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Caution: Mean Reversion Ahead

If you watch CNBC long enough, you are bound to hear an investment professional urging viewers to buy stocks simply because of low yields in the bond markets. While the advice may seem logical given historically low yields in the U.S. and negative yields abroad, most of these professionals fail to provide viewers with a mathematically grounded analysis of their expected returns for the equity markets.

Mean reversion is an extremely important financial concept and it is the “reversion” part that is so powerful.  The simple logic behind mean reversion is that market returns over long periods will fluctuate around their historical average. If you accept that a security or market tends to revolve around its mean or a trend line over time, then periods of above normal returns must be met with periods of below normal returns.

If the professionals on CNBC understood the power of mean reversion, they would likely be more enthusiastic about locking in a 2% bond yield for the next decade. 

Expected Bond Returns

Expected return analysis is easy to calculate for bonds if one assumes a bond stays outstanding till its maturity (in other words it has no early redemption features such as a call option) and that the issuer can pay off the bond at maturity.

Let’s walk thought a simple example. Investor A and B each buy a two-year bond today priced at par with a 3% coupon and a yield to maturity of 3%. Investor A intends to hold the bond to maturity and is therefore guaranteed a 3% return. Investor B holds the bond for one year and decides to sell it because the bond’s yield fell and thus the bond’s price rose. In this case, investor B sold the bond to investor C at a price of 101. In doing so he earned a one year total return of 4%, consisting of a 3% coupon and 1% price return. Investor B’s outperformance versus the yield to maturity must be offset with investor C’s underperformance versus the yield to maturity of an equal amount. This is because investor C paid a 1% premium for the bond which must be deducted from his or her total return. In total, the aggregate performance of B and C must equal the original yield to maturity that investor A earned.

This example shows that periodic returns can exceed or fall short of the yield to maturity expected based on the price paid by each investor, but in sum all of the periodic returns will match the original yield to maturity to the penny. Replace the term yield to maturity with expected returns and you have a better understanding of mean reversion.   

Equity Expected Returns

Stocks, unlike bonds, do not feature a set of contractual cash flows, defined maturity, or a perfect method of calculating expected returns. However, the same logic that dictates varying periodic returns versus forecasted returns described above for bonds influences the return profile for equities as well.

The price of a stock is, in theory, based on a series of expected cash flows. These cash flows do not accrue directly to the shareholder, with the sole exception of dividends. Regardless, valuations for equities are based on determining the appropriate premium or discount that investors are willing to pay for a company’s theoretical future cash flows, which ultimately hinge on net earnings growth.

The earnings trend growth rate for U.S. equities has been remarkably consistent over time and well correlated to GDP growth. Because the basis for pricing stocks, earnings, is a relatively fixed constant, we can use trend analysis to understand when market returns have been over and under the long-term expected return rate.

The graph below does this for the S&P 500. The orange line is the real price (inflation adjusted) of the S&P 500, the dotted line is the polynomial trend line for the index, and the green and red bars show the difference between the index and the trend.

Data Courtesy Shiller/Bloomberg

The green and red bars point to a definitive pattern of over and under performance. Periods of outperformance in green are met with periods of underperformance in red in a highly cyclical pattern. Further, the red and green periods tend to mirror each other in terms of duration and performance. We use black arrows to compare how the duration of such periods and the amount of over/under performance are similar.  

If the current period of outperformance is once again offset with a period of underperformance, as we have seen over the last 80 years, than we should expect a ten year period of underperformance. If this mean reversion were to begin shortly, then expect the inflation adjusted S&P 500 to fall 600-700 points below the trend over the next ten years, meaning the real price of the S&P index could be anywhere from 1500-2300 depending on when the reversion occurs. 

We now do similar mean reversion analysis based on valuations. The graph below compares monthly periods of Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) versus the following ten-year real returns. The yellow bar represents where valuations have been over the last year.

Data Courtesy Shiller/Bloomberg

Currently CAPE is near 30, or close to double the average of the last 100 years. If returns over the next ten years revert back to historic norms, than based on the green dotted regression trend line, we should expect annual returns of -2% for each of the next ten years. In other words, the analysis suggests the S&P 500 could be around 2300 in 2029. We caution however, valuations can slip well below historical means, thus producing further losses.

John Hussman, of Hussman Funds, takes a similar but more analytically rigorous approach. Instead of using a scatter plot as we did above, he plots his profit margin adjusted CAPE alongside the following twelve-year returns. In the chart below, note how closely forward twelve-year returns track his adjusted CAPE. The red circle highlights Hussman’s expected twelve-year annualized return.

If we expect this strong correlation to continue, his analysis suggests that annual returns of about negative 2% should be expected for the next twelve years. Again, if you discount the index by 2% a year for twelve years, you produce an estimate similar to the prior two estimates formed by our own analysis.  

None of these methods are perfect, but the story they tell is eerily similar. If mean reversion occurs in price and valuations, our expectations should be for losses over the coming ten years.

