“Sir, Arnaud Montebourg, the former French economy minister and the sourest note in the Hollande repertoire, dares to complain of “absurd” austerity policies ? (“Hollande purges cabinet following leftwing revolt”, August 26.) If those policies are absurd, it is because they were not accompanied by the structural reforms so badly needed to make the French economy healthy. I am speaking of long outdated redundancy and seniority labour laws, oppressive regulations for the business sector and the unbearable bureaucratic roadblocks that stand in the way of start-ups.
“To these, one can also add the traditional Gallic mindset of envy, if not outright hostility, towards those French citizens and other Europeans who are willing to work longer, harder and smarter and want to make good money; a mindset that Mr Montebourg never hesitated to parade before the world. Now that he and his cohorts on the left of the Socialist party have departed the government, perhaps François Hollande can move forward and leapfrog France from the 19th to the 21st century.” Letter to the FT from Stan Trybulski, Branford, Connecticut, 28th August 2014.
“There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Adam Smith.
“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats, procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” Thomas Sowell.
Much of what we think we know isn’t necessarily so. The invention of the printing press with movable type ? Traditionally credited to fifteenth-century Germany and Johannes Gutenberg, it was actually invented in eleventh-century China. Paper also originated in China long before it was used in the West. As did paper money and toilet paper (albeit today, these are pretty much interchangeable). English agriculturalist Jethro Tull is widely credited with the discovery of the seed drill in 1701. It was in fact invented by the Chinese 2,000 years beforehand. The first blast furnace for iron smelting is associated with Coalbrookdale – tragically close to schools in the West Midlands. It was actually introduced by the Chinese before 200 BC. The Chinese were also first to use the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. Perhaps even golf. So how did a society apparently so dynamic and innovative by comparison with the West then enter a centuries’ long decline ?
Niall Ferguson, in his excellent book ‘Civilization’ (Penguin, 2012) puts forward six “identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours” that account for the cultural and economic outperformance of the West between, say, the 16th and 20th centuries:
The consumer society
The work ethic.
He defines these trends as follows:
1. Competition: “a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism”.
2. Science: “a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest”.
3. Property rights: “the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government”.
4. Medicine: “a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies”.
5. The consumer society: “a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”.
6. The work ethic: “a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by “killer apps” 1 to 5”.
For our purposes we are most interested in Ferguson’s first “killer app”, Competition. But we will also refer to it in a slightly different context – “the lack of bureaucracy”. As the chart below shows, from 1000 AD to its high water mark in the 1960s, UK GDP relative to China’s was a one-way bet. Since then, however, the trend has gone into reverse.
Source: Niall Ferguson / Penguin Books
What can account for this dramatic reversal of economic fortunes ? Economic reforms in China, led by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, are likely to be responsible for at least part of the turnaround. But the relentless and sclerotic expansion of the State in Britain has also played a role.
UK general government expenditure (green) and private expenditure (black) as a proportion of GDP
Source: David B. Smith / Steve Baker MP
As the chart above shows, at the turn of the last century, UK state spending accounted for roughly 10% of the economy and the private sector accounted for the rest. But as the welfare state has swelled, government spending has mushroomed to account, now, for something like half or more of the entire economy. And state spending, by and large, is inefficient spending – at least by comparison with the inevitably more disciplined for-profit sector. In other words, our relative economic prospects have declined in inverse proportion to the expansion (metastasis) of the State. In turn, bureaucratic parasitism likely accounts for productivity differentials in the euro zone; the German State accounts for roughly 45% of its economy, the French State 56%.
This might account for the differential between German and French productivity
As might this
Politicians have been able to swell the State thus far only with assistance by two groups: with the involuntary support of taxpayers, and with the connivance of central bankers. Popular resentment of what is laughably termed ‘austerity’ threatens the ongoing indulgence of the first group; the almost terminal straining of market forces by the latter runs the risk of a disorderly collapse of confidence in bond markets, after which continued Western deficit spending would be virtually impossible.
We seem to be close to the endgame. Even as perversely, record-low bond yields (indiscriminately – across markets as diverse as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Finland, Ireland, Italy and Spain) have sent desperate investors scurrying into stocks instead, those same investors are, with extra perversity, displaying a similar lack of discrimination and not even attempting to locate relative value within markets. Extraordinarily, the Wall Street Journal points out that
“Investors are pouring money into Vanguard Group, the epitome of the hands-off approach to investing, flocking to funds that track market indexes and aren’t run by stock pickers or star managers. The inflow has pushed the mutual-fund giant to almost $3 trillion in assets under management for the first time. The surge is part of a sea change in the fund business in which investors are increasingly opting for products that track the market rather than relying on managers to pick winners… Investors poured a net $336 billion into passively managed stock and bond funds in 2013, handily beating the $53 billion invested in traditional mutual funds of the same type, according to Morningstar. So far this year through July, investors put a net $177 billion into those passive funds, compared with $74 billion in actively managed funds… Through July, passively managed stock funds have seen a net $128.4 billion in investor inflows, compared with $18 billion for traditional stock funds…”
Nor is this lack of judicious investment a product of bullish US market sentiment. The same arbitrary index-following – at all-time highs – is being pursued in the UK. Trade magazine FTAdviser reports that
“Retail investors put more money into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began, according to the latest IMA data.”
Index-tracking may have merit at the bottom of the market, but at the top ?
Having singularly failed to reform or restructure their dilapidated economies, many governments throughout the West have left it to their central banks to keep a now exhausted credit bubble to inflate further. Unprecedented monetary stimulus and the suppression of interest rates have now boxed both central bankers and many investors into a corner. Bond markets now have no value but could yet get even more delusional in terms of price and yield. Stock markets are looking increasingly irrational relative to the health of their underlying economies. The euro zone looks set to re-enter recession and now expects the ECB to unveil outright quantitative easing. If the West wishes to regain its economic vigour versus Asia, it would do well to remember what made it so culturally and economically exceptional in the first place.
