Red Flags Waving

“Happiness isn’t good enough for me! I demand euphoria!”

- Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

There are several instances across history when valuations have broken well-beyond their historical norms, as the speculative “animal spirits” of investors have scrambled off like greased pigs at a rodeo. Those speculative episodes were typically concluded by one of two events: 1) a combination of overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions appearing as a joint syndrome, or 2) deteriorating uniformity and widening dispersion of market internals across a broad range of individual securities, industries, sectors, and security-types, indicating a subtle shift among investors toward risk-aversion (when investors are risk-seeking, they tend to be indiscriminate about it).

Indeed, in market cycles across history, those two events were regularly “stuck together,” in the sense that overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes were typically either accompanied or closely followed by deterioration in market internals. That regularity turned out to be our Achilles Heel in the half-cycle since 2009. After admirably navigating previous complete market cycles, I insisted on stress-testing our methods against Depression-era data in 2009. The resulting methods picked up the fact that overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes were consistently associated with market losses across history, and we responded by taking a hard-negative market outlook when they appeared. The problem in the half-cycle since 2009 was that zero interest rates - and specifically short-term interest rates below about 10 basis points - acted as a kind of “solvent” that separated the two events, and encouraged yield-seeking speculation by investors long after extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions had emerged. In the presence of zero-interest rate policy, one had to wait for market internals to deteriorate explicitly before adopting a hard-negative market outlook.

We presently observe the third most overvalued extreme in history based on the most reliable valuation measures we identify, in the presence of 1) the most extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” syndrome we identify, and 2) explicitly deteriorating market internals. Based on a composite of measures best correlated with actual subsequent market returns across history, other two competing extremes were 1929 and 2000.

After more than three decades as a professional investor, it’s become clear that when investors are euphoric, they are incapable of recognizing euphoria itself. Presently, we hear inexplicable assertions that somehow euphoria hasn’t taken hold. Yet in addition to the third greatest valuation extreme in history for the market, the single greatest valuation extreme for the median stock, and expectations for economic growth that are inconsistent with basic arithmetic, both the 4-week average of advisory bullishness and the bull-bear spread are higher today than at either the 2000 or 2007 market peaks. In the recent half-cycle, extreme bullish sentiment and deteriorating market internals also preceded the near-20% decline in 2011, yet extreme bullish sentiment was also uneventful on a few occasions when interest rates were in the single digits and market internals were intact. That distinction is critical. The zero-rate “solvent” that allowed overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes to detach from deteriorating market internals and downside risk is now gone, and investors should understand that subtlety.

As a side note, among popular alternatives, Investors Intelligence publishes one of the better surveys of bullish/bearish sentiment, while the AAII survey is far noisier. For our part, we focus on a slightly different balance, between trend-sensitive and value-conscious investor groups. As I detailed in Lessons From the Iron Law of Equilibrium:

“When prices are unusually elevated relative to the norm, it’s almost always because trend-followers (and other price-insensitive buyers) are ‘all in.’ Those positions are - and in fact have to be - offset by equal and opposite underweights by value-conscious investors. A sudden increase in the desired holdings of trend-sensitive traders has to be satisfied by inducing a price increase large enough to give value-conscious investors an incentive to sell. Conversely, a sudden decrease in the desired holdings of trend-sensitive traders has to be satisfied by inducing a price decline large enough to give value-conscious investors an incentive to buy. Any tendency of investors to buy on greed and sell on fear obviously amplifies this process.

“From this perspective, (and one can show this in simulation), what we’re really interested in is not the balance between bulls and bears per se, but the balance of sentiment between trend-sensitive and value-conscious investors. Market tops emerge when trend-followers are beating their chests while value-conscious investors are nursing bruises from their shorts. Market bottoms are formed when trend-followers wouldn’t even touch the market, and value-conscious investors are bleeding from all of the falling knives they’ve accumulated.”

Valuation update

Over a century ago, Charles Dow wrote “To know values is to comprehend the meaning of movements in the market.” To offer a long-term and full-cycle perspective of current market conditions, I published a chart last week of the ratio of nonfinancial market capitalization to corporate gross value added, including estimated foreign revenues (what I’ve called MarketCap/GVA), and a second chart relating that measure to the actual 12-year S&P 500 total returns that have followed. From present valuation extremes, we expect 12-year S&P 500 total returns averaging just 0.8% annually, with a likely interim market collapse over the completion of this cycle on the order of 50-60%. Valuations are poor tools to gauge near-term market outcomes, but they are both invaluable and brutally honest about potential consequences over the complete market cycle. They also offer a consistent framework to understand market fluctuations. Recall for example, my April 2007 estimate of a 40% loss to fair-value, and then following that 40% loss, my late-October 2008 comment observing that stocks had become undervalued. Over the complete market cycle, valuation is quite a strong suit for us.