Summary

As the saying goes, you can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it. As investors, we can form expectations based on a number of factors and adjust our risk and investment thesis as we learn more.

Mean reversion promises a period of below average returns. Whether such an adjustment happens over a few months as occurred in 1987 or takes years, is debatable. It is also uncertain when that adjustment process will occur. What is not debatable is that those aware of this inevitability can be on the lookout for signs mean reversion is upon us and take appropriate action. The analysis above offers some substantial clues, as does the recent equity market return profile. In the 20 months from May 2016 to January 2018, the S&P 500 delivered annualized total returns of 21.9%. In the 20 months since January 2018, it has delivered annualized total returns of 5.5% with significantly higher volatility. That certainly does not inspire confidence in the outlook for equity market returns.

We remind you that a bond yielding 2% for the next ten years will produce a 40%+ outperformance versus a stock losing 2% for the next ten years. Low yields may be off-putting, but our expectations for returns should be greatly tempered given the outperformance of both bonds and stocks over the years past. Said differently, expect some lean years ahead.

Black Monday – Can It Happen Again?

The 1987 stock market crash, better known as Black Monday, was a statistical anomaly, often referred to as a Black Swan event. Unlike other market declines, investors seem to be under the false premise that the stock market in 1987 provided no warning of the impending crash. The unique characteristics of Black Monday, the magnitude and instantaneous nature of the drop, has relegated the event to the “could never happen again” compartment of investors’ memories.

On Black Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 22.6% in the greatest one-day loss ever recorded on Wall Street. Despite varying perceptions, there were clear fundamental and technical warnings preceding the crash that were detected by a few investors. For the rest, the market euphoria raging at the time blinded them to what in hindsight seemed obvious.

Stock markets, like in 1987, are in a state of complacency, donning a ‘what could go wrong’ brashness and extrapolating good times as far as the eye can see. Even those that detect economic headwinds and excessive valuations appear emboldened by the thought that the Fed will not allow anything bad to happen. 

While we respect the bullish price action, we also appreciate that investors are not properly assessing fundamental factors that overwhelmingly argue the market is overvalued. There is no doubt that prices and valuations will revert to more normal levels. Will it occur via a long period of market malaise, a single large drawdown like 1987, or something more akin to the crashes of 2001 and 2008? When will it occur? We do not have the answers, nor does anyone else; however, we know that those who study prior market drawdowns are better prepared and better equipped to limit their risk and avoid a devastating loss.

History provides us with the gift of insight, and though history will not repeat itself, it may rhyme. While we do not think a 1987-like crash is likely, we would be remiss if we did not at least consider it and assign a probability. 

Fundamental Causes

Below is a summary of some of the fundamental dynamics that played a role in the market rally and the ultimate crash of 1987.

Takeover Tax Bill- During the market rally preceding the crash, corporate takeover fever was running hot. Leveraged Buyouts (LBOs), in which high yield debt was used to purchase companies, were stoking the large majority of stocks higher. Investors were betting on rumors of companies being taken over and were participating in strategies such as takeover risk arbitrage. A big determinant driving LBOs was a surge in junk bond issuance and the resulting acquirer’s ability to raise the necessary capital. The enthusiasm for more LBO’s, similar to buybacks today, fueled speculation and enthusiasm across the stock market. On October 13, 1987, Congress introduced a bill that sought to rescind the tax deduction for interest on debt used in corporate takeovers. This bill raised concerns that the LBO machine would be impaired. From the date the bill was announced until the Friday before Black Monday, the market dropped over 10%.

Inflation/Interest Rates- In April 1980, annual inflation peaked at nearly 15%. By December of 1986, it had sharply reversed to a mere 1.18%.  This reading would be the lowest level of inflation from that point until the financial crisis of 2008. Throughout 1987, inflation bucked the trend of the prior six years and hit 4.23% in September of 1987. Not surprisingly, interest rates rose in a similar pattern as inflation during that period. In 1982, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note peaked at 15%, but it would close out 1986 at 7%. Like inflation, interest rates reversed the trend in 1987, and by October, the ten-year U.S. Treasury note yield was 3% higher at 10.23%. Higher interest rates made LBOs more costly, takeovers less likely, put pressure on economic growth and, most importantly, presented a rewarding alternative to owning stocks. 

Deficit/Dollar- A frequently cited contributor to the market crash was the mounting trade deficit. From 1982 to 1987, the annual trade deficit was four times the average of the preceding five years. As a result, on October 14th Treasury Secretary James Baker suggested the need for a weaker dollar. Undoubtedly, concerns for dollar weakness led foreigners to exit dollar-denominated assets, adding momentum to rising interest rates. Not surprisingly, the S&P 500 fell 3% that day, in part due to Baker’s comments.

Valuations- From the trough in August 1982 to the peak in August 1987, the S&P 500 produced a total return (dividends included) of over 300% or nearly 32% annualized. However, earnings over the same period rose a mere 8.1%. The valuation ratio, price to trailing twelve months earnings, expanded from 7.50 to 18.25. On the eve of the crash, this metric stood at a 33% premium to its average since 1924. 