“When Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz was asked in Germany this week if the country and its neighbours would suffer a lost decade, his response was unequivocal. “Is Europe going the same way as Japan ? Yes,” Mr Stiglitz said in Lindau at a meeting for Nobel laureates and economics students. “The only way to describe what is going on in some European countries is depression.”
‘Spectre of Japan-style lost decade looms over eurozone’, Claire Jones, The Financial Times, August 22, 2014.
Few films have managed to convey the feeling of approaching menace more effectively than Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama, ‘Take Shelter’. Its blue collar protagonist, Curtis LaForche, played by the lantern-jawed Michael Shannon – whose sepulchral bass tones make his every utterance sound like someone slowly dragging a coffin over a cello – begins to suffer terrifying dreams and visions; he responds by building a storm shelter in his back yard. It transpires that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a similar stage in her own life. Are these simply hallucinations ? Or are they portents of darker things to come ?
Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has gone on record as stating that at least part of the film owes something to the financial crisis:
“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve, since I wrote it in 2008, which was also an anxious time, for sure, but, yeah, now it feels even more so. This film deals with two kinds of anxiety. There’s this free-floating anxiety that we generally experience: you wake in bed and maybe worry about what’s happening to the planet, to the state of the economy, to things you have no control over. In 2008, I was particularly struck with this during the beginning of the financial meltdown. Then there’s a personal anxiety. You need to keep your life on track—your health, your finances, your family..”
There’s a degree of pretention in claiming to have a reliable read on the psychology of the marketplace – too many participants, too much intangibility, too much subjectivity. But taking market price index levels at face value, especially in stock markets, there seems to be a general sense that since the near-collapse of the financial system six years ago, the worst has passed. The S&P 500 stock index, for example, has just reached a new all-time high, leaving plenty of financial media commentators to breathlessly anticipate its goal of 2,000 index points. But look at it from an objective perspective, rather than one of simple-minded cheerleading: the market is more expensive than ever – the only people who should be celebrating are those considering selling.
There are at least two other storm clouds massing on the horizon (we ignore the worsening geopolitical outlook altogether). One is the ‘health’ of the bond markets. Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert points out that Germany has just issued €4 billion of two year notes that pay no interest whatsoever until they mature in 2016. The second is the explicitly declining health of the euro zone economy, which is threatening to slide into recession (again), and to which zero interest rates in Germany broadly allude. The reality, which is not a hallucination, is that years of Zero Interest Rate Policy everywhere and trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen pumped into a moribund banking system have created a ‘Potemkin village’ market offering the illusion of stability. In their June 2014 letter, Elliott Management wrote as follows:
“..Stock markets around the world are at or near all-time nominal highs, while global interest rates hover near record lows. A flood of newly-printed money has combined with zero percent interest rates to keep all the balls suspended in the air. Nonetheless, growth in the developed world (US, Europe and Japan) has been significantly subpar for the 5 ½ years following the financial crisis. Businesses have been reluctant to invest and hire. The consumer is still “tapped out,” and there are significant suppressive forces from poor policy, including taxes and increased regulation. Governments (which are actually responsible for the feeble growth) are blaming the shortfall on “secular stagnation,” purportedly a long-term trend, which enables them to deny responsibility..
“The orchestra conductors for this remarkable epoch are the central bankers in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. The cost of debt of all maturities issued by every country, corporation and individual in the world (except outliers like Argentina) is in the process of converging at remarkably low rates. In Greece (for goodness sake), long-term government debt is trading with a yield just north of 5%. In France, 10 year bonds are trading at a yield of 1.67%.
“..Sadly, financial market conditions are not the result of the advancement of human knowledge in these matters. Rather, they are the result of policymaker groupthink and a mass delusion. By reducing interest rates to zero and having central banks purchase most of the debt issued by their governments, they think that inflation can be encouraged (but without any risk that it will spin out of control) and that economic activity consequently can be supported and enhanced. We are 5 ½ years into this global experiment, which has never been tried in its current breadth and scope at any other time in history.. the bald fact is that the entire developed world is growing at a sluggish pace, if at all. But governments, media, politicians, central bankers and academics are unwilling to state the obvious conclusion that their policies have failed and need to be revised. Instead, they uniformly state, with the kind of confidence only present among the truly clueless, that in the absence of their current policies, things would be much worse.”
Regardless of the context, stock markets at or near all-time highs are things to be sceptical of, rather than to be embraced with both hands. Value investors prefer to buy at the low than at the high. The same holds for bonds, especially when they offer the certainty of a loss in real terms if held to maturity. But as Elliott point out, the job of asset managers is to manage money, and not to “hold up our arms and order the tide to roll back”. (We have written previously about those who seem to believe they can control the tides.) So by a process of logic, selectivity and elimination, we believe the only things remotely worth buying today are high quality stocks trading at levels well below their intrinsic value.
We recently wrote about the sort of metrics to assess stocks that can be reliably used over the long run to generate superior returns. Among them, low price / book is a stand-out characteristic of value stocks that has generated impressive, market-beating returns over any medium term time frame. So which markets currently enjoy some of the most attractive price / book ratios ?
The four tables below, courtesy of Greg Fisher and Samarang Capital, show the relative attractiveness of the Japanese, US, Vietnamese and UK markets, as expressed by the distributions of their price / book ratios. Over 40% of the Japanese market, for example, trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. We would humbly submit that this makes the Japanese market objectively cheap. The comparative percentage for the US market is around 15%.
Various stock markets as expressed in price / book ratios
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Even more strikingly, nearly 60% of the Vietnamese stock market trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. The comparative figure for the UK market is approximately 20%.
Conversely, nearly 60% of the US market trades on a price / book of above 2 times. We would humbly submit that this makes the US market look expensive. There is clearly a world of difference between a frontier market like Vietnam which is limited by way of capital controls, and a developed market like that of the US which isn’t. But the price / book ratio is a comparison of apples with apples, and US stock market apples simply cost more than those in Japan or Vietnam. We’d rather buy cheap apples.
