Tag Archives: price to sales

The Longest Bull Market In History & What Happens Next

“Barring a breathtaking plunge, the bull market in U.S. stocks on Aug. 22 will become the longest in history, and optimistic investors argue it has miles to go before it rests.”Sue Chang, MarketWatch

Depending on how you measure beginnings and endings, or what constitutes a bear market or the beginning of a bull market, makes the statement a bit subjective. However, there is little argument the current bull market has had an exceptionally long life-span.

But rather than a “siren’s song” luring investors into the market, maybe it should serve as a warning.

“Record levels” of anything are “records for a reason.”

It should be remembered that when records are broken that was the point where previous limits were reached.  Also, just as in horse racing, sprinting or car races, the difference between an old record and a new one are often measured in fractions of a second.

Therefore, when a “record level” is reached it is NOT THE BEGINNING, but rather an indication of the PEAK of a cycle. Records, while they are often broken, are often only breached by a small amount, rather than a great stretch. While the media has focused on record low unemployment, record stock market levels, and record confidence as signs of an ongoing economic recovery, history suggests caution. For investors, everything is always at its best at the end of a cycle rather than the beginning.

The chart below has been floating around the “web” in several forms as “evidence” that investors should just stay invested at all times and not worry about the downturns. When taken at “face value,” it certainly appears to be the case. (The chart is based up Shiller’s monthly data and is inflation-adjusted total returns.)

The problem is the entire chart is incredibly deceptive.

More importantly, for those saving and investing for their retirement, it’s dangerous.

Here is why.

The first problem is the most obvious, and a topic I have addressed many times in past missives, you must worry about corrections.

Most investors don’t start seriously saving for retirement until they are in their mid-40’s. This is because by the time they graduate college, land a job, get married, have kids and send them off to college, a real push toward saving for retirement is tough to do as incomes, while growing, haven’t reached their peak. This leaves most individuals with just 20 to 25 productive work years before retirement age to achieve investment goals. 

This is where the problem is. There are periods in history, where returns over a 20-year period have been close to zero or even negative.”

Currently, we are in one of those periods.

Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics

Secondly, percentages are deceptive.

Back to the first chart above, while the mainstream media and bloggers love to talk about gains and losses in terms of percentages, it is not an apples to apples comparison.

Let’s look at the math.

Assume that an index goes from 1000 to 8000.

  • 1000 to 2000 = 100% return
  • 1000 to 3000 = 200% return
  • 1000 to 4000 = 300% return
  • 1000 to 8000 = 700% return

A 700% return is outstanding, so why worry about a 50% correction in the market when you just gained 700%?

Here is the problem with percentages.

A 50% correction does NOT leave you with a 650% gain.

A 50% correction is a subtraction of 4000 points which reduces your 700% gain to just 300%.

Then the problem now becomes the issue of having to regain those 4000 lost points just to break even.

Let’s look at the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted total return index in a different manner.

The first chart shows all of the measurement lines for all the previous bull and bear markets with the number of years required to get back to even.

What you should notice is that while the original chart above certainly makes it appear as if “bear markets” are no “big deal,” the reality is that in many cases bear markets wiped out essentially a substantial portion, if not all, of the the previous bull market advance. This is shown more clearly when we convert the percentage chart above into a point chart as shown below.

Here is another way to view the same data. The table and chart below overlays the point AND percentage of gain and loss for each bull and bear market period going back to 1900 (inflation-adjusted).

Again, the important thing to note is that while record “bull markets” are a great thing in the short-term, they are just one half of the full-market cycle. With regularity, the following decline has mostly erased the previous gain.

Broken Records

While the financial media is anticipating a new “record” being set for this “bull market,” here is something to think about.

  • Bull markets END when everything is as “good as it can get.”
  • Bear markets END when things simply can’t “get any worse.”

While everything is certainly firing on all cylinders in the market and economy currently, for investors this should be taken as a warning sign rather than an invitation to pile on additional risk.

In the near term, over the next several months, or even a year, markets could very likely continue their bullish trend as long as nothing upsets the balance of investor confidence and market liquidity.

This bull market will easily set a “new bull market record.”

But, as I said, “records are records” for a reason. As Ben Graham stated back in 1959:

“‘The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.’ I have always thought this motto applied to the stock market better than anywhere else. Now the really important part of the proverb is the phrase, ‘the more it changes.’

