Cluster of Woe

"By relentlessly depriving investors of risk-free return, the Federal Reserve has spawned an all-asset speculative bubble that we estimate will provide investors little but return-free risk. From a valuation standpoint, there is no ‘tradeoff’ between return and risk. Rather, depressed valuations tend to be followed by both strong long-term returns and modest subsequent losses, while extreme valuations tend to be followed by both poor long-term returns and deep subsequent losses.

Recall 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."

– John P. Hussman, Ph.D., Return-Free Risk, January 2022

The total return of the S&P 500 remains behind Treasury bills since its January 2022 peak more than two years ago. Meanwhile, the technology-heavy Nasdaq 100 is only even with Treasury bills since the preponderance of warning flags I noted in our November 2021 comment, Motherlode. As I observed last month, the strongest stock market returns in the coming decade, perhaps longer, are likely to emerge during advances in the S&P 500 that attempt to catch up with the cumulative return of risk-free Treasury bills.

Our most reliable valuation measures are again beyond every extreme in U.S. history prior to March 2021, apart from 5 weeks surrounding the 1929 market peak. Meanwhile, our most reliable gauge of market internals remains unfavorable as the result of persistent divergences across individual securities and sectors. Yet even though the market has lagged Treasury bills for more than two years, my impression is that investors feel an almost excruciating “fear of missing out” amid nominal record highs in the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100, enthusiasm about an economic “soft landing,” and an expected “pivot” to lower interest rates. In my view, abandoning systematic investment discipline amid the most extreme market conditions in history would be a costly way to buy a fleeting sigh of relief.

Nonfinancial Market Capitalization