UK Property Price Declines – Rational or Overdone?

July 7, 2016 4 comments

A couple of weeks after Brexit, and the world has not ended. Indeed, in the UK the fallout seems relatively tame. Sterling has weakened substantially, which will increase UK inflation relative to global inflation; but it will also help UK growth relative to global growth. That’s not a bad tradeoff, compared to predictions of the end-of-days. Although I am not so sure I like the tradeoff from Europe’s perspective…

There are a number of UK property funds that have been gated – but this appears to be not so much a Reserve Fund moment, and certainly not a Lehman moment, but just a natural reaction when a fund gives broader liquidity terms than the market for the underlying securities offers.

I think the property panic is probably overdone. It is partly triggered by fears that the financial center is going to leave London. This strikes me as absurd, having worked for several of the institutions that have offices in Canary Wharf. I checked my gut reaction with a friend who actually headed up a large banking institution for a time. His answer was “you are right to be very skeptical: English, availability of workforce, taxation, labor laws, contract law and legal framework. There will be some shifting at the margin but that’s it.” Brittania is not about to sink beneath the waves, folks.

Were UK property values overinflated? At least UK home prices don’t appear much more out-of-whack than US home prices do. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the UK national average home price from the Nationwide Building Society (in white) versus the US median existing home sales price.

USUKhomeprices

The picture looks more concerning if, instead of median home sales, you use the Case-Shiller Home Price Index as a comparison (see chart, source: Bloomberg). But while the CS20 is a superior measure of home prices, I’m always a bit wary of comparing two series that are constructed methodologically very differently. Still, this comparison would suggest UK prices have risen more than their US counterparts.

ukvsshiller

These comparisons are all on residential property, and I am comparing two markets which are likely both a bit overheated. But the scale of decline in the UK property funds seems to me to be too large relative to the overpricing that may exist, and I suspect it is more due (as I noted above) to the structure of the funds holding the property – which would suggest, in turn, that halting redemptions is the right thing to do to protect existing investors who would be disadvantaged if the portfolio was liquidated into a market that is not designed to have daily liquidity. Of course, the right answer is to not offer those liquidity terms in the first place…

One little niggling detail, however, deserves mention. I noted that UK home prices do not appear terribly out-of-whack relative to US home prices. The problem is that US home prices themselves appear out-of-whack by roughly 15-20%. The chart below (source: Bloomberg; Enduring Investments calculations and estimates) shows median home prices as a multiple of median incomes. What is apparent is that for many years these two series moved in lock-step, until the bubble; the popping of the bubble sent everything back to “normal” but we’re back to looking bubbly.

darndata

That said, I don’t believe the current drop in listed UK property funds is a rational response to correcting bubble pricing, and it’s probably a good opportunity for cool-headed investors…and, more to the point, cool-headed investors who aren’t expecting to liquidate investments overnight.

Categories: Housing, UK

Twits and Brits

I want to talk today about some of the really important pieces of information that circulated this weekend. First, I am certain that everyone is familiar with the following chart, which made the rounds after the Brexit vote. It shows an enormous surge in the search term “What is the EU” after the Brexit vote was completed:

noaxisThis chart, or something very much like it, was all over the place. Oh, wait! I just realized that I forgot to put the axes on the chart! Here it is with a few more relevant pieces of information – incidentally the same information that was left off the original chart. It turns out that it wasn’t the chart I thought it was. Sorry about that…they looked the same.

waxis

(For the record, after an extended period of indolence, on Thursday I went for a run; on Friday I went for a run before putting on any other shoes first; on Saturday I went for a run and then later put on different shoes to go to a cocktail party.)

Is it too much to ask that people seeking to insult the British voters at least put some effort into their attempt? Ignore for a moment the simple fact that we don’t know who was searching this – it might well have been the people who voted to Remain, after all – and so the story line that the people who voted Leave were just morons gets no support from this chart. It also turns out that this was the second-most-searched term only for one small time segment: early in the morning after the vote. By 5am it was eclipsed by questions about the weather. Oh my – it seems the Britons also don’t know what weather is! Also, as the Telegraph’s skeptical story (linked above) points out, the raw number of people asking the question was only on the order of 1,000 – it was just a massive increase since it hadn’t been previously asked very much. This is where not having axes matters…it turns out this is a non-story, and nonsense.

Another piece of nonsense I want to point out is more general. I have seen several Twitter polls and other polls in something like this form:

Q: What effect do you think that Brexit will have on the global economy?

a) Deeply contractionary

b) Moderately contractionary

c) Somewhat contractionary

d) Expansionary

Now this is nonsense because the actual result not only has nothing to do with opinion, it’s not even clear why we would care about people’s opinion in this case (unless we are trying to show how pervasive the negative news stories are, or something). Polls work comparatively well when there is not a lot of information inequality – for example, when each person is asked about his or her own vote. But the poll above is analogous to this poll:

I submit that only me, and my valet, have the information sought by this poll; all other respondents have zero information. Therefore…what’s the value of the poll? Unless I or my valet are respondents, precisely zero; if we are, then the value is inverse to the number of other respondents diluting the response of the people who know.