The economic world has changed radically and will change even more. Most people think now that the essential nature of the stock market has been undergoing a corresponding change. But if my cliché is sound,  then the stock market will continue to be essentially what it always was in the past, a place where a big bull market is inevitably followed by a big bear market.

In other words, a place where today’s free lunches are paid for doubly tomorrow. In the light of recent experience, I think the present level of the stock market is an extremely dangerous one.”

He is right, of course, things are little different now than they were then.

For every “bull market” there MUST be a “bear market.” 

While “passive indexing” sounds like a winning approach to “pace” the markets during the late stages of an advance, it is worth remembering “passive” approaches will also “pace” the decline.

Understanding that your investment returns are driven by actual dollar losses, and not percentages, is important in the comprehension of what a devastating effect corrections have on your financial outcome. So, before sticking your head in the sand and ignoring market risk based on an article touting “long-term investing always wins,” ask yourself who really benefits?

This time will not be “different.”

If the last two bear markets haven’t taught you this by now, I am not sure what will.

Maybe the third time will be the “charm.”

8-Measures Say A Crash Is Coming, Here’s How To Time It

Mark Hulbert recently penned a very good article discussing the “Eight Best Predictors Of The Stock Market,” to wit:

“The stock market’s return over the next decade is likely to be well below historical norms.

That is the unanimous conclusion of eight stock-market indicators with what I consider the most impressive track records over the past six decades. The only real difference between them is the extent of their bearishness.

To illustrate the bearish story told by each of these indicators, consider the projected 10-year returns to which these indicators’ current levels translate. The most bearish projection of any of them was that the S&P 500 would produce a 10-year total return of 3.9 percentage points annualized below inflation. The most bullish was 3.6 points above inflation.

The most accurate of the indicators I studied was created by the anonymous author of the blog Philosophical Economics. It is now as bearish as it was right before the 2008 financial crisis, projecting an inflation-adjusted S&P 500 total return of just 0.8 percentage point above inflation. Ten-year Treasuries can promise you that return with far less risk.”

Here is one of the eight indicators, a chart of Livermore’s Equity-Q Ratio which is essentially household’s equity allocation to net worth:

The other seven are as follows:

As Hulbert states:

“According to various tests of statistical significance, each of these indicators’ track records is significant at the 95% confidence level that statisticians often use when assessing whether a pattern is genuine.

However, the differences between the R-squared of the top four or five indicators I studied probably aren’t statistically significant, I was told by Prof. Shiller. That means you’re overreaching if you argue that you should pay more attention to, say, the average household equity allocation than the price/sales ratio.”

As I discussed in “Valuation Measures and Forward Returns:”

“No matter, how many valuation measures I use, the message remains the same. From current valuation levels, the expected rate of return for investors over the next decade will be low.”

This is shown in the chart below, courtesy of Michael Lebowitz, which shows the standard deviation from the long-term mean of the “Buffett Indicator,” or market capitalization to GDP, Tobin’s Q, and Shiller’s CAPE compared to forward real total returns over the next 10-years. Michael will go into more detail on this graph and what it means for asset allocation in the coming weeks.

The Problem With Valuation Measures

First, let me explain what “low forward returns” does and does not mean.

  • It does NOT mean the stock market will have annual rates of return of sub-3% each year over the next 10-years.
  • It DOES mean the stock market will have stellar gains in some years, a big crash somewhere in between, or several smaller ones, and the average return over the decade will be low. 

This is shown in the table and chart below which compares a 7% annual return (as often promised) to a series of positive returns with a loss, or two, along the way. (Note: the annual average return without the crashes is 7% annually also.)

From current valuation levels, two-percent forward rates of return are a real possibility. As shown, all it takes is a correction, or crash, along the way to make it a reality.

The problem with using valuation measures, as Mark Hulbert discusses, is that there can be a long period between a valuation warning and a market correction. This was a point made by Eddy Elfenbein from Crossing Wall Street:

“For the record, I’m a bit skeptical of these metrics. Sure, they’re interesting to look at, but I try to place them within a larger framework.

It’s not terribly hard to find a measure that shows an overvalued market and then use a long time period to show the market has performed below average during your defined overvalued period. That’s easy.

The difficulty is in timing the market.

Even if you know the market is overpriced, that doesn’t tell you much about how to invest today.”

He is correct.

