Valuations

Thirty years ago

Thirty years ago this week I was beginning what was then a very novel business model: fee-only, no commissions. I was working at Christopher Weil, Inc, after a few years at E.F. Hutton. The consensus among the veterans was that fee-only could never work. Now it’s the industry standard, and I was present at the beginning.

Much to the chagrin of some of my managers, I had moved my clients’ accounts to safer positions because I thought the stock market was overvalued. As the Quotron…a primitive computer…kept posting lower and lower numbers, I looked over at the office manager. His face registered horror. We turned on a speaker from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where the trading was done with paper and voice, and we could hear a roar from the crowd. Everyone was trying to sell.

After that, I bought stock mutual funds for my clients and for myself at bargain prices. The market fully recovered within months. Our portfolios benefitted much more than any losses hurt us. Black Monday 1987 was the first time that awareness of overvaluation produced a big win for us.

Since then, calling out overvaluation has been much harder. In the 1990’s we were right but it took YEARS before the 2000 Tech wreck, and many clients became discouraged before it happened. The 2007/2008/2009 Financial Panic was different because recovery took a long, long time. Many clients were discouraged by that as well.

Now the financial markets are overvalued again, but the central banks have changed the game by stimulating. We don’t really know what will happen. Eventually I expect that a correction must occur, but it may or may not replicate the sheer terror of Black Monday 1987. Meanwhile, all we can do is pay attention and stay diversified. As my life illustrates, patience pays.

 

Gone and mostly forgotten.

Ten years ago today, the S&P 500 U.S. stock market index hit its record high before falling about 57% in the Financial Panic of 2008. It recovered in March, 2013.

Before the meltdown, there were already major issues in the financial system which were larger and more dramatic than what we are facing today. So is such a meltdown imminent now? If so, I can’t see it. But valuations and debt levels are again high.

How soon we forget. Read more here. 

60% of a bag full of slow

The stock markets of the world appear to be impervious to every current geopolitical event, including the threat of nuclear terrorism and serial hurricanes, while a growing number of writers are shrieking that the end of the financial world is nigh. (Read the latest apocalyptic broadcast here.) Hmmm. I have my doubts, but there’s a lot of smoke in the air. Conditions being what they are, last week I moved 5% in many clients’ accounts from stocks to short term bonds. That’s very unusual for me. I’ve learned the hard way that even the best-calculated predictive indicators are easily undone by Fed easing. So usually nowadays we simply stay invested. The long-term force is with equities.

However, bonds aren’t deeply attractive right now either, except as a place of relative safety. Some bonds, especially longer-term issues, are overvalued like stocks. And the perception that the Fed Will Make All Things Good is strongly at work in bond-world as well. Here’s an interesting article which details the almost nonexistent difference in three year performance between top-end bond funds. Some of our conservative clients have portfolios which are 60% bonds. Those bonds aren’t producing much. Granted, bonds are traditionally holistically safer than equities, but in terms of gains, they historically don’t do much.

Right now, because of valuations, we temporarily have clients with 60% invested in boring. My hope is to eventually get them into equity bargains, and make some real long term gains. Patience pays.

Are Small Stocks Leaving the Party?

The market for small stocks just turned negative for the year. That’s big news, and you aren’t likely to hear it elsewhere because it disrupts the narrative of a rising stock market.

Why is it happening? This article provides more data to suggest stock market overvaluation. In this case, it’s the small stock markets, exemplified by the Russell 2000 Index. What’s more, this downturn is a divergence: the performance of the Russell 2000 Index is now negative for the year whereas the market for large cap stocks is up. Shades of 2000.

However, this mild decline in the small stock arena, combined with the insecurity created by terrorism in Europe, is likely to trigger a Federal Reserve stall of plans to raise interest rates. So a decline is by no means certain. We simply need to remain aware. Since we are diversified and modestly defensive, if a real downturn DOES occur, we’ll be buyers. When that will actually happen is anyone’s guess.

Everyone expects to be a winner (and all children will be above average)

I’m reposting this here from the Heisenberg Report. According to this study, essentially everyone thinks the stock markets will finish higher in one year.

Such a high level of optimism is some kind of record.