Similarly, there is likely some information asymmetry among respondents to the poll about the effect of Brexit on the global economy. I would respectfully suggest that most people who are responding are saying what they have heard, or what they fear, or what they hope, while some people – macroeconomists, for example – might have actual models. To be sure, those models are probably only slightly better than the fearful and hopeful assumptions put into them, but the point is that this poll is nonsense in the same way that polling people about what they expect inflation next year to be is nonsense. The vast majority of respondents have no way to evaluate the question in a structured way, so what you are capturing is no more and no less than what people are worried about, which is itself just a reflection of what they’re seeing and hearing…for example, on Twitter.

(For what it’s worth, I think that thanks to the weakening of sterling Brexit is likely to be mildly stimulative to the UK economy, as well as somewhat inflationary, and slightly contractionary and disinflationary to the rest of the world. But the question about global effects is a trick question. Obviously, global production and consumption are unlikely to change much in real terms just due to the arrangement of trade flows. More friction in the system to the extent that Europe puts up significant trade barriers against the UK – something I don’t view as terribly likely – will lower global output slightly and raise global prices.)

These flash polls and Google trends data are part and parcel of the Twitterization of discourse. They have in common the fact that they can be snapshot and draw eyeballs and clicks, whether or not there is any content to the observations. In these cases, and in many others, there isn’t.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we wait a few months, or better yet a few years, before we judge the impact of Brexit? Sometimes, having actual data is even better than a Twitter poll.

Categories: Analogy, Europe, Good One, Rant, UK

Britain Survived the Blitz and Will Survive Brexit

June 24, 2016 4 comments

So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?

As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.

Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.

But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.

Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.

As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.

These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.

A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.

Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.

Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!

Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.

One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.

We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy or sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments. Plus…buy my book about money and inflation, just published! The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • CPI coming up in 15 mins. Consensus is +0.3% headline +0.2% core, putting y/y core up to 2.2% again.
  • Base effects for core suggest better chance for y/y rise for next 4mo or so.
  • Stay tuned, 10mins to CPI. In the meantime why not check out our Crowdfunding campaign? https://www.crowdfunder.com/enduring-investments-llc … (Accredited inv only)
  • Core CPI +0.203% m/m; y/y rises to 2.235%.
  • Core goods remains at -0.5% y/y; core services rises to 3.2%, highest since 2008.
  • Housing jumped to 2.37% y/y from 2.11%. Looking at breakdown to see if that’s in rents or elsewhere in housing.
  • Medical Care had fallen from 3.29% y/y to 2.98% last month. Back up to 3.17%, which is the general trend: higher.
  • Apparel flipped to +0.58% y/y vs -0.57% y/y. Only about 5% of core CPI, but a bellwether we’ve been watching (with little result so far).
  • tweeted this earlier…note that strong base effects lifted y/y CPI but next 3 months comparison also easy.

last12

  • Within Housing, Primary rents rise to 3.80% from 3.73%. OER jumps HUGE, to 3.264% from 3.147%. Big jump for a big part of basket.
  • …and that’s not a misprint. All pressures on rents are higher, and remain higher.
  • Lodging away from home is small, but was a drag last mo. Not this mo: rises to 3.83% y/y from 1.32%
  • In Medical Care, drugs actually fell to 2.34% y/y from 2.84%. But professional svcs 2.81% from 2.26%; Hospital svcs 3.25% v 3.15%
  • Health insurance 6.30% y/y from 5.80%.
  • y/y change in Health Insurance CPI

bfmE9AC

  • y/y in med care services – resuming uptrend

medcaresvcs

  • optimists can look at core ex-housing and see a rise to only 1.42%. But that’s b/c goods carry much more weight in that look.
  • W/in transportation, new and used vehicles was actually a drag, -0.50% y/y from -0.27%. That’s in core goods.
  • y/y core hasn’t been above 3% for 20 years. But will be in 2017.
  • y/y core hasn’t been above 3% for 20 years. But will be in 2017.
  • Early estimate of Median CPI…+0.26% m/m with y/y going to 2.53%, a new cycle high.
  • Probably a good time to mention the crowdfunding for Enduring Investments again: https://www.crowdfunder.com/enduring-investments-llc… Own an inflation manager!
  • Bottom line for today: nothing at all soothing in this report. Upward inflation trend continues.