So, if valuation measures tell you a problem is coming, but don’t tell you what to do, then Wall Street’s answer is simply to “do nothing.” After all, you will eventually recover the losses….right?

However, getting back to even and actually reaching your financial goals are two entirely different things as we discussed recently in “Crashes Matter.”

There is an important point to be made here. The old axioms of “time in the market” and the “power of compounding” are true, but they are only true as long as the principal value is not destroyed along the way. The destruction of the principal destroys both “time” and “the magic of compounding.”

Or more simply put – “getting back to even” is not the same as “growing.”

Is there a solution?

Linking Fundamentals To Technicals

I have often discussed an important point in reference to our portfolio management process:

“Fundamentals tell us ‘what’ to buy or sell, technicals tell us the ‘when.'”

Fundamentals are a long-term view on an investment. From these fundamental underpinnings, we can assess and assign a “valuation” to an investment to determine whether it is over or undervalued. Of course, in the famous words of Warren Buffett:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” 

In the financial markets, however, psychology can drive prices farther, and further, than logic would dictate. But such is the nature of every stage of a bull market cycle where the “momentum” chase, or rather the physical manifestation of “greed,” comes to life. This is also the point where statements such as “this time is different,” “fundamentals have changed,” or a variety of other excuses, are used to justify rampant speculation in the markets.

Despite the detachment from valuations, as markets continue to escalate higher, the fundamental warnings are readily dismissed in exchange for any data point which supports the bullish bias.

Eventually, it has always come to a rather ignominious ending.

But why does it have to be one or the other?

Currently, the Equity Q-ratio, as graphed above, is at levels that have historically denoted very poor future returns for investors. In other words, if you went to cash today, it is quite likely that over the next 10-years the value of your portfolio would be roughly the same. 

However, before that “mean reverting event” occurs the market will most likely continue to advance. So, there you are, sitting on the sidelines waiting for the crash.

“Damn it, I am missing out. I should have just stayed in.” 

The feeling of “missing out” can be overpowering as the momentum driven market rises. Like gravity, the more the market rises, the greater the pull to “jump back in” becomes. Eventually, and typically near the peak of the market cycle, investors capitulate to the pressure.

Understanding that price is a reflection of short-term market psychology, the trend of prices can give us some clue as to the direction of the market. As the old saying goes:

“The trend is your friend, until it isn’t.” 

While the Equity Q-ratio implies low forward returns, technical analysis can give us the “timing” as to when “psychology” has begun to align with the underlying “fundamentals.”.

In the chart below we have added vertical “gold” bars which denote when negative price changes warrant reducing equity risk in portfolios. (The chart uses quarterly data and triggers a signal when the 6-month moving average crosses the 2-year moving average.)

Since 1951, this “equity reduction” signal has only occurred 17-times. Yes, since these are long-term quarterly moving averages, investors would not have necessarily “top ticked” and sold at the peak, nor would they have bought the absolute bottoms. However, they would have succeeded in avoiding much of the capital destruction of the declines and garnered most of the gains.

The last time the Equity-Q ratio was above 40% was during the late 2015/2016 correction and the technical signal warned that a reduction of risk was warranted.

The mistake most investors make is not getting “back in” when the signal reverses. The value of technical analysis is providing a glimpse into the “stampede of the herd.” When the psychology is overwhelmingly bullish, investors should be primarily allocated towards equity risk. When its not, equity risk should be greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, investors tend to not heed signals at market peaks because the belief is that stocks can only go up from here. At bottoms, investors fail to “buy” as the overriding belief is the market is heading towards zero.

In a recent post, It’s Not Too Early To Be Late, Michael Lebowitz showed the historical pain investors suffered by exiting a raging bull market too early. However, he also showed that those who exited markets three years prior to peaks, when valuations were similar to today’s, profited in the long-run.

While technical analysis can provide timely and useful information for investors, it is our “behavioral issues” which lead to underperformance over time.

Currently, with the Equity Q-ratio pushing the 3rd highest level in history, investors should be very concerned about forward returns. However, with the technical trends currently “bullish,” equity exposure should remain near target levels for now.

That is until the trend changes.

When the next long-term technical “sell signal” is registered, investors should consider heeding the warnings.

Yes, even with this, you may still “leave the party” a little early.

But such is always better than getting trapped in rush for the exits when the cops arrive.