Technical Factors

This section examines technical warning signs in the days, weeks, and months before Black Monday. Before proceeding, the chart below shows the longer-term rally from the early 1980s through the crash.

Portfolio Insurance- As mentioned, from the 1982 trough to the 1987 peak, the S&P 500 produced outsized gains for investors. Further, the pace of gains accelerated sharply in the last two years of the rally.

As the 1980s progressed, some investors were increasingly concerned that the massive gains were outpacing the fundamental drivers of stock prices. Such anxiety led to the creation and popularity of portfolio insurance. This new hedging technique, used primarily by institutional investors, involved conditional contracts that sold short the S&P 500 futures contract if the market fell by a certain amount. This simple strategy was essentially a stop loss on a portfolio that avoided selling the actual portfolio assets. Importantly, the contracts ensured that more short sales would occur as the market sell-off continued. When the market began selling off, these insurance hedges began to kick in, swamping bidders and making a bad situation much worse. Because the strategy required incremental short sales as the market fell, selling begat selling, and a correction turned into an avalanche of panic.

Price Activity- The rally from 1982 peaked on August 25, 1987, nearly two months before Black Monday. Over the next month, the S&P 500 fell about 8% before rebounding to 2.65% below the August highs. This condition, a “lower high,” was a warning that went unnoticed. From that point forward, the market headed decidedly lower. Following the rebound high, eight of the nine subsequent days just before Black Monday saw stocks in the red. For those that say the market did not give clues, it is quite likely that the 15% decline before Black Monday was the result of the so-called smart money heeding the clues and selling, hedging, or buying portfolio insurance.

Annotated Technical Indicators

The following chart presents technical warnings signs labeled and described below.

  • A:  7/30/1987- Just before peaking in early August, the S&P 500 extended itself to three standard deviations from its 50-day moving average (3-standard deviation Bollinger band). This signaled the market was greatly overbought. (description of Bollinger Bands)
  • B: 10/5/1987- After peaking and then declining to a more balanced market condition, the S&P 500 recovered but failed to reach the prior high.
  • C: 10/14/1987- The S&P 500 price of 310 was a point of both support and resistance for the market over the prior two months. When the index price broke that line to the downside, it proved to be a critical technical breach.
  • D: 10/16/1987- On the eve of Black Monday, the S&P 500 fell below the 200-day moving average. Since 1985, that moving average provided dependable support to the market on five different occasions.
  • E: August 1987- The relative strength indicator (RSI – above the S&P price graph) reached extremely overbought conditions in late July and early August (labeled green). When the market rebounded in early October to within 2.6% of the prior record high, the RSI was still well below its peak. This was a strong sign that the underlying strength of the market was waning.  (description of RSI)

Volatility- From the beginning of the rally until the crash, the average weekly gain or loss on the S&P 500 was 1.54%. In the week leading up to Black Monday, volatility, as measured by five-day price changes, started spiking higher. By the Friday before Black Monday, the five-day price change was 8.63%, a level over six standard deviations from the norm and almost twice that of any other five-day period since the rally began.   

A longer average true range graph is shown above the longer term S&P 500 graph at the start of the technical section.

Similarities and differences

While comparing 1987 to today is helpful, the economic, political, and market backdrops are vastly different. There are, however some similarities worth mentioning.

Similarities:

  • While LBO’s are not nearly as frequent, companies are essentially replicating similar behavior by using excessive debt and leverage to buy their own shares. Corporate debt stands at all-time highs measured in both absolute terms and as a ratio of GDP. Since 2015, stock buybacks and dividends have accounted for 112% of earnings
  • Federal deficits and the trade deficit are at record levels and increasing rapidly
  • The trade-weighted dollar index is now at the highest level in at least 25 years. We are likely approaching the point where President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin will push for a weak dollar policy
  • Equity valuations are extremely high by almost every metric and historical comparison of the last 100+ years
  • Sentiment and expectations are declining from near record levels
  • The use of margin is at record high levels
  • Trading strategies such as short volatility, passive/index investing, and algorithms can have a snowball effect, like portfolio insurance, if they are unwound hastily

There are also vast differences. The economic backdrop of 1987 and today are nearly opposite.

  • In 1987 baby boomers were on the verge of becoming an economic support engine, today they are retiring at an increasing pace and becoming an economic headwind
  • Personal, corporate, and public Debt to GDP have grown enormously since 1987
  • The amount of monetary stimulus in the system today is extreme and delivering diminishing returns, leaving one to question how much more the Fed can provide 
  • Productivity growth was robust in 1987, and today it has nearly ground to a halt

While some of the fundamental drivers of 1987 may appear similar to today, the current economic situation leaves a lot to be desired when compared to 1987. After the 1987 market crash, the market rebounded quickly, hitting new highs by the spring of 1989.