Nothing at all soothing, indeed. A day after the FOMC chose to stand pat on interest rates, core inflation pushed back higher and median inflation is about to push above 2.5% for the first time since 2009 (when it was on the way down). Of course, nothing about this inflation picture, and the rotten internals that suggest higher figures are in store, would have changed the Fed’s decision yesterday. As noted previously in this space, the Yellen Fed fundamentally does not believe that inflation is a threat; if it is a threat, they believe a little inflation is okay if allowing inflation to run hot helps the overall economy and the little guy; and if they later decide inflation does need to be addressed, it can be easily reined in.

They are wrong on all three counts, and we may well be seeing the beginnings of a colossal error. Honestly, the question here is between whether it is only a bad error that is fixable or a colossal error that isn’t fixable without much pain. Inflation is headed higher.

And yet, ironically, standing pat on interest rates will slow down the near-term rise in inflation since it will keep money velocity from rising as rapidly as it would if interest rates were rising. The best way to keep cash inert is for alternative investment opportunities to remain poor! But money growth around 7% is too fast, even if velocity merely flatlines. Inflation will continue to rise for the balance of this year and into 2017 (at least).

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Not Enough TIPS to Go Around

June 14, 2016 2 comments

Some days – well, on days like today, and for the last few days – it seems like there are far too many TIPS. Although energy has slipped only mildly, and (let’s not forget!) core and median inflation are both over 2% and rising, today ten-year breakeven inflation fell to only 1.48%, the lowest level since early March (see chart, source Bloomberg).

panickybei

The panicky-feeling downtrade is exacerbated by the thin risk budgets on the Street in inflation trading. From an investment standpoint, with inflation over the next few years highly likely to exceed the current breakeven rate (unless energy prices go to zero, or median inflation and wages abruptly reverse their multi-year accelerations), investors who buy TIPS in preference to nominal Treasuries (which is the bet you’re putting on in a breakeven trade, but works from a long-only perspective as well) are likely to outperform unless US inflation comes in below, say, 1.25% for the seven years starting in three years. And even if inflation does come in below that, the underperformance will be slight in comparison to the potential outperformance if inflation rises from its current level. TIPS don’t continue to underperform worse and worse in deflationary outcomes; their principal amounts are guaranteed in nominal terms.

But that doesn’t help at times like these. We have to remember, core inflation has been below 3% for twenty years. There are people in college today who have never seen core inflation with a 3-handle, and a generation of investors who have never had to factor the possibility of higher inflation into their calculations. (See chart, source Bloomberg).

corebelow3

If that seems incredible, then consider that it may be even more incredible to ignore inflation-linked bonds at these levels even if you think inflation will stay low! Core inflation has not been lower than 1.9% compounded, over a ten-year period, since the 1960s. Even trailing 10-year headline inflation, which is currently 1.73% only since Crude Oil is -35% over the last ten years (remember all of the smack talk about how the Fed should stop focusing on core inflation since energy was no longer mean-reverting?), hasn’t been as low at 1.5% for an entire decade since 1964, and hasn’t been below 1.25% since 1942.

But prices at any moment are about supply and demand, and there are about $1.27trillion in TIPS outstanding right now while investors struggle to remember what 3% inflation felt like.

I am here to tell, though, that there is a terrible shortage of TIPS.

So we know the supply number. About $1.25 trillion, and only $310bln is over 10 years in maturity. Not all of that is float, mind you – many of these bonds are held as long-term hedges by investors who know better. We don’t have to add corporate inflation-linked bonds (ILBs), municipal ILBs, or infrastructure-backed ILBs, because the aggregate outstanding of those markets is rounding error.

How about demand? Let’s tick off some of the inflation exposures that exist institutionally, which admittedly completely ignores demand by individual investors (who are also inflation-exposed by nature).

  • Total US endowment and foundation assets: ~$1 trillion as of 2013 (latest I have handy)
    • Endowments and foundations’ liabilities are almost wholly inflation-sensitive
  • Total US pension fund assets: ~$16 trillion
    • Most pension funds in the US don’t have COLAs, but they still have large exposures to inflation if they still have employees earning benefits
  • Insurance companies: exposure to inflation in 125mm workers’ compensation policies covering $6 trillion in wages, and very long-dated to boot
  • Post-employment medical (OPEB) benefits liabilities: $567bln as of 2014, for US states alone (that is, ignoring corporate OPEBs)

I will stop counting here. I didn’t have to look very hard to get inflation-linked liabilities that are a multiple of available ILB supply – and a very large multiple of long-dated ILB float. I am sure someone will complain that I left something out, or have old data, or something…but this isn’t an accounting class: I am just pointing out orders of magnitude. And, by an order of magnitude, there are not enough TIPS to go around if investors decide that inflation is a salient risk.