This Cycle Will End – The Simple Math Of Forward Returns

In this past weekend’s newsletter, I discussed the potential for an end to the current bull market cycle. It was not surprising that even before the “digital ink was dry,” I received emails and comments questioning the premise.

It is certainly not surprising that after one of the longest cyclical bull markets in history that individuals are ebullient about the long-term prospects of investing. The ongoing interventions by global Central Banks have led to T.T.I.D. (This Time Is Different) and  T.I.N.A. (There Is No Alternative) which has become a pervasive, and “Pavlovian,” investor mindset. But therein lies the real story.

The chart below shows every economic expansion going back to 1871 and the subsequent market decline.

This chart should make one point very clear – this cycle will end.

However, for now, there is little doubt the bullish bias exists as individuals continue to hold historically high levels of equity and leverage, chasing yield in the riskiest of areas, and maintaining relatively low levels of cash as shown in the charts below.

There are only a few people, besides me, that discuss the probabilities of lower returns over the next decade. But let’s do some basic math.

First, the general consensus is that stocks will return:

  • 6%-8%/year in real (inflation-adjusted) terms,
  • plus or minus whatever changes we see in valuation ratios.

Plug in the math and we get the following scenarios:

  1. If P/E10 declines from 30X to 19X  over the next decade, equity returns should be roughly 3%/year real or 5%/year nominal.
  2. If P/E10 declines to 15X, returns fall to 1%/year real or 3%/year nominal.
  3. If P/E10 remains at current levels, returns should be 6%/year real or 8%/year nominal.

Here is the problem with the math.

First, this assumes that stocks will compound at some rate, every year, going forward. This is a common mistake that is made in return analysis. Equities do not compound at a stagnant rate of growth but rather experience a rather high degree of volatility over time.

The ‘power of compounding’ ONLY WORKS when you do not lose money. As shown, after three straight years of 10% returns, a drawdown of just 10% cuts the average annual compound growth rate by 50%. Furthermore, it then requires a 30% return to regain the average rate of return required. In reality, chasing returns is much less important to your long-term investment success than most believe. 

Here is another way to view the difference between what was “promised,” versus what “actually” happened. The chart below takes the average rate of return, and price volatility, of the markets from the 1960’s to present and extrapolates those returns into the future.

When imputing volatility into returns, the differential between what investors were promised (and this is a huge flaw in financial planning) and what actually happened to their money is substantial over the long-term.

The second point, and probably most important, is that YOU DIED long before you realized the long-term average rate of return.

The chart below shows the S&P 500 as compared to annualized returns and the average of market returns since 1900.  Over the last 118 years, the market has NEVER produced a 6% every single year even though the average has been 6.87%. 

However, assuming that markets have a set return each year, as you could expect from a bond, is grossly flawed. While there are many years that far exceeded the average of 6%, there are also many that haven’t. But then again, this is why 6% is the “average” and NOT the “rule.”

Secondly, and more importantly, the math on forward return expectations, given current valuation levels, does not hold up.  The assumption that valuations can fall without the price of the markets being negatively impacted is also grossly flawed. History suggests, as shown in the next chart, that valuations do not fall without investment returns being negatively impacted to a large degree.

So, back to the “math” to prove this is true.

If we assume that despite the weak economic growth at present, the Federal Reserve is successful at getting nominal GDP back up to a historical growth rate of 6.3% annually. While this is not realistic if you look at the data, when markets are near historical peaks, assumptions tend to run a bit wild. Unfortunately, such assumptions have tended to have rather nasty outcomes. But I digress.

If we use a market cap / GDP ratio of 1.25 and an S&P 500 dividend yield of just 2%, what might we estimate for total returns over the coming decade using John Hussman’s formula?

(1.063)(0.63/1.25)^(1/10) – 1.0 + .02 = 1.3% annually.

We can confirm that math by simply measuring the forward TOTAL return of stocks over the next 10-years from each annual valuation level.

Forward 20-year returns do not get a whole lot better.

But even if you are optimistic, and you do manage to eek out forward returns of 5-6% over the next 20-years, you will never reach your financial goals due to the inherent destruction of capital along the way. (See “You Should Never Time The Market?”)

John Hussman once penned:

Extraordinary long-term market returns come from somewhere. They originate in conditions of undervaluation, as in 1950 and 1982. Dismal long-term returns also come from somewhere – they originate in conditions of severe overvaluation. Today, as in 2000, and as in 2007, we are at a point where ‘this’ is like this. So ‘that’ can be expected to be like that.”