As clients and longstanding readers will appreciate, we split the investible universe into four asset classes: high quality credit; value equity; uncorrelated funds; and real assets, notably precious metals. As a result of the extraordinary monetary accommodation of the past six years or so, both credit markets and stocks have been boosted to probably unsustainable levels, at least in the West. Uncorrelated funds (specifically, trend-following funds) and gold and silver have recently lagged more traditional assets, though we contend that they still offer potential for portfolio insurance when the long-awaited storm of reality (financial gravity) finally strikes. But on any objective analysis, we think the merits of genuine value stocks are now compelling when set against any other type of investment, both on a relative and absolute basis. Increasingly desperate central banks have destroyed the concept of safe havens. There is now only relative safety by way of financial assets. The mood music of the markets is becoming increasingly discordant as investors (outside the euro zone at least) start to prepare for a turn in the interest rate cycle. There is a stark choice when it comes to investment aesthetics. Those favouring value and deep value investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing diamonds. Those favouring growth and momentum investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. We do not intend to end up as fashion victims as and when the storm finally hits.
“Anything can happen in stock markets and you ought to conduct your affairs so that if the most extraordinary events happen, you’re still around to play the next day.”
Vice Admiral James Stockdale has a good claim to have been one of the most extraordinary Americans ever to have lived. On September 9th, 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and seized by a mob. Having broken a bone in his back ejecting from his plane he had his leg broken and his arm badly injured. He would spend the next seven years in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. The physical brutality was unspeakable, and the mental torture never stopped. He would be kept in solitary confinement, in total darkness, for four years. He would be kept in heavy leg-irons for two years, on a starvation diet, deprived even of letters from home. Throughout it all, Stockdale was stoic. When told he would be paraded in front of foreign journalists, he slashed his own scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool so that he would be unrecognisable and useless to the enemy’s press. When he discovered that his fellow prisoners were being tortured to death, he slashed his wrists to show his torturers that he would not submit to them. When his guards finally realised that he would die before cooperating, they relented. The torture of American prisoners ended, and the treatment of all American prisoners of war improved. After being released in 1973, Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honour. He was one of the most decorated officers in US naval history, with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Stars. Jim Collins, author of the influential study of US businesses, ‘Good to Great’, interviewed Stockdale during his research for the book. How had he found the courage to survive those long, dark years ?
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale.
“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins was silent for a few minutes. The two men walked along, Stockdale with a heavy limp, swinging a stiff leg that had never properly recovered from repeated torture. Finally, Collins went on to ask another question. Who didn’t make it out ?
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “The optimists.”
Collins was confused.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving. And then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
As the two men walked slowly onward, Stockdale turned to Collins.
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
As Collins’ book came to be published, this observation came to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. For Collins, it was exactly the same sort of behaviour displayed by those company founders who had led their businesses through thick and thin. The alternative was the average managers at also-ran companies that enjoyed average returns at best, or that failed completely.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this is hardly a ‘good news’ market. Ebola. Ukraine. Iraq. Gaza. In a more narrowly financial sphere, the euro zone economy looks to be slowing, with Italy flirting with a triple dip recession, Portugal suffering a renewed banking crisis, and the ECB on the brink of rolling out QE. If government bond yields are a reflection of investor confidence, the fact that two-year German rates have gone below zero is hardly inspiring.
And we have had interest rates held at emergency levels for five years now – gently igniting who knows what form of as yet unseen problems to come. In Europe interest rates seem set to stay low or go even lower. But in the UK and the US, the markets nervously await the first rate hike of a new cycle while central bankers bluster and dither.
What are the implications for global asset allocation and stock selection ?
Both in absolute terms and relative to equities, most bond markets (notably the Anglo-Saxon) are ridiculously overvalued. Since the risk-free rate has now become the return-free risk, cash now looks like the superior asset class diversifier.
As regards stock markets, price is what you pay, and value (or lack thereof) is what you get. On any fair analysis, the US market in particular is a fly in search of a windscreen. Using Professor Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the broad US stock market, shown below, US stocks have only been more expensive than they are today on two occasions in the past 130 years: in 1929, and in 2000. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1929 equated to 89%. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow from 2000 equated to “just” 38%. Time will tell just how disappointing (both by scale and by duration) the coming years will be for US equity market bulls.
But we’re not interested in markets per se – we’re interested in value opportunities incorporating a margin of safety. If the geographic allocations within Greg Fisher’s Asian Prosperity Fund are any guide, those value opportunities are currently most numerous in Japan and Vietnam. In the fund’s latest report he writes:
“Interestingly, and despite China’s continued underperformance, the Asian markets in aggregate have done better at this stage in 2014 than last year, while other global markets have fared less well. In our view the reason is simple – a combination of more attractive valuations than western markets, especially the US, but also, compared with 12-18 months ago, recognisably poor investor sentiment and consequently under-positioning in Asia, leading to the chance of positive surprises.”
Cylically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the S&P 500 Index
The Asian Prosperity Fund is practically a poster child for the opportunity inherent in global, unconstrained, Ben Graham-style value investing. Its average price / earnings ratio stands at 9x (versus 18x for the FTSE 100 and 17x for the S&P 500); its price / book ratio stands at just one; historic return on equity is an attractive 15%; average dividend yield stands at 4.2%. And this from a region where long-term economic growth seems entirely plausible rather than a delusional fantasy.
Vice Admiral Stockdale was unequivocal: while we need to confront the “brutal facts” of the marketplace, we also need to keep faith that we will prevail. To us, that boils down to avoiding conspicuous overvaluation (in most bond markets, for example, and a significant portion of the developed equity markets) and embracing equally conspicuous value – where poor sentiment is likely to intensify subsequent returns. In this uniquely oppressive financial environment, with the skies darkening with the prospect of a turn in the interest rate cycle, we think optimism could be fatal. Or as Warren Buffett once observed,
“You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.”
“Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.
“Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations – all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”
Winston Churchill, ‘My Early Life’, quoted by Charles Lucas in a letter to the FT, 23rd July 2014.
And there is a war being conducted out there in the financial markets, too, a war between debtors and creditors, between governments and taxpayers, between banks and depositors, between the errors of the past and the hopes of the future. How can investors end up on the winning side ? History would seem to have the answers.
For history, read in particular James O’Shaughnessy’s magisterial study of market data, ‘What Works on Wall Street’ (hat-tip to Abbington Investment Group’s Peter Van Dessel). O’Shaughnessy offers rigorous analysis of innumerable equity market strategies, but we are instinctively and philosophically drawn most strongly towards the value factors highlighted hereafter.
The chart below shows the results accruing to various strategies across the All Stocks universe – all companies in the Standard & Poor’s Compustat database with market capitalisations above $150 million, a dataset which comprises between 4,000 and 5,000 individual companies. The analysis takes in over half a century’s worth of data.
Making the (fairly reasonable) assumption that the data in this study is sufficiently broad to mitigate the effects of shorter term market “noise”, the results are unequivocal. Buying stocks with high price-to-sales (PSR) ratios; buying stocks with high price / cashflow ratios; buying stocks with high price / book ratios; buying stocks with high price / earnings (PE) ratios; all of these are disastrous strategies relative to the performance of the broad index itself. Caution: these all happen to be ‘growth’ strategies.
Value of $10,000 invested in various strategies using the All Stocks universe, from January 1951 to December 2003
(Source: What Works on Wall Street by James P. O’Shaughnessy, Third Edition, McGraw-Hill 2005)
But the converse is also true – in spades. Buying stocks with low price-to-sales ratios; buying stocks with low price / book ratios; these are both outstandingly successful strategies over the longer term, converting that initial $10,000 into over $22 million in each case. Buying stocks on low price / cashflow ratios is also a winning strategy. The relatively simple ‘high yield’ and ‘low p/e’ strategies also comfortably outperform the broad market. Note that these are all ‘value’ strategies.
This leads O’Shaughnessy to question the legitimacy of the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, in which investors are compensated for taking more risk:
“..the higher risk of the high P/Es, price-to-book, price-to-cashflow, and PSRs went uncompensated. Indeed, each of the strategies significantly underperformed the All Stocks Universe.”
Perhaps the market is indeed less efficient than certain academics would have us believe. The world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, would seem to think so. As he was quoted in a 1995 issue of Fortune magazine,
“I’d be a bum on the street with a tin cup if the markets were always efficient.”
And note that careful addition of the word “always”. Buffett wasn’t even going so far as to suggest that the markets are never efficient, but rather that the patient investor can take advantage of Mr. Market’s occasional lapses into the realms of absurdity, whether in the form of bullishness or outright despair.
O’Shaughnessy frames the returns from these various ‘growth’ and ‘value’ strategies more explicitly in the chart below.
Compound average annual rates of return across various strategies for the 52 years ending in December 2003
(Source: What Works on Wall Street by James P. O’Shaughnessy, Third Edition, McGraw-Hill 2005)
Special pleaders on the part of ‘growth at any cost’ might argue that the time series is insufficient. But if 52 recent years – easily an investor’s lifetime – taking in at least two grinding bear markets are not enough, how much would be ?
Again, the conclusions are clear. Buying stocks on low price-to-sales ratios is a winner, tying with stocks on a low price-to-book ratio with an annualised return over the longer term of 15.95%. Low price-to-cashflow is also a stellar performer. Buying stocks with a high yield also beats the broad market, as does buying stocks with low price / earnings ratios. Again, these are all explicit ‘value’ strategies.
Since we appear to be living through something of a speculative bubble (a bubble inflated quite deliberately by explicit central bank action), it is worth recalling one prior instance of ‘growth’ outperforming. As O’Shaughnessy points out,
“Between January 1, 1997 and March 31, 2000, the 50 stocks from the All Stocks universe with the highest P/E ratios compounded at 46.69 percent per year, turning $10,000 into $34,735 in three years and three months. Other speculative names did equally as well, with the 50 stocks from All Stocks with the highest price-to-book ratios growing a $10,000 investment into $33,248, a compound return of 44.72 percent. All the highest valuation stocks trounced All Stocks over that brief period, leaving those focusing on the shorter term to think that maybe it really was different this time. But anyone familiar with past market bubbles knows that ultimately, the laws of economics reassert their grip on market activity. Investors back in 2000 would have done well to remember Horace’s Ars Poetica, in which he states: “Many shall be restored that are now fallen, and many shall fall that are now in honour.”
“For fall they did, and they fell hard. A near-sighted investor entering the market at its peak in March of 2000 would face true devastation. A $10,000 investment in the 50 stocks with the highest price-to-sales ratios from the All Stocks universe would have been worth a mere $526 at the end of March 2003..
“You must always consider risk before investing in strategies that buy stocks significantly different from the market. Remember that high risk does not always mean high reward. All the higher-risk strategies are eventually dashed on the rocks..”
This might seem to imply that there is safety simply in the avoidance of explicitly high-risk strategies, but we would go further. We would argue today that central bank bubble-blowing has made the entire market high-risk, with a broad consensus that with interest rates at 300-year lows and bonds hysterically overpriced and facing the prospect of interest rate rises to boot, stocks are now “the only game in town”. We concede that by a process of logic and elimination, selective stocks look way more attractive than most other traditional assets, but the emphasis has to be on that word “selective”. We see almost no attraction in stock markets per se, and we are interested solely in what might be called ‘special situations’ (notably, in ‘value’ and ‘deep value’ strategies) wherever they can be identified throughout the world. We note, in passing, that markets such as those of the US appear to be virtually bereft of such ‘value’ opportunities, whereas those in Asia and Japan seem to offer them in relative abundance. In this financial war, we would prefer to be on the side of the victors. If history is any guide, the identity of the losers seems to be self-evident.