We fear that, given the economic backdrop and limited ability to enact monetary and fiscal policy, recovery from an episodic event like that experienced in October 1987 may look vastly different today.

Summary

Market tops are said to be processes. Currently, there are an abundance of fundamental warnings and some technical signals that the market is peaking.

Those looking back at 1987 may blame tax legislation, portfolio insurance, and warnings of a weaker dollar as the catalysts for the severe declines. In reality, those were just the sparks that started the fire. The tinder was a market that had become overly optimistic and had forgotten the discipline of prudent risk management.

When the current market reverses course, as always, there will be narratives. Investors are likely to blame a multitude of catalysts both real and imagined. Also, like 1987, the true fundamental catalysts are already apparent; they are just waiting for a spark. We must be prepared and willing to act when combustion becomes evident.

What is Bill Dudley Thinking?

On August 27, 2019, Bill Dudley, former Chief Economist for Goldman Sachs and President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2009-2018, published a stunning editorial in Bloomberg (LINK). After reading the article numerous times, there are a few noteworthy observations worth discussing.

Dudley’s Myopic View

Before we dissect Bill Dudley’s opinions and try to understand his motivations, consider the article’s subtitle- “The central bank should refuse to play along with an economic disaster in the making.”

There is little doubt that Trump’s hard stance on trade and the seemingly impetuous use of tariffs and harsh Twitter commentary presents new challenges for economic growth. Global trade has slowed and manufacturers are retrenching to limit their risks.

Whether the trade war is or will be an “economic disaster” as Dudley says, is up for debate. What is remarkable about this comment is the lack of understanding of the economic instability prior to the trade war and how it got to that point.   

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, the Fed has used excessive monetary policy over the last decade to promote economic growth. Dudley and the Fed fail to recognize that their actions have led to rampant speculation in the financial markets, encouraged significant uses of debt for nonproductive purposes, and have fueled the wealth and income divergences. More concerning, their actions have reduced the natural economic growth rate of the country for years and possibly decades to come. Dudley and colleagues arranged the tinder for what will inevitably be an economic disaster. Trump may or may not be the spark.

Dudley sets up his article with a leading question-“This manufactured disaster-in-the-making presents the Federal Reserve with a dilemma: Should it mitigate the damage by providing offsetting stimulus, or refuse to play along?”

He answers, in part, by saying that, based on the Fed’s obligations and “conventional wisdom”, the Fed should respond to economic weakness due to the trade war by “adjusting monetary policy accordingly.” Historically, the Fed has changed policy to counter outside, non-economic factors.

Dudley, however, takes a different tack and asks if easier Fed policy would encourage “the President to escalate the trade war further.” This is where the editorial gets political. He goes on to state his case for the Fed taking a hard line and not adjust monetary policy if the trade war negatively affects economic activity. Dudley believes that by doing nothing, the Fed would:

  • Discourage further trade war escalation
  • Reinforce the Fed’s independence
  • Preserve much needed “ammunition”, as there is little room to cut rates

In the next paragraph, he stresses Trump’s attacks on Chairman Powell and provides more reasoning for the Fed to leave policy alone. Dudley believes the Fed, by not adjusting monetary policy to offset the effects of the trade war in progress, would send a clear signal to the President that he bears the risks of a recession and losing an election. The Fed, thereby, would not be complicit.  

Before going on, we think it’s appropriate to re-emphasize that the next recession will be amplified due to Fed actions over the last ten years. Bernanke should never have extended extraordinary measures beyond the first round of quantitative easing, and Janet Yellen had ample opportunities to raise interest rates and reduce the Fed’s balance sheet during her tenure. Trying to place all of the blame on the current President, or anyone else for that matter, may work in the media and even the populace but it does not line up with the facts.

Dudley’s Summary

Dudley concludes with a stunning and politically motivated statement- “There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”   

Dudley is essentially imploring Powell to base monetary policy on the coming election. If Fed independence is what Dudley cherishes, he certainly did not do the Fed any favors. This implicates elites like Dudley, one of the “Davos Men,” who think they know better than the collective decisions of people engaged in free-market exchanges. It also makes him guilty of an effort to manipulate an election.

Summary

Here is an important question. Is this editorial solely Dudley’s thoughts, or was Jerome Powell and the Fed involved in any way?  The Fed has already come out against the article, but in Washington, nothing is ever that clear cut.

If the editorial was in some way subsidized or suggested by Powell, the implications of the Fed going after the President will call into question their independence in the future. No matter how deeply improper that is, it certainly leaves open the question of whether or not people are justified in those efforts. In the same way that no Fed official should ever be viewed as complicit, no President should impose his will from the bully pulpit of the Presidency to influence monetary policy.

From an investment perspective, this is not good. The markets have benefited from a Fed that has promoted asset price inflation and sought to convince us that the economic cycle is dead. Despite sky-high valuations, investors tend to believe that these valuations are fair and that the Fed will always be there as a reliable safety net.