Nominal GDP growth is likely to be far weaker over the next decade. This will be due to the structural change in employment, rising productivity which suppresses real wage growth, still overly leveraged household balance sheets which reduce consumptive capabilities and the current demographic trends.

Most mainstream analysis makes sweeping assumptions that are unlikely to play out in the future. The market is extremely volatile which exacerbates the behavioral impact on forward returns to investors and the most recent Dalbar Study of investor behavior shows this to be the case. Over the last 30-years, the S&P 500 has had an average return of 10.16% while equity fund investors had a return of just 3.98%.

So much for the 6% return assumptions in financial plans.

This has much to do with the simple fact that investors chase returns, buy high, sell low and chase ethereal benchmarks. (Read “Why You Shouldn’t Benchmark Your Portfolio”) The reason that individuals are plagued by these emotional behaviors is due to well-meaning articles espousing stock ownership at cyclical valuation peaks.

Sure, it is entirely possible the current cyclical bull market is not over…yet.

Momentum driven markets are hard to kill in the latter stages particularly as exuberance builds. However, they do eventually end. That is unless the Fed has truly figured out a way to repeal economic and business cycles altogether. As we enter into the ninth year of economic expansion we are likely closer to the next contraction than not. This is particularly the case as the Federal Reserve continues to build a bigger economic void in the future by pulling forward consumption through its monetary policies.

Will the market likely be higher a decade from now? A case can certainly be made in that regard. However, if interest rates or inflation rise sharply, the economy moves through a normal recessionary cycle, or if Jack Bogle is right – then things could be much more disappointing. As Seth Klarman from Baupost Capital once stated:

“Can we say when it will end? No. Can we say that it will end? Yes. And when it ends and the trend reverses, here is what we can say for sure. Few will be ready. Few will be prepared.”

We saw much of the same mainstream analysis at the peak of the markets in 1999 and 2007. New valuation metrics, IPO’s of negligible companies, valuation dismissals as “this time was different,” and a building exuberance were all common themes. Unfortunately, the outcomes were always the same.

“History repeats itself all the time on Wall Street”  – Edwin Lefevre

Recession: When You See It, It Will Be Too Late

“There are no signs of recession. Employment growth is strong. Jobless claims are low and the stock market is up.” 

This is heard almost daily from the media mainstream pablum.

The problem with a majority of the “analysis” done today is that it is primarily short-sighted and lazy, produced more for driving views and selling advertising rather than actually helping investors.

For example:

“The economy is currently growing at more than 2% annualized with current estimates near 2% as well.”

If you are growing at 2%, how could you have a recession anytime soon?

Let’s take a look at the data below of real economic growth rates:

  • January 1980:        1.43%
  • July 1981:                 4.39%
  • July 1990:                1.73%
  • March 2001:           2.30%
  • December 2007:    1.87%

If you look at each of those dates, the economy was clearly growing. But each of those dates is the growth rate of the economy immediately prior to the onset of a recession.

You will remember that during the entirety of 2007, the majority of the media, analyst, and economic community were proclaiming continued economic growth into the foreseeable future as there was “no sign of recession.”

I myself was rather brutally chastised in December of 2007 when I wrote that:

“We are now either in, or about to be in, the worst recession since the ‘Great Depression.’”

Of course, a full year later, after the annual data revisions had been released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the recession was officially revealed. Unfortunately, by then it was far too late to matter.

It is here the mainstream media should have learned their lesson. But unfortunately, they didn’t.

The chart below shows the S&P 500 index with recessions and when the National Bureau of Economic Research dated the start of the recession.

There are three lessons that should be learned from this:

  1. The economic “number” reported today will not be the same when it is revised in the future.
  2. The trend and deviation of the data are far more important than the number itself.
  3. “Record” highs and lows are records for a reason as they denote historical turning points in the data.

For example, the level of jobless claims is one data series currently being touted as a clear example of why there is “no recession” in sight. As shown below, there is little argument that the data currently appears extremely “bullish” for the economy.

However, if we step back to a longer picture we find that such levels of jobless claims have historically noted the peak of economic growth and warned of a pending recession.

