Top Dollar For Top Dollar

Nothing will appear more logical and natural to this audience than the idea that a common stock should be valued and priced primarily on the basis of the company’s expected future performance. Yet this simple-appearing concept carries with it a number of paradoxes and pitfalls. For one thing, it obliterates a good part of the older, well-established distinctions between investment and speculation. The market has a tendency to set prices that will not be adequately protected by a conservative projection of future earnings.

– Benjamin Graham

Why is it so hard to accept that speculative bubbles can burst? Interest rates were driven to zero for a decade. Yield-starved investors chased stocks to valuations beyond the 1929 and 2000 extremes. That speculation front-loaded more than a decade of future market gains into the present. Those gains are now behind us, embedded in breathtaking multiples. If history is any guide, a collapse in valuations is likely to return those gains to the future.

The process of losing speculative gains and recovering them over time is what I’ve often called a “long, interesting trip to nowhere.” It bears repeating that the S&P 500 lagged Treasury bills from 1929-1947, 1966-1985, and 2000-2013. 50 years out of an 84-year period. When the investment horizon begins at extreme valuations, and doesn’t end at the same extremes, the retreat in valuations acts as a headwind that consumes the return that would otherwise be provided by dividends and growth in fundamentals.

There is no birthright to ever-rising valuations, particularly given that market internals, fiscal subsidies, and the Federal Reserve’s latitude for recklessness have all turned against this speculative bubble. The record stock prices that investors observe here are the product of a) record valuation multiples that have been inflated by a decade of zero interest rate policy and resulting speculation by yield-starved investors, times; b) record earnings that embed distorted profit margins inflated by trillions of dollars of temporary deficit spending.

Investors are paying top dollar for top dollar.

As usual, our outlook will change as the observable evidence changes – particularly the prospects for long-term returns and full-cycle risk, which we infer from valuations, and the inclination of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion, which we infer from market internals. We do not expect yield-starved investors to observe “limits” to speculation, but we also know that once investor psychology shifts to risk-aversion, a trap door opens that even easy money does not reliably close. That’s because when investors become risk-averse, they view safe liquidity as a desirable asset rather than an inferior one.