Quarterly Commentary 4th Quarter 2017

Share this article

It has been more than 400 days since the U.S. stock market experienced as much as a 3% decline–the longest stretch ever. Stock prices have risen for 14 straight months–also a record. And it has been almost nine years since there has been a meaningful correction lasting as much as a year. The longer markets rise without significant declines, the more fear is removed from the minds of investors. That explains why throughout history, investors have bought far more aggressively at high stock prices than at low prices. Stocks, ironically, are about the only commodity that buyers seek more avidly at higher prices than low. It is instructive to recognize, however, that lengthy rises and lack of fear have characterized all major U.S. stock market tops. That does not mean that stocks cannot continue to rise from current levels, just that today’s conditions are similar to those that have preceded this country’s most destructive bear markets.

Stock Prices Have Outrun Corporate Profits

After such an extended market rise, one would logically assume that the economy and corporate profits had grown at far above normal rates over those years. Remarkably, the U.S. economy has grown at a far below normal rate, while stock market prices have risen at a far faster rate than have corporate profits. What accounts for such phenomena is the benevolence of the Federal Reserve Board, which has handed out trillions of dollars of essentially free money, ostensibly to boost the economy. Because companies failed to sufficiently put that money to work to boost the economy even back to an average level, those funds found their way into stocks and bonds, boosting each to record levels.

Central Bankers To The Rescue

Because Fed members feared that a significant stock market decline would undermine their attempts to keep the economy from slipping into recession, they provided support whenever the market showed evidence that it might be ready to fall enough to worry investors. That support happened so consistently that investors began to count on it. Price dips became smaller and smaller as traders became intent on stepping in front of others who subscribed to a “buy the dip” approach. As a result, there are historically low levels of cash in most portfolios, with stock prices at all-time highs and bond yields near all-time lows.

Stocks And Bonds Massively Overvalued

What has gone on for almost nine years can go on for another year or more, but that will require events that have never occurred before. According to a Deutsche Bank study going back to 1800, the 15 largest developed countries are at their highest level of overvaluation combining both stocks and bonds. Given that condition, the single most important ingredient for further market growth will be continued investor confidence that central bankers will remain both willing and able to support securities markets.

Wall Street Almost Unanimously Bullish

Wall Street analysts, in the aggregate, have never forecast even a single recession. Since the beginning of this century, the consensus of analysts has similarly not forecast even a single down year for the stock market, missing two of the worst bear markets in U.S. history. They again remain steadfastly bullish, despite this now being the third longest economic expansion in U.S. history, albeit the weakest since World War II. Those analysts almost universally said: “This will end badly” when U.S. monetary authorities began their “free money” stimulus policies. Although those programs have gone far beyond any logically imagined levels, analysts have abandoned their concerns in the quest to remain bullish– apparently a Wall Street requirement.

Analysts justify the rally and their bullish forecasts on a fundamental basis: growing corporate earnings and synchronized worldwide growth. Much of the earnings growth in recent years has been the result of corporate buybacks reducing the number of shares, not because overall corporate profits have been growing appreciably. And earnings per share forecasts are for growth again in 2018. While earnings per share have significantly overstated actual corporate profits, investors have been willing to look past that point and have so far been eager to pay progressively more for each dollar of profit. And yes, while there is economic growth around the world, except for three large emerging market countries, that growth is far below historically normal levels – and this despite the most aggressive monetary stimulus ever. The market’s continuing rise is more a celebration of direction over level of growth.

The most bullish factor in the short run is the technical picture. Supply/demand statistics and advance/decline figures are markedly bullish. We have not yet seen the deterioration in these indicators that has almost always preceded major market declines by several months.

History Argues Against Lasting Strength

On the negative side, the full scope of market history argues against equity prices remaining permanently above current overbought, overvalued levels without a major bear market eventually taking prices far lower. By a composite of all major valuation measures, the U.S. market is more overvalued than ever before except for the period around the dot.com mania top in 2000. Most current valuations are getting very close to that earlier extreme. No market in 200 years of U.S. history even remotely close to current valuations has failed to experience a severe bear market that ultimately took away more than a decade of price progress.