We do not know how this saga will end, but we do know that if confidence in the Fed is compromised, investors will likely vote with their feet.

Caroline’s Summary

We leave you with some thoughts on the subject from Caroline Baum of MarketWatch:

“It is hard to fathom what Dudley was thinking in advocating such an off-the-wall idea of factoring political outcomes into policy decisions. The Fed has a dual mandate from Congress to promote maximum employment and price stability. There is nothing in that mandate, or in the Federal Reserve Act, about influencing election outcomes. Nothing in there either about being part of “the Resistance” to this president.

That would be a dangerous expansion of Federal Reserve’s operating framework.”

The Mechanics of Absurdity

Over the past few decades, the central banks, including the Federal Reserve (Fed), have relied increasingly on interest rates to help modify economic growth. Interest rate management is their tool of choice because it can be effective and because central banks regulate the supply of money, which directly effects the cost to borrow it. Lower interest rates incentivize borrowers to take on debt and consume while dis-incentivizing savings.

Regrettably, a growing consequence of favoring lower than normal interest rates for prolonged periods is that consumers, companies, and nations grow increasingly indebted as a percentage of their respective income. In many cases, consumption is pulled from the future to the present day. Accordingly, less consumption is needed in the future and a larger portion of income and wealth must be devoted to servicing the accumulated debt as opposed to productive ventures which would otherwise generate income to help pay off the debt.

Today, interest rates are at historically low levels around the globe. Interest rates are negative in Japan and throughout much of Europe. In this article, we expound on the themes laid out in Negative is the New Subprime, to discuss the mechanics of negative-yielding debt as well as the current mindset of investors that invest in negative-yielding debt.

Is invest the right word in describing an asset that when held to maturity guarantees a loss of capital?

Negative Yield Mechanics

Negative yields are not only bestowed upon sovereign debt, as investment grade and even some junk-rated debt in Europe now carry negative yields. Even stranger, Market Watch just wrote about a Danish bank offering consumers’ negative interest rate mortgages (LINK).

You might be thinking, “Wow, I can take out a negative interest rate loan, receive payments every month or quarter and then pay back what was lent to me?” That is not how it works, at least not yet. Below are two examples that walk through the lender and borrower cash flows for negative-yielding debt.

Some of the bonds trading at negative yields were issued when yields were positive and therefore have coupon payments. For example, in August of 2018, Germany issued a 30 year bond with a coupon of 1.25%. The price of the bond is currently $143, making the yield to maturity -0.19%. Today, it will cost you $14,300 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Going forward, you will receive coupon payments of $125 a year and ultimately receive $10,000 in 2048. Over the next 29 years you will receive $3,625 in coupon payments but lose $4,300 in principal, hence the current negative yield to maturity.

Bonds issued with a zero coupon with negative yields are similar in concept but the mechanics are slightly different than our positive coupon example from above. Germany issued a ten-year bond which pays no coupon. Currently, the price is 106.76, meaning it will cost an investor $10,676 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Over the next ten years the investor will receive no coupon payments, and at the end of the term they will receive $10,000, resulting in a $676 loss. The lower the negative yield to maturity, the higher premium to par and the greater loss of principal at maturity.

We suspect that example two, the zero-coupon bond issued at a price above par, will be the issuance model going forward for negative yielding bonds.

Why?

At this point, after reviewing the cash flows on the German bonds, you are probably asking why an investor would make an investment in which they are almost guaranteed to lose money. There are two predominant reasons worth exploring.

Safety: Investors that store physical gold in a gold vault pay a fee for safe storage. Individuals with expensive jewelry or other keepsakes pay banks a fee to use their vaults. Custodians, such as Fidelity or Schwab, are paid fees for the safekeeping of our stocks and bonds.

Storing money, as a deposit in a bank, is a little different from the prior examples. While banks are a safer place to store money than a personal vault, mattress, or wallet, the fact is that deposits are loans to the bank. Banks traditionally pay depositors an interest rate so that they have funds they can lend to borrowers at higher rates than the rate incurred on the deposit.

With rates negative in Europe and Japan, their respective central banks have essentially made the storing of deposits with banks akin to the storage of gold, jewelry, and stocks – they are subject to a safe storage fee.  Unfortunately, many people and corporations have no choice but to store their money in negative-yielding instruments and must lend money to a bank and pay a “storage fee.”  

On a real return basis, in other words adjusted for inflation, whether an investor comes out ahead by lending in a negative interest rate environment, depends on changes to the cost of living during that time frame. Negative yielding bonds emphatically signal that Germany will be in a deflationary state over the next ten years. With global central bankers taking every possible step, legal and otherwise, to avoid deflation and generate inflation, betting on deflation via negative yielding instruments seems like a poor choice for investors.

Greater Fool Theory: Buying a zero-coupon bond for 101 today with the promise of receiving 100 is a bad investment. Period. Buying the same bond for 101 today and selling it for 102 tomorrow is a great investment. As yields continue to fall further into negative territory, the prices of bonds rise. While the buyer of a negative-yielding bond may not receive a coupon, they can still profit, and sometimes appreciably as yields decline.