“By sacrificing quality an investor can obtain a higher income return from his bonds. Long experience has demonstrated that the ordinary investor is wiser to keep away from such high-yield bonds. While, taken as a whole, they may work out somewhat better in terms of overall return than the first-quality issues, they expose the owner to too many individual risks of untoward developments, ranging from disquieting price declines to actual default.”
They call them ‘junk bonds’ for a reason. They now constitute an offence against linguistic decency: ‘high yield’ no longer even is. Consider the chart below:
BofA Merrill Lynch High Yield Master II Index (spread vs US Treasuries)
(Source: BofA Merrill Lynch, St. Louis Federal Reserve)
(The index in question is a benchmark for the broad high yield bond market.) Not for nothing did the Financial Times report at the weekend that “Retail investors are getting increasingly nervous about high-yield bonds”.
They should also be getting increasingly nervous about government bonds. Consider, first, this chart:
(Source: Thomson Reuters, Credit Suisse)
In the entire history of the UK Gilt market, yields have never been as low. This suggests that Gilt buyers at current levels are unlikely to enjoy an entirely blissful investment experience.
Just to round up this analysis of bond investor hyper-exuberance, consider this last chart, which puts interest rates (in this case, the UK base rate) in their historical context:
UK base rates, 1700 to 2014
(Source: The Bank of England, Church House)
(*The Bank Rate has comprised variously the Bank Rate, Minimum Lending Rate, Minimum Band 1 Dealing Rate, Repo Rate and Official Bank Rate.)
There is one (inverse) correlation in investment markets that is pretty much iron-clad. If interest rates go up, bond prices go down. This is entirely logical, since the coupon payments on bonds are typically fixed. If interest rates rise, that stream of fixed coupon payments loses its relative attractiveness. The bond price must therefore fall to compensate fixed coupon investors. So now ask yourself a question: in what direction are interest rates likely to go next ? Your answer may have some bearing on your preferred asset allocation.
Bond investors may be acting rationally inasmuch as they believe that central banks will keep interest rates “lower for longer”. But even more rational investors are now starting, loudly, to question the wisdom of central banks’ maintenance of emergency monetary stimulus measures, at least five years after the Global Financial Crisis flared up. Speaking at the ‘Delivering Alpha’ conference covered by CNBC, respected hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller commented as follows:
“As a macro investor, my job for 30 years was to anticipate changes in the economic trends that were not expected by others – and therefore not yet reflected in securities prices. I certainly made my share of mistakes over the years, but I was fortunate enough to make outsized gains a number of times when we had different views from various central banks. Since most investors like betting with the central bank, these occasions provided our most outsized returns – and the subsequent price adjustments were quite extreme. Today’s Fed policy is as puzzling to me as during any of those periods and, frankly, rivals 2003 in the late-stages to early-2004, as the most baffling of a number of instances I have in mind. We at Duquesne [Capital Management] were mystified back at that time why the funds rate was one percent with the ‘considerable period’ attached to it, given the vigorous economic growth statistics available at the time. I recall walking in one day and showing my partners a bunch of charts of economics statistics of that day and asking them to take the following quiz: Suppose you had been on Mars the last five years and had just come back to planet Earth. I showed them five charts and I said, ‘If you had to guess, where would you guess the Federal funds rate was?’ Without exception, everyone guessed way north of one percent, as opposed to the policy at the time which was a verbal guarantee that they would stay at one percent for a ‘considerable period of time.’ So we were confident the Fed was making a mistake, but we were much less confident in how it would manifest itself. However, our assessment by mid-2005 that the Fed was fueling an unsustainable housing Bubble, with dire repercussions for the greater economy, allowed our investors to profit handsomely as the financial crisis unfolded. Maybe we got lucky. But the leadership of the Federal Reserve did not foresee the coming consequences as late as mid-2007. And, surprisingly, many Fed officials still do not acknowledge any connection between loose monetary policy and subsequent events..”
“I hope we can all agree that these once-in-a-century emergency measures are no longer necessary five years into an economic and balance sheet recovery. There is a heated debate as to what a ‘neutral’ Fed funds rate would be. We should be debating why we haven’t moved more meaningfully towards a neutral funds rate. If for no other reason, so the Fed will have additional weapons available if the outlook darkens again. Many Fed officials and other economists defend their current policies by claiming the economy is better than it would have been without their ongoing stimulus. No one knows for sure, but I believe that is logical and correct. However, I also believe if you’d asked the same question in 2006 – that the economy was better in 2004 to 2006 than it would have been without the monetary stimulus that preceded it. But was the economy better in total from 2003 to 2010 – without the monetary stimulus that preceded it? The same applies today. To economists and Fed officials who continually cite that we are better off than we would have been without zero rate policies for long, I ask ‘Why is that the relevant policy time frame?’ Five years after the crisis, and with growing signs of economic normalization, it seems time to let go of myopic goals. Given the charts I just showed and looking at economic history, today’s Fed policy seems not only unnecessary but fraught with unappreciated risk. When Ben Bernanke and his colleagues instituted QE1 in 2009, financial conditions in the real economy were in a dysfunctional meltdown. The policy was brilliantly conceived and a no-brainer from a risk/reward perspective. But the current policy makes no sense from a risk/reward perspective. Five years into an economic and balance sheet recovery, extraordinary money measures are likely running into sharply diminishing returns. On the other hand, history shows potential long-term costs can be quite severe. I don’t know whether we’re going to end with a mal-investment bust due to a misallocation of resources; whether it’s inflation; or whether the outcome will actually be benign. I really don’t. Neither does the Fed.”
No more charts. If these three don’t get the message across, nothing will.
