Rather like a parrot I have been repeating for 10 quarters now my belief that we would not have a traditional bubble burst in the US equity market until we had reached at least 2300 on the S&P, the threshold level of major bubbles in the past, and at least until we had reached the election. Well, we are close on both counts now. My passionate hope was that I would then, perhaps 6 months after the election, recommend a major sidestep of the coming deluge that would conveniently have arrived 6 to 12 months later, allowing us then, after a 50% decline, to leap back into cheap equity markets enthusiastically, more enthusiastically, that is, than we did last time in 2009. Thus we would save many of our clients tonnes of money as we had (eventually) in the 2000 bust, at least for those clients who stayed with us for the ride, and in 2007. I consider myself a bubble historian and one who is eager to see one form and break: I have often said that they are the only really important events in investing.
I have come to believe, however, very reluctantly, that we bubble historians have, together with much of the market, been a bit brainwashed by our exposure in the last 30 years to 4 of the perhaps 6 or 8 great investment bubbles in history: Japanese land and Japanese equities in 1989, US tech in 2000, and more or less everything in 2007. For bubble historians eager to see pins used on bubbles and spoiled by the prevalence of bubbles in the last 30 years, it is tempting to see them too often. Well, the US market today is not a classic bubble, not even close. The market is unlikely to go “bang” in the way those bubbles did. It is far more likely that the mean reversion will be slow and incomplete. The consequences are dismal for investors: we are likely to limp into the setting sun with very low returns. For bubble historians, though, it is heartbreaking for there will be no histrionics, no chance of being a real hero. Not this time.
The 2300 level on the S&P 500, which marks the 2-standard-deviation (2-sigma) point on historical data that has effectively separated real bubbles from mere bull markets, is in this case quite possibly a red herring. It is comparing today’s much higher pricing environment to history’s far lower levels. I have made much of the convenience of 2-sigma in the past as it has brought some apparent precision to the more touchy-feely definition of a true bubble: excellent fundamentals irrationally extrapolated. Now, when this definition conflicts with the 2-sigma measurement – ironically, it was chosen partly because it had never conflicted before – I apparently prefer the less statistical test. But you can imagine the trepidation with which I do this.
Hidden by the great bubbles of 2000 and 2007, another, much slower-burning but perhaps even more powerful force, has been exerting itself: a 35-year downward move in rates (see Exhibit 1), which, with persistent help from the Fed over the last 20 years and a shift in the global economy, has led to a general drop in the discount rate applied to almost all assets. They now all return 2-2.5% less than they did in the 1955 to 1995 era (or, as far as we can tell from incomplete data, from 1900 to 1995).
This broad shift in available returns gives rise to the question of what constitutes fair value in this changed world; will prices regress back towards the more traditional levels? And if they do, will it be fast or slow?
Another contentious question is whether abnormally high US profit margins will also regress, and, if so, by how much and how fast? (This will be discussed in more detail next quarter.)
Counterintuitively, it turns out that the implications for the next 20 years for pension funds and others are oddly similar whether the market crashes in 2 years, falls steadily over 7 years, or whimpers sideways for 20 years. The real difference in these flight paths will be, of course, over the short term. Are we going to have our pain from regression to the mean in an intense 2-year burst, a steady 7-year decline, or a drawn-out 20-year whimper?
The caveat here is that while I am very confident in saying that we are not in a traditional bubble today, all the other arguments below are more in the nature of thought experiments or, less grandly, simply thinking aloud. I am asking you – especially you value managers – to think through with me some of these varied possibilities and their implications. What follows is my attempt to answer these, for me, very uncomfortable questions.
The Case for a Whimper
- Classic investment bubbles require abnormally favourable fundamentals in areas such as productivity, technology, employment, and capacity utilisation. They usually require a favourable geo-political environment as well. But these very favourable factors alone are not enough.
- Investment bubbles also require investor euphoria. This euphoria is typically represented by a willingness to extrapolate the abnormally favourable fundamental conditions into the distant future.
- The euphoric phases of these epic bull markets have tended to rise at an accelerating rate in the final two to three years and to fall even faster. Exhibit 2 shows four of my all-time favourites. True euphoric bubbles have no sound economic underpinning and so are particularly vulnerable to sudden bursting when some unexpected bad news occurs or when selling just starts... “comes in from the country” as they said in 1929.
- We have been extremely spoiled in the last 30 years by experiencing 4 of perhaps the best 8 classic bubbles known to history. For me, the order of seniority is, from the top: Japanese land, Japanese stocks in 1989, US tech stocks in 2000, and US housing, which peaked in 2006 and shared the stage with both the broadest international equity overpricing (over 1-sigma) ever recorded and a risk/return line for assets that appeared to slope backwards for the first time in history – investors actually paid for the privilege of taking risk.