This type of trade mindset falls under the greater fool theory. Per Wikipedia:

“In finance and economics, the greater fool theory states that the price of an object is determined not by its intrinsic value, but rather by irrational beliefs and expectations of market participants. A price can be justified by a rational buyer under the belief that another party is willing to pay an even higher price. In other words, one may pay a price that seems “foolishly” high because one may rationally have the expectation that the item can be resold to a “greater fool” later.”

More succinctly, someone buying a bond that guarantees a loss can profit if they can find someone even more willing to lose money.

Scenario Analysis

Let’s now do a little scenario analysis to understand the value proposition of holding a negative-yielding bond.

For all three examples we use a one year bond to keep the math simple. The hypothetical bond details are as follows:

  • Issue Date: 9/1/2019
  • Maturity Date: 9/1/2020
  • Coupon = 0%
  • Yield at Issuance: -1.0%
  • Price at Issuance: 101.00

Greater fool scenario: In this scenario, the bondholder buys the new issue bond at 101 and sells it a week later at 101.50. In this case, the investor makes a .495% return or almost 29% annualized.

Normalization: This next scenario assumes that yields return to somewhat normal levels and the holder sells the bond in six months.If the yield returns to zero in six months, the price of the bond would fall to 100. In this case, our investor, having paid 101.00, will lose 1% over the six month period or 2% annualized.

Hold to maturity: If the bond is held to maturity, the bondholder will be redeemed at par losing 1% as they are paid $100 at maturity on a bond they purchased for $101.

Summary

Writing and thinking about the absurdity of negative yields is taxing and unnatural. It forces us to contemplate basic financial concepts in ways that defy common sense and rational thought. This is not a pedantic white paper discussing hypothetical central bank magic tricks and sleight of hand; this is about something occurring in real-time.

Excessive monetary policy has been the crutch of growth for decades spurred by an intense desire to avoid and minimize otherwise healthy and routine economic corrections. It was fueled by the cult of personality which took over in the 1990s when Alan Greenspan was labeled “The Maestro”. He, Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers were christened “The Committee to Save the World” by Time magazine in February 1999.  Greenspan was then the subject of a biography by famed Watergate journalist Bob Woodward infamously titled Maestro in 2000.

Under Greenspan and then Bernanke, Yellen and now Powell, rational monetary policy and acknowledgement of naturally occurring business cycles has taken a back seat to avoidance of these economic cycles at all cost. As a result, central bankers around the world are trying justify the inane logic of negative rates.

The Dog Whistle Heard Around The World

On August 15, 2019 the Washington Post led with a story entitled Markets sink on recession signal. The recession signal the Post refers to is the U.S. Treasury yield curve which had just inverted for the first time in over ten years.

We have been highlighting the flattening yield curve for the past six months. As we have discussed, every time the ten-year Treasury yield has fallen below the two-year Treasury yield, thus inverting the yield curve, a recession has eventually developed.

Blaming the yield curve for market losses because it inverted by a couple of basis points is a nonsensical narrative for talking heads on business television. This article is about a different concern, a second-order effect caused by headlines like the one shown below. The story in the Post and similar ones in many major publications have awoken the public to the real possibility that a recession may be coming. It is a dog whistle that may cause the public to alter their behavior, and even slight changes in consumption habits can produce outsized effects on economic activity.

Reality

The 2s/10s yield curve stood at 265 basis points on January 1, 2014, meaning the ten-year yield was 2.65% higher than the two-year yield. From that date forward, as shown below, it has steadily declined. Like the changing of the seasons, as the days passed, that spread steadily fell. Unlike the seasons, investors are somehow now suddenly shocked to learn that economic winter follows fall.  Since the beginning of 2019, the curve has been as steep as 25 basis points but has flirted with inversion on numerous occasions.

Given that the shape of the yield curve has been steadily flattening for five years, its current inversion ought not to be news. From an economic perspective, who cares, nothing has changed. The difference in a few basis points on the yield curve is truly meaningless. What has changed is investors’ behavioral instincts.

Explanation Bias

Blaming the yield curve for a market downturn is a narrative designed to fill the public need for an explanation on equity market losses. We talked to Peter Atwater, a behavioral specialist and guest on the Lance Roberts Show, to help us understand human behavior.

Per Peter: Confidence requires perceptions of certainty and control. Easily grasped narratives – even when they are woefully incorrect – fulfill both needs. Not sure that there is a formal name to the bias, but I would call it “Explanation Bias” – we need an easy story to fight against the anxiety that would arise from what would otherwise be randomness. And randomness is untenable.

We highly recommend following Peter on Twitter at @peter_atwater

In our need to explain and attempt to understand randomness, the public is now aware of a real and growing threat that was ignored just days prior. The sudden drop in the stock market and a potential catalyst for a much steeper decline is not necessarily about finance and economics; behavioral instincts are now in play.  