This makes complete sense as “jobless claims” fall to low levels when companies “hoard existing labor” to meet current levels of demand. In other words, companies reach a point of efficiency where they are no longer terminating individuals to align production to aggregate demand. Therefore, jobless claims naturally fall.

But there is more to this story.

Less Than Meets The Eye

The Trump Administration has taken a LOT of credit for the recent bumps in economic growth. We have warned this was not only dangerous, credibility-wise, but also an anomaly due to three massive hurricanes and two major wildfires that had the “broken window” fallacy working overtime.

“The fallacy of the ‘broken window’ narrative is that economic activity is only changed and not increased. The dollars used to pay for the window can no longer be used for their original intended purpose.”

If economic destruction led to long-term economic prosperity, then the U.S. should just regularly drop a “nuke” on a major city and then rebuild it. When you think about it in those terms, you realize just how silly the whole notion is.

However, in the short-term, natural disasters do “pull forward” consumption as individuals need to rebuild and replace what was previously lost. This activity does lead to a short-term boost in the economic data, but fades just as quickly.

A quick look at core retail sales over the last few months, following the hurricanes, shows the temporary bump now fading.

The other interesting aspect of this is the rise in consumer credit as a percent of disposable personal income. The chart below indexes both consumer credit to DPI and retail sales to 100 starting in 1993. What is interesting to note is the rising level of credit card debt required to sustain retail sales.

Given that retail sales make up roughly 40% of personal consumption expenditures which in turn comprises roughly 70% of GDP, the impact to sustained economic growth is important to consider.

Furthermore, what the headlines miss is the growth in the population. The chart below shows retails sales divided by the current 16-and-over population. (If you are alive, you consume.) 

Retail sales per capita were previously on a 5% annualized growth trend beginning in 1992. However, after the financial crisis, the gap below that long-term trend has yet to be filled as there is a 23.2% deficit from the long-term trend. It is also worth noting the sharp drop in retail sales per capita over just the last couple of months in particular.

Since 1992, as shown below, there have only been 5-other times in which retail sales were negative 3-months in a row (which just occurred). Each time, the subsequent impact on the economy, and the stock market, was not good. 

So, despite record low jobless claims, retail sales remain exceptionally weak. There are two reasons for this which are continually overlooked, or worse simply ignored, by the mainstream media and economists.

The first is that despite the “longest run of employment growth in U.S. history,” those who are finding jobs continues to grow at a substantially slower pace than the growth rate of the population.

If you don’t have a job, and are primarily living on government support (1-of-4 Americans receive some form of benefit) it is difficult to consume at higher levels to support economic growth.

Secondly, while tax cuts may provide a temporary boost to after-tax incomes, that income boost is simply being absorbed by higher energy, gasoline, health care and borrowing costs. This is why 80% of Americans continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck and have little saved in the bank. It is also why, as wages have continued to stagnate, the cost of living now exceeds what incomes and debt increases can sustain.

As I have discussed several times during the 4th-quarter of 2017:

Very likely, the next two quarters will be weaker than expected as the boost from hurricanes fade and higher interest rates take their toll on consumers. So, when mainstream media acts astonished that economic growth has once again slowed, you will already know why.”

Not surprisingly the economic data rolling in has been exceptionally weak and the first quarter GDP growth is now targeted at less than 2% annualized growth.

However, it is not only in the U.S. the economic “bump” is fading, but globally as well as Central Banks have started to remove their monetary accommodations. As noted by the ECRI:

“Our prediction last year of a global growth downturn was based on our 20-Country Long Leading Index, which, in 2016, foresaw the synchronized global growth upturn that the consensus only started to recognize around the spring of 2017.

With the synchronized global growth upturn in the rearview mirror, the downturn is no longer a forecast, but is now a fact.

The chart below shows that quarter-over-quarter annualized gross domestic product growth rates in the three largest advanced economies — the U.S., the euro zone, and Japan — have turned down. In all three, GDP growth peaked in the second or third quarter of 2017, and fell in the fourth quarter. This is what the start of a synchronized global growth downswing looks like.”

“Still, the groupthink on the synchronized global growth upturn is so pervasive that nobody seemed to notice that South Korea’s GDP contracted in the fourth quarter of 2017, partly due to the biggest drop in its exports in 33 years. And that news came as the country was in the spotlight as host of the winter Olympics.