But if there is already such an imbalance, then why don’t TIPS trade as if there is a shortage? For the answer, we go back to the chart above. The people managing these liabilities (and you may be one!) haven’t had to worry about inflation exposure for a very long time. To the extent that savvy institutional investors buy TIPS, they dislike them because the nominal and real returns are awful. Therefore, they seek to replace these bonds with other real assets which may provide some protection if inflation rises. Among these are commodities – which are also loathed at present – as well as illiquid assets like real estate or private equity.

I have had insurance company risk managers say to me, “we cannot own enough TIPS to matter if inflation rises to a level that would concern us, because the return if inflation does not rise is so horrible. And, in fact, our hedge ratio would probably be above 100%.” I am not sure that is a great excuse to do nothing at all (and we try to help them square that circle) but I present the comment to give some notion of the mindset.

The mindset will change. It will not change overnight, probably, but when inflation exceeds 3% and then starts the assault on 4%, it will change. And then, abruptly, it will all too obvious that a trillion in TIPS doesn’t go as far as you think.

—–

(Interested in what we do? Take a look at Enduring Investments’ Crowdfunder campaign, which is open to accredited investors who are willing to be verified as accredited by a third party verification agent.)

Categories: TIPS

Obamacare, Monopsonies, and Inflation – Nice Try!

June 9, 2016 1 comment

Recently, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published an Economic Letter in which they described why “Medicare Payment Cuts Continue to Restrain Inflation.” Their summary is:

“A steady downward trend in health-care services price inflation over the past decade has been a major factor holding down core inflation. Much of this downward trend reflects lower payments from public insurance programs. Looking ahead, current legislative guidelines imply considerable restraint on future public insurance payment growth. Therefore, overall health-care services price inflation is unlikely to rebound and appears likely to continue to be a drag on inflation.”

The article is worth reading. But I always have a somewhat uncomfortable reaction to pieces like this. On the one hand, what the authors are discussing is well known: healthcare services held down PCE inflation, and core CPI inflation, due to sequestration. Even Ben Bernanke knew that, and it was one reason that it was so baffling that the Fed was focused on declining core inflation in 2012-2014 when we knew why core was being dragged lower – and it was these temporary effects (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing core and Median CPI).

baffling

But okay, perhaps the San Francisco Fed is now supplying the reason: these were not one-off effects, they suggest; instead, “current legislative guidelines” (i.e., the master plan for Obamacare) are going to continue to restrain payments in the future. Ergo, prepare for extended lowflation.

This is where my discomfort comes in. The article combines these well-known things with questionable (at best) assumptions about the future. In this latter category the screaming assumption is the Medicare can affect prices simply by choosing to pay different prices. In a static analysis that’s true, of course. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely in the long run.

It’s a classic monopsonist pricing analysis. Just as “monopoly” is a term to describe a market with just one dominant seller, “monopsony” describes a market with just one dominant buyer. The chart below (By SilverStar at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13863070) illustrates the classic monopsony outcome.

217px-Monopsony-static-partial-equilibrium.svg

The monopsonist forces an equilibrium based on the marginal revenue product of what it is buying, compared to the marginal cost, at point A. This results in the market being cleared at point M, at a quantity L and a price w, as distinct from the price (w’) and quantity (L’) that would be determined by the competitive-market equilibrium C. So, just as the San Fran Fed economists have it, a monopsonist (like Medicare) forces a lower price and a lower quantity of healthcare consumed (they don’t talk so much about this part but it’s a key to the ‘healthcare cost containment’ assumptions of the ACA neé Obamacare). Straight out of the book!

But that’s true only in a static equilibrium case. I admit that I wasn’t able to find anything relevant in my Varian text, but plain common-sense (and observation of the real world) tells us that over time, the supply of goods and services to the monopsonist responds to the actual price the monopsonist pays. That is, supply decreases because period t+1 supply is related to the reward offered in period t. There is no futures market for medical care services; there is no way for a medical student to hedge future earnings in case they fall. The way the prospective medical student responds to declining wages in the medical profession is to eschew attending medical school. This changes the supply curve in period t+1.

Any other outcome, in fact, would lead to a weird conclusion (at least, I think it’s weird; Bernie Sanders may not): it would suggest that the government should take over the purchase and distribution of all goods, since they could hold prices down by doing so. In other words, full-on socialism. But…we know from experience that pure socialist regimes tend to produce higher rates of inflation (Venezuela, anyone?), and one can hardly help but notice that when the government competes with private industry – for example, in the provision of express mail service – the government tends to lose on price and quality.

In short, I find it very hard to believe that mere “legislative guidelines” can restrain inflation in medical care, in the long run.

Math is Bad for Equities

June 7, 2016 4 comments

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.

chart

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.

sales

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.

profmgn

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.

Categories: Investing, Stock Market, Theory
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