Over the past several months we have said the window for a potential recession is open. By this, we meant that economic stimulus was waning, global growth was slowing, and the potential for a recession has increased as a result. The hard part of our forecast was to name the catalyst that could tip the economy into recession.

We postulated that it might be the brewing trade war, Iran, slowing global growth, or any number of other topics in the media at the time. The problem, as we pointed out in naming a single catalyst or narrative, was that it really could be something inconsequential or something we have not pondered.

This concept is akin to avalanches. The structure of the hill, weather, and the way the snow is perched determine whether an avalanche will occur. The catalyst, however, is but one snowflake that causes a chain reaction.

It is possible the snowflake in our case is the media and the public’s awareness of the relationship between yield curve inversions and recessions.

If the headlines do spark new concern and even slightly modifies consumption patterns, a recession may come sooner than we think. If you harbor concerns that a recession is coming, aren’t you more likely to eat in or put off buying a new TV? These little and seemingly inconsequential decisions made by a minority of consumers can tip the scale and create negative economic growth.

Here is another way to think about it. Picture your favorite restaurant, one that is always packed and has a waiting list. One day you arrive on a Saturday night expecting to wait an hour for a table, but to your delight, the hostess says you can sit immediately. You look around and the restaurant is crowded, but uncharacteristically there are a few empty tables. Those empty tables, while seemingly insignificant, may mean the restaurant’s sales are down a few percent from the norm.

A few percent may not seem like a big deal, but consider that the average annual recessionary growth low point was only -1.88% for the last five recessions. If economic growth is weak, then small negative changes in output can take an economy from expansion to contraction quicker than if growth rates were stronger. This seems to exemplify the current situation as growth has been fairly tepid post-financial crisis.

Summary

We can follow all the economic data and trends diligently, but consumption accounts for over 70% of U.S. economic growth. Therefore, recessions ultimately tend to be the effect of changes in consumer behavior. If the narrative de jour is enough to trouble even a small percentage of consumers, the likelihood of a recession increases. The evidence of such a change will eventually turn up in sentiment surveys, and when it does, the problem has already taken root. This is not a dire warning of recession but rather offers consideration of a legitimate second-order effect that potentially threatens this record-long economic expansion. 

While the media focuses on the inversion narrative, alerting the public to recession warnings and driving consumers to re-think their planned purchases, we care more about when the yield curve will steepen. The steepening curve caused by aggressive Fed action after a curve inversion is the tried and true recession warning. For more, please read Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You.

Negative Is The New Subprime

What is nothing? What comes to mind when you imagine nothing? The moment we try to imagine what nothing is, we fail, because nothing cannot be envisioned. There is nothing to envision or ponder or even think about. Nothing is no thing.

Yes, the point above is tedious, but the value of nothing in the financial theater is the latest magic trick of the central bankers and the most vital factor governing all investments.

If I invest my hard-earned capital in an asset the guarantees a return of nothing, what should I expect as a return? Nothing is a good answer, and somewhat absurdly, there is the possibility that nothing is the best-case scenario. Let’s take it one step further to beyond nothing. In the current age of financial alchemy, there is nearly $15.5 trillion in sovereign and corporate bonds available that promise a return of not only nothing but actually less than nothing.

If I am hired to steward capital and I invest in something that returns less than nothing, I have knowingly given away some portion of the capital I invested, and I should find another profession. And yet, on this very day, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of bonds that promise a return of less than nothing. Furthermore, there are many professional investors who knowingly and willingly are buying those bonds! The table below shows the many instances of negative-yielding sovereign bonds, with U.S. yields as a comparison.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Warped Logic

The discussion and table above highlight just how far astray the financial system has gone in Europe and Japan. What we are witnessing is not just coloring outside the lines; it is upside down and inside out. Central bankers are frantically turning cartwheels to convince us that current circumstances, though deranged and highly abnormal, are perfectly sane and normal. More often than not, politicians, the media, and Wall Street fail to challenge these experiments and worse generally echo the central bankers’ siren song.

How do investors conclude that there will be only good outcomes as a result of what are imprudent and illogical decisions and actions? Is it prudent to expect a bright future when the financial system punishes prudent savers who are most able to invest in our future and rewards ill-advised borrowing beyond one’s means?  

The current market and economic environment beg for lucid evaluation of circumstances and intelligent, honest discourse on the potential implications. Unfortunately, most market participants would prefer to keep their head in the sand. Chasing the stock and bond markets for the past decade has produced handsome returns and, for most investment advisors, delivered praise and a generous wage. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Compounding wealth is the most important and most difficult financial concept for investors to grasp. Over the last ten years, many investors spent significant time recouping losses from the financial crisis, and they assumed great risk in doing so. Having recovered some or all of those losses, many are back in a position of compounding wealth. At this point, they can continue to look backward and believe that irrational policies will ensure that the past is prologue, or they can exercise some independent thought and recognize that the risk of another serious drawdown is not negligible. Prudent risk management is very generous to those who elect patience over expedience. Most financial advisors will not volunteer a fee-reducing, conservative approach even though it would be in their own best interest to do so at critical times.

