Presidential election was likely to be, it was an investing imperative to lighten up longs (at least) going into the results. If the status-quo happened, you would not have lost much, but if the status quo was upset, you would have gained much. As I’ve been writing recently about inflation breakevens (which was also a hard-to-lose trade, though less dramatic), the tail risks were really underpriced. Investing, like poker, is not about winning every hand. It is about betting correctly when the hand is played.
At this hour, stock markets are bouncing and bond markets are selling off. These next moves are the difficult ones, of course, because now we all have the same information. I suspect stocks will recover some, at least temporarily, because investors will price a Federal Reserve that is less likely to tighten and the knee-jerk response is to buy stocks in that circumstance. But it is interesting that at the moment, while stocks remain lower the bond market gains have completely reversed and are turning into a rout. 10-year inflation breakevens are wider by about 9-10bps, which is a huge move. But there will be lots of gyrations from here. The easy trade was the first one.
 And certainly not “the greatest upset in American political history.” Dewey Defeats Truman, anyone?
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.