Almost daily on business television you can hear someone counter concerns about the longevity of this almost nine-year rally by saying that market advances don’t die of old age. That may be true. They do, however, die in old age. Human beings, likewise, don’t die of old age but rather of one or more conditions that typically arise in old age. By the time market rallies even approach this market’s length, they tend to have precipitated any number of excesses which have proven fatal to innumerable rallies over the years. Besides stock market valuations, extremes are evident today in high end real estate, fine wines, art prices (like the $450 million Da Vinci sale) and cryptocurrencies. Over the decades, such excesses have been dramatically reduced when stock prices eventually descend.

Central Banks Are Reducing Stimulus

The aggressive monetary stimulus that has boosted stock and bond prices since 2009 is being reduced or eliminated in most of the world. The U.S. Federal Reserve has begun to raise short-term interest rates and reduce its bloated balance sheet. The Bank of England and the European Central Bank have both indicated plans to tighten their policies. Among major central banks, only the Bank of Japan remains in full blown stimulus mode, but even they are hinting about reductions. As helpful as monetary expansion has been for stock prices worldwide, it’s hard to imagine that the elimination and reversal of such stimulus will not have a significant negative effect in the next few years.

The Danger Of Extreme Debt Levels

As we have noted many times during this monetary expansion, the newly printed money is offset by the accumulation of debt on the central banks’ balance sheets. It is unlikely that all of this debt will be allowed to roll off over the next several years, which means that much of this debt will be a legacy that this generation leaves its children and their children. Over the centuries, debt levels well below those in most of today’s major countries have invariably led to significantly slowed economic growth for a decade or more, often accompanied by severe stock market declines. Even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan maintains that it is unlikely that the Fed can normalize this extreme monetary policy without severe pain.

Warnings From Top Managers

Some of this generation’s most successful investors (Stanley Druckenmiller, Howard Marks and Jeff Gundlach) have recently issued warnings about overstaying this lengthy rally. A few weeks ago, in a CNBC interview, Druckenmiller said: “The longer this goes on, the worse it will be.” He indicated that when what he called “monetary radicalism” ends, all the world’s extremely overvalued assets will go down.

Weighing Opportunity Versus Danger

Nobody rings a bell at market tops, nor does anyone know when this market advance will end. While all of these concerns seem superfluous–even counterproductive–while prices rise persistently, such concerns have always ultimately led to market declines that take away many years of price progress. Those remaining heavily invested in stocks will continue to profit if the market extends this rally. And it could continue if investors retain their confidence in central bankers. Unless this time differs from all past market instances of severe overvaluation, however, regardless of the level at which the rally ends, a timely sell decision will have to be made to lock in gains before the next bear market takes prices below current levels.

Some investors believe strongly in the buy and hold approach. That method can be appropriate for those with a very long time horizon and the financial and psychological ability to stay committed even during gut-wrenching declines. On the other hand, there are no guarantees that markets will bounce back as they did from the bottoms in 2002 and 2009. Down 57% from the 2000 stock market peak, the S&P500 by March 2009 had erased 13 years of price progress back to 1996 levels. Only extraordinary actions by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve rescued the banking system and kept the economy from what government officials described as a probable depression. With its rescue measures severely stretched (some would say irrationally stretched), it is unlikely that the Fed would be to be able to provide a similar emergency rescue in the next several years.

As we have discussed in past seminars, any adherent to the buy and hold philosophy needs to evaluate an uncomfortable precedent. At the end of the 1980s, the Japanese stock market was the largest in the world, and the Japanese economy was considered the prime example of the new industrial paradigm. It was widely believed that the Japanese market was immune to the normal dynamics that could take down other major world markets. From its peak at the end of the 1980s, however, the Nikkei’s price dropped about 80% over the next few years, and is today still down almost 50% from its peak of 28 years ago. In another cautionary domestic example, it took a quarter century for the Dow Jones Industrial Average to get back to its 1929 peak level. Very few investors have time frames that long.

Today’s investors are faced with a significant dilemma. Prices have been strong through most of the past nine years, heavily supported by essentially free money from the Federal Reserve and other world central banks. Additionally, several usually reliable technical indicators have not yet given signs that the market advance is in its final stages. On the other hand, stocks are extremely overvalued, and markets have never before permanently retained levels of even less severe overvaluation without first enduring a substantial and lengthy bear market. An added problem today is the intended reversal over the next few years of the monumental stimulus that has supported the market’s advance. Every individual and institutional investor should carefully weigh the potential for continued equity profits against his/her/its ability and willingness to endure a lengthy decline should history repeat in an era of historic levels of overvaluation and indebtedness.