Investment is about valuation. Speculation is about psychology. Both factors are unfavorable here. We’re observing the very early effects of risk-aversion in a hypervalued market. Based on the deterioration we’ve observed in our most reliable measures of market internals, investor preferences have subtly shifted toward risk-aversion, which opens up something of a trap-door.
In my view, the idea that higher risk means higher expected return is one of the most dangerous and misunderstood propositions in the financial markets. The reason it’s dangerous is that it ignores the central condition: “provided that one is choosing between portfolios that all maximize expected return per unit of risk.” Presently, the S&P 500 is both a high risk and a low expected return asset.
I expect the S&P 500 to lose approximately two-thirds of its value over the completion of this cycle. My impression is that future generations will look back on this moment and say "... and this is where they completely lost their minds." As I’ve regularly noted in recent months, our immediate outlook is essentially flat neutral for practical purposes, though we’re partial to a layer of tail-risk hedges.
Here we are, nearly three times the level at which I expect the S&P 500 to complete this cycle. Yet our immediate outlook remains neutral (though tail-risk hedges remain appropriate). It’s essential to distinguish between valuations, which have long-term implications, and market internals, which have implications for shorter segments of the market cycle.
The essential survival tactic for a hypervalued market, and its resolution ahead, is to recognize that market valuations can experience breathtaking departures from historical norms for extended segments of the market cycle, so long as shorter-term conditions contribute to speculative psychology rather than risk-averse psychology. Yet those departures matter enormously for long-term returns.
Delusions are often viewed as reflecting some deficiency in reasoning ability. The risk of thinking about delusions in this way is that it encourages the belief that logical, intelligent people are incapable of delusion. An examination of the history of financial markets suggests a different view.
Valuations are understood best not by trying to “justify” or dismiss current extremes, but by recognizing that across history, the speculative inclinations of investors have periodically allowed valuations to depart dramatically from appropriate norms, at least for limited segments of the complete market cycle.
Turbulence in market internals, in the face of record market highs, is often a symptom of increasing risk-aversion and skittishness among investors.
Last week, the uniformity of market internals shifted to an unfavorable condition. During the advancing half-cycle since 2009, zero interest rates encouraged speculation (and maintained favorable market internals) long after extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions emerged. But distinctions matter. Once the uniformity of market internals - the most reliable measure of speculation itself - is knocked away, those extremes are still likely to matter with a vengeance.
Encouraged by the novelty of zero-interest rates, not even the most extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” conditions have been enough to derail the speculative inclinations of investors. Yet in every other way, this speculative episode is simply a more extreme variant of others that have come before it.