- What did these four bubbles have in common? Lots of euphoria and unbelievable things that were widely believed: Yes, the land under the Emperor’s Palace really did equal the real estate value of California. The Japanese market was cheap at 65x said the hit squad from Solomon Bros. Their work proved that with their low bond rates, the P/E should have been 100. The US tech stocks were 65x. Internet stocks sold at many multiples of sales despite a collective loss and Greenspan (hiss) explained how the Internet would usher in a new golden age of growth, not the boom and bust of productivity that we actually experienced. And most institutional investment committees believed it or half believed it! And US house prices, said Bernanke in 2007, “had never declined,” meaning they never would, and everyone believed him. Indeed, the broad public during these four events, two in Japan and two in the US, appeared to believe most or all of it. As did the economic and financial establishments, especially for the two US bubbles. Certainly only mavericks spoke against them.
- Let me ask you: How does that level of euphoria, of wishful thinking, of general acceptance, compare to today’s stock market in the US? Not very well. The market lacks both the excellent fundamentals and the euphoria required to unreasonably extrapolate it.
- Current fundamentals are way below optimal – trend line growth and productivity are at such low levels that the usually confident economic establishment is at an obvious loss to explain why. Capacity utilisation is well below peak and has been falling. There is plenty of available labour hiding in the current low participation rate (at a price). House building is also far below normal.
- Classic bubbles have always required that the geopolitical world is at least acceptable, more usually well above average. Today’s, in contrast, you can easily agree is unusually nerve-wracking.
- Far from euphoric extrapolations, the current market has been for a long while and remains extremely nervous. Investor trepidation is so great that many are willing to tie up money in ultra-safe long-term government bonds that guarantee zero real return rather than buy the marginal share of stock! Cash reserves are high and traditional measures of speculative confidence are low. Most leading commentators are extremely bearish. The net effect of this nervousness is shown in the last two and a half years of the struggling US market shown in Exhibit 3, so utterly unlike the end of the classic bubbles.
- I just finished a meeting on credit cycles in which yet another difference between today’s conditions and a classic bubble was revealed: They – the bubbles in stocks and houses – all coincided with bubbles in credit. Exhibits 4 and 5 show the classic spike in credit in Japan in 1989, coincident with the high in stocks; the US 2000 tech event and the US housing boom of 2006 also coincided perfectly with booms in credit. Whether stock and house prices rising draws out credit or credit pushes prices, or whether both interact, which seems more likely, is a story for someone else to tell. Credit, needless to say, is complex and there are very often individual credit components that are worrying. For example, financial corporate debt looks fine, but non-financial corporate debt is scary. What is important here is the enormous contrast between the credit conditions that previously have been coincident with investment bubbles and the lack of a similarly consistent and broad-based credit boom today.
- The current market therefore is closer to an anti-bubble than a bubble. In every sense, that is, except one: Traditional measures of value score this market as extremely overpriced by historical standards.
- At GMO we have put particular weight for identifying investment bubbles on the statistical measure of a 2-sigma upside move above the long-term trend line, a measure of deviation that uses only long-term prices and volatility around the trend. (A 2-sigma deviation occurs every 44 years in a normally distributed world and every 35 years in our actual fat-tailed stock market world.) Today’s (November 7) price is only 8% away from the 2-sigma level that we calculate for the S&P 500 of 2300.
- Upside moves of 2-sigma have historically done an excellent job of differentiating between mere bull markets and the real McCoy investment bubbles that are likely to decline a lot – all the way back to trend – often around 50% in equities. And to do so in a hurry, in one to three years.
- So we have an apparent paradox. None of the usual economic or psychological conditions for an investment bubble are being met, yet the current price is almost on the statistical boundary of a bubble. Can this be reconciled? I believe so.
- There is a new pressure that has been brought to bear on all asset prices over the last 35 years and especially the last 20 that has observably driven the general discount rate for assets down by 2 to 2.5 percentage points. Tables 1 and 2 compare the approximate yields today of major asset classes with the average returns they had from 1945 to 1995. You can see that available returns to investors are way down. (Let me add here that many of these numbers are provisional. We will try to steadily improve them over the next several months. Any helpful inputs are welcome.) But I do believe that readers will agree with the general proposition that potential investment returns have been lowered on a wide investment front over the last 20 years and that stocks are generally in line with all other assets.
The writer is co-founder and chief investment strategist, GMO. This is an excerpt from GMO's quarterly letter, you can read the full version here.
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