The bond environment, ranging from high yield nonsense to government nonsense, is now fraught, littered with uncertainty and unexploded ammunition, and waiting nervously for the inevitable rate hike to come (or bracing for a perhaps messy inflationary outbreak if it doesn’t). There are clearly superior choices on a risk-reward basis; we think Ben Graham-style value stocks are the logical and compelling alternative.
“I am definitely concerned. When was [the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio or CAPE] higher than it is now? I can tell you: 1929, 2000 and 2007. Very low interest rates help to explain the high CAPE. That doesn’t mean that the high CAPE isn’t a forecast of bad performance. When I look at interest rates in a forecasting regression with the CAPE, I don’t get much additional benefit from looking at interest rates… We don’t know what it’s going to do. There could be a massive crash, like we saw in 2000 and 2007, the last two times it looked like this. But I don’t know. I think, realistically, stocks should be in someone’s portfolio. Maybe lighten up… One thing though, I don’t know how many people look at plots of the market. If you just look at a plot of one of the major averages in the U.S., you’ll see what look like three peaks – 2000, 2007 and now – it just looks to me like a peak. I’m not saying it is. I would think that there are people thinking – way – it’s gone way up since 2009. It’s likely to turn down again, just like it did the last two times.”
“Paid promoters have helped push CYNK [CYNK Technology Corp] market cap to $655 million after a 3,650% increase in the share price on Tuesday.
“CYNK had assets of just $39 (no zeroes omitted) as of March 31, 2014 and a cumulative net loss of $1.5 million. The “company” has no revenue.
“CYNK claims that it is “a development stage company focused on social media.” However, the “company” does not even have a website and has just one employee [who acts as President, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Treasurer and Company Secretary].
“With no assets, no revenue and no product, CYNK has no value. Author expects that CYNK shares are worthless.”
Lord Overstone said it best. “No warning can save people determined to grow suddenly rich.” But there is clearly a yawning chasm between the likes of those folk cheerfully bidding up the share price of CYNK, and prudent investors simply trying to keep their heads above water. What has effectively united these two otherwise disparate communities is today’s central banker. Andy Haldane, the chief economist for the Bank of England, speaking at an FT conference last week, conceded that ultra-accommodative monetary policy had “aided and abetted risk-taking” by investors and that policy makers had wanted to use higher asset prices to try and stimulate the wider economy (that is to say, the economy) into a more robust recovery: “That is how [monetary policy] is meant to work. That’s why we did it.” If the Bank of England had not slashed interest rates and created £375 billion out of thin air, “the UK economy would have been at least 6 per cent smaller than it is today.” A curiously precise figure, given the absence of any counterfactual. But regardless of the economic “benefits” of quantitative easing, Haldane did have the grace to admit that
“That will mean, on average, that financial market volatility will be somewhat greater than in the past. I think it will mean, on average, that those greed and fear cycles in financial markets will be somewhat more exaggerated than in the past. That, for me, is the corollary of the risk migration.”
Which is a bit like an arsonist torching a wooden building and then shrugging his shoulders and saying,
“Well, wood will burn.”
Our central bankers, of course, will not be held accountable when the crash finally hits, even if the accumulated dry tinder of the boom was almost entirely of their own creation. Last week the Bank for International Settlements, the central banker’s central bank, issued an altogether more circumspect analysis of the world’s current financial situation, in their annual report. It concluded, with an entirely welcome sense of caution, that
“The [monetary] policy response needs to carefully consider the nature and persistence of the forces at work as well as policy’s diminished effectiveness and side effects. Finally, looking forward, the issue of how best to calibrate the timing and pace of policy normalisation looms large. Navigating the transition is likely to be complex and bumpy, regardless of communication efforts. And the risk of normalising too late and too gradually should not be underestimated.” (Emphasis ours.)
Translation: ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy – and in the case of the ECB, which has taken rates negative, NIRP) is no longer working – if it ever did. Hyper-aggressive monetary policy has side effects. Getting out of this mess is not going to be easy, and it’s going to be messy. Forward guidance, which was meant to simplify the message, has instead hopelessly confused it. And there are big risks that central banks will lose the requisite confidence to tighten policy when it is most urgently needed, and allow an inflationary genie entirely out of the bottle.
The impact of central banks’ unprecedented monetary stimulus on financial markets is so overwhelming that it utterly negates any sensible analysis of likely macro-economic developments. On the basis that sometimes it’s simply best not to play some games, we no longer try. What should inform investors’ preferences, however, is bottom-up asset allocation and stock selection. The US equity market is clearly poor value at present. That doesn’t mean that it can’t get even more expensive, and the rally might yet have some serious legs. But overvaluation at an index level doesn’t preclude the existence of undervalued stocks well away from the braying herd. (We think the most compelling macro value is in Asia and, if we had to single out any one country, Japan.)
“The central thesis among investors at present is that they have no other choice but to hold stocks, given the alternative of zero short-term interest rates and long-term interest rates well below the level of recent decades..”
“Investment decisions driven primarily by the question “What other choice do I have ?” are likely to prove regrettable. What we now have is a market that has been driven to one of the four most extreme points of overvaluation in history. We know how three of them ended.”
The conclusion seems clear to us. If one chooses to invest at all, invest on the basis of valuation and not on indexation (the world’s largest stock market, that of the US, is one of the most seemingly conspicuously overvalued). As an example of the sort of valuations currently available away from the herd, consider the following. You can buy the US S&P 500 index today with the following metrics:
Price / earnings: 18.2
Price / book: 2.76
Dividend yield: 1.89%
Meanwhile, Greg Fisher in his Halley Asian Prosperity Fund (albeit currently closed) is buying quality businesses throughout Asia on somewhat more attractive valuations. (By geography, the fund’s largest allocations are to Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia.) The fund’s current metrics are as follows:
Average price / earnings: 7
Average price / book: 0.8
Average dividend yield: 4.5%.
But the realistic prospect of growth is also on the table. The fund’s average historic return on equity stands at 15%.
Pay money. Take choice.