Because it’s so export-dependent, South Korea is often a canary in the coal mine of global growth. So, when the Asian nation experiences slower growth — let alone negative growth — it’s a yellow flag for the global economy.

The international slowdown is becoming increasingly obvious from the widely followed economic indicators. The most popular U.S. measures seem to present more of a mixed bag. Yet, as we pointed out late last year, the bond market, following the U.S. Short Leading Index, started sniffing out the U.S. slowdown months ago.”

You can see the slowdown occurring “real time” by taking a look at Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) which comprises roughly 70% of U.S. economic growth. (It is also worth noting that PCE  growth rates have been declining since 2016 which belies the “economic growth recovery” story.)

The point here is this:

“Economic cycles are only sustainable for as long as excesses are being built. The natural law of reversions, while they can be suspended by artificial interventions, cannot be repealed.” 

While there may currently be “no sign of recession,” there are plenty of signs of “economic stress” such as:

The shift caused by the financial crisis, aging demographics, massive monetary interventions and the structural change in employment which has skewed the seasonal-adjustments in economic data. This makes every report from employment, retail sales, and manufacturing appear more robust than they would be otherwise. This is a problem mainstream analysis continues to overlook but will be used as an excuse when it reverses.

While the calls of a “recession” may seem far-fetched based on today’s economic data points, no one was calling for a recession in early 2000 or 2007 either. By the time the data is adjusted, and the eventual recession is revealed, it won’t matter as the damage will have already been done.

As Howard Marks once quipped:

“Being right, but early in the call, is the same as being wrong.” 

While being optimistic about the economy and the markets currently is far more entertaining than doom and gloom, it is the honest assessment of the data, along with the underlying trends, which are useful in protecting one’s wealth longer-term.

Is there a recession currently? No.

Will there be a recession in the not so distant future? Absolutely.

But if you wait to “see it,” it will be too late to do anything about it.

Whether it is a mild, or “massive,” recession will make little difference to individuals as the net destruction of personal wealth will be just as damaging. Such is the nature of recessions on the financial markets.

Is The Dot.Com Bubble Back?

Let me start out by saying I hate market comparisons.

While history certainly does “rhyme,” they are never the same. This is especially the case when it comes to the financial markets. Chart patterns may align from time to time, but such is more a function of pattern-fitting than anything else.

However, when it comes to fundamentals, standard-deviations, extensions, etc., it is a different story. A recent article by Ryan Vlastelica brought this to mind.

“While the strategy of investing in internet-related companies will likely always be first associated with the dot-com era, the long-lived bull market has proved to be just as strong a period for a sector that has influenced nearly every aspect of the economy.

Friday marks the ninth anniversary of the financial crisis bottom, and since that period—by one measure, the start of the current bull market—internet stocks have been among the best performers on Wall Street.”

“’The current tech rally is possibly the greatest investment story ever told,’ wrote Vincent Deluard, global macro strategist at INTL FCStone, who was speaking about the sector broadly, and not these ETFs in particular. He noted that the MSCI World Technology Index has added $5.7 trillion in market capitalization since February 2009, ‘when the entire sector amounted to just $1.5 trillion.’”

Since Ryan was probably in elementary school during the “Dot.com” era, and many current fund managers weren’t managing money either, it is easy to dismiss “history” under a “this time is different” scenario. Even the ETF’s used as an example of the “this time is different” scenario didn’t even exist prior to the “dot.com  bubble” (The QQQ didn’t come into existence until 1999) 

Unfortunately, while the names of the companies may have changed, the current “dot.com boom” is likely more than just a “rhyme” with the past.

Investors Once Again Being Misled

From a fundamental basis, there is a difference between today and the “Dot.com days of yore.” In 1999, “dot.com” companies were all bunched together and few actually made money. Fast forward to 2018, and the division between an “internet company” and every other company is now invisible. In fact, companies like Apple and Amazon are no longer even classified as “technology” companies but rather consumer goods companies.

But nonetheless, fundamentals don’t discriminate between classifications, and once again investors are paying excessively high prices for companies that generate very little, if any, profit.

Just after the “dot.com” bust, I wrote a valuation article quoting Scott McNeely, who was the CEO of Sun Microsystems at the time. At its peak, the company was trading at 10x its sales. (Price-to-Sales ratio) In a Bloomberg interview Scott made the following point.