My guess is that we got here because EVERYONE expects the central banks to intervene forever. Having painted themselves into this particular social expectation corner, it’s going to be interesting to see what the central banks do next.

Way back in the days of free markets, we were taught that extremes of market consensus are danger zones, and that “the consensus is often wrong”. But as I wrote on August 1st, traditional diversification has been proven unnecessary for so many years that investors could be forgiven for it’s just gonna stay like this forever.

My plan is to stay diversified and keep searching for bargains.

We’re doing great! Now let’s stay cautious.

I’m reviewing clients’ portfolios this afternoon, and given that most of us are relatively conservative I’d say we’re on track for a nice finish for the 2nd quarter. I’m saying this while crossing all digits and holding my breath.

Our international holdings, especially our emerging market holdings, have done great so far this year, which is quite emotionally rewarding since after we bought them last year they laid down like raccoon road kill for some months, and were mostly a drag on our portfolios. Now, however, they have recovered, and more.

Likewise our decision to double down on health care has been rewarding, and our decision to stay in tech has been profitable as well.

However I remain nervous like a cat in a room full of pit bull dogs. As I wrote last week, this has been a very thin market especially domestically. Political risk remains high. Markets are overvalued.

So let’s stay cautious, please.

Read more scary stock market predictions here, hopefully with a small glass of oak-aged rum. Predictions do NOT all come true. However they ARE evidence that we should be careful.

Meanwhile we’ll stay invested and stay diversified. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

U.S. stock market gains are incredibly concentrated.

One of the hallmarks of mature U.S. stock markets is when index funds are doing better than actively managed mutual funds. That’s because the “rational” active managers are scared so they begin to avoid risk. The result is lagging returns relative to fearless, mindless index funds. I’ve seen this in 1987, 1990, 2000, and 2007. It can go on for years.

Another indicator of mature stock markets is when the market concentrates into only a few big players. This time, the big players are the FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google). Citibank broadens them out to the FANTASY stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Nvidia, Tesla, Alphabet, Salesforce.com and Yahoo). However you label them, they are up a lot so far this year, about 30% by some estimates, and account for the majority of the broader indices’ gains. Doesn’t this sound familiar to anyone?

Also according to Citibank they have an average P/E of over 60, which is way up there in the bubble zone. That’s more than overvalued. And of course they are skewing the large indices’ valuations higher.

Combine this with the cryptocurrency markets and you’ve got looneytunes right here, right now. This has bubble written all over it. But it’s NOT a bubble in the entire financial system. Yet.

What happens next?

This may go on for years. My thought is that there’s no need to rush for the exits as long as we stay diversified. And if we sell early we risk being left far, far behind.

On the other hand a political event could trigger the inevitable landslide.

Meanwhile, economies are growing and valuations are much cheaper overseas. I’m examining that option.

Stay diversified. We are sure to have an interesting year.

For more evidence, read here.

Legendary Investor Jim Rogers Predicts A Stock Market Crash, And The World Yawns

Legendary investor Jim Rodgers has often been right, and often been wrong, about the future of U.S. financial markets. He’s completely bullish on the future of Asia, and in fact now lives officially in Singapore.

Now he’s calling for the worst stock market crash in our lifetime. Read more here.

He may be right. Or not.

It’s worth noting that when the stock markets first began flashing indications of overvaluation, they were at about half their current levels. Had we gone to cash in 2013 as the statistics suggested, we would have missed out on at least 1 of every 4 dollars in our diversified portfolios.

Why didn’t the financial markets crash after 2013? The unexpected happened: the Fed and other central banks of the world intervened to support financial markets.

I have my own emotional reservations about that: when governments intervene in markets as the mood strikes them, then markets become unquantifiable. But the money which has been made is quite real.

So now Jim Rogers says that the biggest stock market crash in our lifetime is imminent, he may be right. Stock markets ARE very overvalued, and have been for years. My response for all of us has been to stay very diversified and be a bit cautious. The result has been that our investment returns haven’t beaten the stock markets, but we’ve at least participated while remaining realistic about genuine dangers out there.

I also remember that the Financial Panic of 2008 was followed by a market boom.

Genuinely, we don’t know what will happen. Let’s also keep in mind that we want to buy low, and sell high, and we want to persist. Investing is a marathon, not a sprint.