“Individuals who cannot master their emotions are ill-suited to profit from the investment process.”
– Ben Graham.
“What really broke Germany was the constant taking of the soft political option in respect of money..
“Money is no more than a medium of exchange. Only when it has a value acknowledged by more than one person can it be so used. The more general the acknowledgement, the more useful it is. Once no one acknowledged it, the Germans learnt, their paper money had no value or use – save for papering walls or making darts. The discovery which shattered their society was that the traditional repository of purchasing power had disappeared, and that there was no means left of measuring the worth of anything. For many, life became an obsessional search for Sachverte, things of ‘real’, constant value: Stinnes bought his factories, mines, newspapers. The meanest railway worker bought gewgaws. For most, degree of necessity became the sole criterion of value, the basis of everything from barter to behaviour. Man’s values became animal values. Contrary to any philosophical assumption, it was not a salutary experience.
“What is precious is that which sustains life. When life is secure, society acknowledges the value of luxuries, those objects, materials, services or enjoyments, civilised or merely extravagant, without which life can proceed perfectly well but which make it much pleasanter notwithstanding. When life is insecure, or conditions are harsh, values change. Without warmth, without a roof, without adequate clothes, it may be difficult to sustain life for more than a few weeks. Without food, life can be shorter still. At the top of the scale, the most valuable commodities are perhaps water and, most precious of all, air, in whose absence life will last only a matter of minutes. For the destitute in Germany and Austria whose money had no exchange value left existence came very near these metaphysical conceptions. It had been so in the war. In ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, Müller died “and bequeathed me his boots – the same that he once inherited from Kemmerick. I wear them, for they fit me quite well. After me Tjaden will get them: I have promised them to him.”
“In war, boots; in flight, a place in a boat or a seat on a lorry may be the most vital thing in the world, more desirable than untold millions. In hyperinflation, a kilo of potatoes was worth, to some, more than the family silver; a side of pork more than the grand piano. A prostitute in the family was better than an infant corpse; theft was preferable to starvation; warmth was finer than honour; clothing more essential than democracy; food more needed than freedom.”
– Adam Fergusson, ‘When Money Dies: the nightmare of the Weimar hyperinflation’.
“We are currently on a journey to the outer reaches of the monetary universe,” write Ronni Stoeferle and Mark Valek in their latest, magisterial ‘In Gold we Trust’. Their outstanding work is doubly valuable because, as George Orwell once wrote,
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Orwellian dystopia; Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass World; state-sanctioned inflationist (deflationist?) nightmare; choose your preferred simile for these dismal times. The reality bears restating: as the good folk of Incrementum rightly point out,
“..the monetary experiments currently underway will have numerous unintended consequences, the extent of which is difficult to gauge today. Gold, as the antagonist of unbacked paper currencies, remains an excellent hedge against rising price inflation and worst case scenarios.”
For several years we have advocated gold as a (necessarily only partial) solution to an unprecedented, global experiment with money that can only end badly for money. The problem with money is that comparatively few people understand it, including, somewhat ironically, many who work in financial services. Rather than debate the merits of gold (we think we have done these to death, and we acknowledge the patience of those clients who have stayed the course with us) we merely allude to the perennial difficulty of investing, namely the psychology of the investor. In addition to being the godfather of value investing, Ben Graham was arguably one of the first behavioural economists. He wisely suggested that investors should
“Have the courage of your knowledge and experience. If you have formed a conclusion from the facts and if you know your judgment is sound, act on it – even though others may hesitate or differ. You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.”
Graham also observed,
“In the world of securities, courage becomes the supreme virtue after adequate knowledge and a tested judgment are at hand.”
Judgment has clearly been tested for anyone who has elected to hold gold during its recent savage sell-off. The beauty of gold, much as with a classic Ben Graham value stock, is that as it gets cheaper, it gets even more attractive. This should be self-evident, in that an ounce of gold remains an ounce of gold irrespective of its price. This puts gold (and value stocks) markedly at odds with momentum investing (which currently holds sway over most markets), where once a price uptrend in a given security breaks to the downside, it’s time to head for the hills.
A few highlights from the Incrementum research:
Since 1971, when President Nixon untethered the dollar from its last moorings to gold, “total credit market debt owed” in the US has risen by 35 times. GDP has risen by just 14 times. The monetary base, on the other hand, has risen by, drum roll please.. some 54 times.
If, like Incrementum and ourselves, you view gold primarily as a monetary asset and not as an industrial commodity, it has clearly made sense to have some exposure to gold during these past four decades of monetary debauchery.
They say a picture paints a thousand words. Consider the following chart of total US credit market debt and ask yourself: is this sustainable?
(Click image to view larger version)
To repeat, there are only three ways of trying to handle a mountain of unsustainable debt. The options are:
1) Maintain economic growth at a sufficient rate to service the debt. We believe this is grossly unlikely.
2) Repudiate the debt. Since we also operate within a debt-based monetary system (in which money is lent into being by banks), default broadly equates to Armageddon.
3) Inflate the debt away.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, which path do we consider the most likely? Which path does it suit grotesquely over-indebted governments and their client central banks to pursue?
But it does not suit central banks to be caught with their fingers in the inflationary cookie jar, so they now have to pretend that deflation is Public Enemy Number One. Well, deflation is certainly a problem if you have to service unserviceable debts. So it should come as no surprise if this predicament is ultimately resolved through an uncontrollable and perhaps inevitable inflationary or stagflationary mess.
So we have the courage of our knowledge and experience. (In fact, of other people’s experience, too. As the title of Robert Schuettinger and Eamonn Butler’s book puts it, we have ‘Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls’ and their inevitable failure to draw upon. We know how this game ends, we just don’t know precisely when.) We have formed a conclusion based on facts and we know our judgment is sound. For the last two years, the crowd has disagreed with us on gold. We think we are right because we think our data and reasoning are right. Not that we don’t see value in other things, too: bonds of unimpeachable quality offering a positive real return; uncorrelated assets; value and ‘deep value’ stocks. And we ask a final question: if not gold, then what? Are we deceiving ourselves – or are our central bankers in the process of deceiving everyone?