“At 10 times revenues, to give you a 10-year payback, I have to pay you 100% of revenues for 10 straight years in dividends. That assumes I can get that by my shareholders. That assumes I have zero cost of goods sold, which is very hard for a computer company. That assumes zero expenses, which is really hard with 39,000 employees.That assumes I pay no taxes, which is very hard. And that assumes you pay no taxes on your dividends, which is kind of illegal. And that assumes with zero R&D for the next 10 years, I can maintain the current revenue run rate. Now, having done that, would any of you like to buy my stock at $64? Do you realize how ridiculous those basic assumptions are? You don’t need any transparency. You don’t need any footnotes. What were you thinking?

How many of the following “dot.com” companies do you currently own which are currently carrying price-to-sales in excess of 10x?  (Price-to-Sales above 2x becomes expensive. If I included companies with P/S of 5x or more, the list was just too expansive for this post.)

As noted above, there were only 3-ETF’s that existed just prior to the “dot.com” bubble -SPY, QQQ, and DIA. In order to do some better comparative analysis, I had to dig to find a technology-based mutual fund that existed back in 1990. Not surprisingly, there were very few but the T. Rowe Price Science and Technology (PRSCX) fund fit the bill and tracks the technology index very closely.

When we compare the fund to Shiller’s CAPE ratio, not surprisingly, since Technology makes up a quarter of the S&P 500 index, there is a high correlation between Technology and overall market valuation expansion and contraction.

As was the case in 1998-2000, the fund exploded higher as exuberance over the transformation of the world was occurring before our eyes. Investors globally were willing to pay “any price” to “get in on the action.”  Currently, investors are once again chasing returns in the “FANG” stocks with little regard to underlying value. The near vertical ramp in the fund is reminiscent of the late 1990’s as valuations continue to escalate higher.

The chart below shows this a bit more clearly. It compares the fund to both the RSI (relative strength index) and inflation-adjusted reported earnings of the S&P 500 on a QUARTERLY basis. Using quarterly data smooths volatility of these measures over time.

A couple of interesting points arise.

  1. The RSI of the market is as overbought today as it was leading up to the “Dot.com” crash and more overbought today than just before the “financial crisis.” 
  2. Despite massive stock buybacks and cost reductions through wage and employment suppression, reported earnings have only grown by a little more than $11 / share since the peak of the market in 2007. In other words, despite the ongoing bullish commentary about how great earnings are, they have actually only achieved a 1.14% annualized rate of growth. 

Of course, investors have disregarded the lack of real earnings growth. The valuation surge is also shown in the analysis below. I have taken the price of the fund and divided by the inflation-adjusted reported earnings of the S&P 500, or a modified “P/E” ratio. While not a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, the point is that since Technology makes up roughly 25% of the market, it is a big driver of the “P” and not a huge contributor to the “E.”

Again, on this basis, investors are once again paying a high price for poor fundamental quality in the “hope” that someday the fundamentals will catch up with the price. It has never been the case, but one can always “hope.”  

Is The Dot.Com Bubble Back?

Whether you believe there is a “bubble” in the Technology stocks, or the markets, is really not important. There are plenty of arguments for both sides.

At the peak of every bull market in history, there was no one claiming that a crash was imminent. It was always the contrary with market pundits waging war against those nagging naysayers of the bullish mantra that “stocks have reached a permanently high plateau” or “this is a new secular bull market.”  (Here is why it isn’t.)

Yet, in the end, it was something unexpected, unknown or simply dismissed that devastated investors.

This is why the discussion of “this time is not like the last time” is largely irrelevant.

Individuals no longer “invest” to become a “shareholder” in a publicly traded business. The “quaint concept” of “valuations” died with the mainstreaming of investing during the 1990’s as the “Wall Street Casino” opened for business.

Today, investors only think in terms of speculating on “electronically traded bits of paper” in the hopes the value will rise over time. The problem, of course, is they are never told when to “sell” to capture that valuation increase which is the most critical aspect of the investment process. Instead, individuals continue to “bet” the “greater fool” will always appear.

For now, the “bullish case” remains alive and well. The media will go on berating those heretics who dare to point out the risks that prevail, but the one simple truth is “this time is indeed different.”  

“When the crash ultimately comes the reasons will be different than they were in the past – only the outcome will remain same.”

Eventually, like all amateur gamblers in the Las Vegas casinos, the ride is a “blast while it lasts” but in the end, the “house always wins.”