Entities empowered with the responsibility of directing traffic and ensuring against bad behavior that wish to “manage” markets are increasingly weighed and found wanting. They have become a part of the bad behavior they were entrusted to prevent, yet again. Actions, or the lack thereof, that resulted in the destruction of wealth in recent history have been on full display for over the past decade. However, with stock markets near record highs today, these actions (or inactions) are cloaked in an artificial façade of success.

Retrospect

It has become cliché to point back to October 1929, the dot.com bubble, and the housing bubble as a reminder of what may transpire. Bulls confidently look at the bears citing those periods, just as Monty Python’s King Arthur looks at the Black Knight after dismembering his arms and legs and says, “What are you going to do, bleed on me?”

Yet, historical episodes are the correct frame of reference. Just as in those prior bubbles, the problem today is right in front of our face. The evidence is clear and the lunacy unmistakable. The poster child in 2000 was Pets.com and the sock puppet; in 2006 it was skyrocketing home prices and negatively amortizing subprime “liar” loans. Today, it is negative interest rates.

It is not hyperbole to say that today’s instance of finance gone wild is more insane than Pets.com, neg-am liar loans and any other absurd Ponzi scheme that has ever been perpetrated, ALL PUT TOGETHER.

The dot.com market collapse cost the economy roughly $8 trillion. The estimate of the cost of the 2008-09 financial crisis is $22 trillion. The market value of debt outstanding with negative interest rates is over $15 trillion.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Although $15 trillion is less than the financial crisis losses, what must be considered is the multiplier effect. The losses in prior recessions were in part caused by the factors listed above but magnified by their ripple effect on other aspects of the economy and financial markets. This is the multiplier of the cause or the epicenter. Consider the following:

  • The S&P 500 Information Technology sector market cap was roughly $4 trillion in March 2000. The total market losses from the tech bubble amounted to about $8 trillion; therefore, the damage in that episode was about $2 for every $1 of exposure ($8T losses vs. $4T exposure) to the epicenter of the problem, so the multiplier was 2:1.
  • The toxic sub-prime part of the mortgage market was about $2 trillion. So, the impact of losses was $11 for every $1 of exposure ($22T loss vs. $2T exposure) to the epicenter, or a multiplier of 11:1.
  • If a problem emerged today and we are correct that the epicenter of this problem, negative-yielding debt, is further reaching than those prior mentioned episodes, then using a simple 11-to-1 ratio on $15 trillion is $165 trillion in losses, may be understating the potential problems. Even being very conservative with a 2:1 multiple yields mind-boggling losses.

This is unscientific scenario analysis, but it does provide a logical and reasonable array of possible outcomes. If one had postulated that the sub-prime mortgage market would spark even $2 trillion in losses back in 2007, they would have been laughed out of the room. Some people did anticipate the problem, made their concerns public, and were ridiculed. Even after the problem started, the common response was that sub-prime is too small to have an impact on the economy. In fact, the Fed and other central banks stood united in minimizing the imminent risks even as they were wreaking havoc on the financial system. Likewise, the “scientific” analysis currently being done by Ph.D. economists will probably miss today’s problem altogether.

European Banks

The concept of negative-yielding debt is totally irrational and incoherent. It contradicts every fundamental rule we learn and attempt to apply in business, finance, and economics.  It implies that the future is more certain than the present – that the unknown is more certain than the known!

When the investment/lending hurdle rate is not only removed but broadly disfigured in how we think about allocating resources, precious resources will be misallocated. The magnitude of that misallocation depends on the time and extent to which the policy persists.

As brought to our attention by Raoul Pal of Global Macro Investor and Real Vision, the first evidence of problems is emerging where the negative interest rate phenomenon has been most acute – Europe. European financial institutions are growing increasingly unhealthy due to the damage of negative rate policies. Currently, the Euro STOXX Bank index, as shown below, trades at levels below those of the trough of 2009 and its lowest levels since 1987. More importantly, the index is on the verge of breaking through a vital technical level to the downside. The shares of Germany’s two largest banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, are at historical lows.  Just as subprime was not isolated to the U.S., this problem is not isolated to Europe. These banks have contagion risk that, if unleashed, will spread throughout the global financial system. 

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

The market is reflecting a growing lack of confidence in the European banking and financial system as telegraphed through stock market pricing shown above.

The risk facing the global financial system is that, as problems emerge, the second and third-order effects of those issues will be both impossible to anticipate and increasingly difficult to control. Trust and confidence in the world’s central bankers can fade quickly as we saw only ten years ago.

Compounding wealth depends upon minimizing the risk of a large, permanent loss. If markets falter and the cause is monetary policy that advocated for negative interest rates, investors will have to accept accountability for the fact that it was staring us in the face all along.