“Central bankers control the price of money and therefore indirectly influence every market in the world. Given this immense power, the ideal central banker would be humble, cautious and deferential to market signals. Instead, modern central bankers are both bold and arrogant in their efforts to bend markets to their will. Top-down central planning, dictating resource allocation and industrial output based on supposedly superior knowledge of needs and wants, is an impulse that has infected political players throughout history. It is both ironic and tragic that Western central banks have embraced central planning with gusto in the early twenty-first century, not long after the Soviet Union and Communist China abandoned it in the late twentieth. The Soviet Union and Communist China engaged in extreme central planning over the world’s two largest countries and one-third of the world’s population for more than one hundred years combined. The result was a conspicuous and dismal failure. Today’s central planners, especially the Federal Reserve, will encounter the same failure in time. The open issues are, when and at what cost to society ?”
- James Rickards, ‘The death of money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system’, 2014. [Book review here]
“Sir, On the face of it stating that increasing the inheritance tax allowance to £1m would abolish the tax for “all except a very small number of very rich families” (April 5) sounds a very reasonable statement for the Institute for Fiscal Studies to make, but is £1m nowadays really what it used to be, bearing in mind that £10,000 was its equivalent 100 years ago ?
“A hypothetical “very rich” person today could have, for example, a house worth £600,000 and investments of £400,000. If living in London or the South East, the house would be relatively modest and the income from the investments, assuming a generous 4 per cent return, would give a gross income of £16,000 a year, significantly less than the average national wage.
“So whence comes the idea that nowadays such relatively modest wealth should be classified as making you “very rich” ? The middle-aged should perhaps wake up to the fact that our currency has been systematically debased, though it may be considered impolite to say so as it challenges the conventional political and economic wisdom. To be very rich today surely should mean you have assets that give you an income significantly higher than the national average wage ?”
– Letter to the editor of the Financial Times from Mr John Read, London NW11, 12 April 2014
“The former coach house in Camberwell, which has housed the local mayor’s car, was put on the market by Southwark council as a “redevelopment opportunity”. At nearly £1,000 per square foot, its sale value is comparable to that of some expensive London homes.”
– ‘London garage sells for £550,000’ by Kate Allen, The Financial Times, 12 April 2014.
“Just Eat, online takeaway service, slumped below its float price for the first time on Tuesday as investors dumped shares in a raft of recently floated web-based companies amid mounting concern about their high valuations..
“Just Eat stunned commentators last week when it achieved an eye-watering valuation of £1.47 billion, more than 100 times its underlying earnings of £14.1 million..
““They have fallen because the company was overvalued. Just Eat was priced at a premium to Dominos, an established franchise that delivers and makes the pizzas and has revenues of £269 million. Just Eat by comparison is a yellow pages for local takeaways where there is no quality control and no intellectual property and made significantly less revenues of £96.8 million. A quality restaurant does not need to pay 10 per cent commission to Just Eat to drive customers through the door,” Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets said.”
– ‘Investors lose taste for Just Eat as tech stocks slide’ by Ashley Armstrong and Ben Martin,
The Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2014.
Keep interest rates at zero, whilst printing trillions of dollars, pounds and yen out of thin air, and you can make investors do some pretty extraordinary things. Like buying shares in Just Eat, for example. But arguably more egregious was last week’s launch of a €3 billion five-year Eurobond for Greece, at a yield of just 4.95%. UK “investors” accounted for 47% of the deal, Greek domestic “investors” just 7%. Just in case anybody hasn’t been keeping up with current events, Greece, which is rated Caa3 by Moody’s, defaulted two years ago. In the words of the credit managers at Stratton Street Capital,
“The only way for private investors to justify continuing to throw money at Greece is if you believe that the €222 billion the EU has lent to Greece is entirely fictional, and will effectively be converted to 0% perpetual debt, or will be written off, or Greece will default on official debt while leaving private creditors untouched.”
In a characteristically hubris-rich article last week (‘Only the ignorant live in fear of hyperinflation’), Martin Wolf issued one of his tiresomely regular defences of quantitative easing and arguing for the direct state control of money. One respondent on the FT website made the following comments:
“The headline should read, ‘Only the EXPERIENCED fear hyperinflation’. Unlike Martin Wolf’s theorising, the Germans – and others – know only too well from first-hand experience exactly what hyperinflation is and how it can be triggered by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. The reality, not a hypothesis, almost destroyed Germany. The Bank of England and clever economists can say what they like from their ivory towers, but meanwhile down here in the real world, as anyone who has to live on a budget can tell you, every visit to the supermarket is more expensive than it was even a few weeks ago, gas and electricity prices have risen, transport costs have risen, rents have risen while at the same time incomes remain static and the little amounts put aside for a rainy day in the bank are losing value daily. Purchasing power is demonstrably being eroded and yet clever – well paid – people would have us believe that there is no inflation to speak of. It was following theories and forgetting reality that got us into this appalling financial mess in the first place. Somewhere, no doubt, there’s even an excel spreadsheet and a powerpoint presentation with umpteen graphs by economists proving how markets regulate themselves which was very convincing up to the point where the markets departed from the theory and reality took over. I’d rather trust the Germans with their firm grip on reality any day.”
As for what “inflation” means, the question hinges on semantics. As James Turk and John Rubino point out in the context of official US data, the inflation rate is massaged through hedonic quality modelling, substitution, geometric weighting and something called the Homeowners’ equivalent rent. “If new cars have airbags and new computers are faster, statisticians shave a bit from their actual prices to reflect the perception that they offer more for the money than previous versions.. If [the price of ] steak is rising, government statisticians replace it with chicken, on the assumption that this is how consumers operate in the real world.. rising price components are given less relative weight.. homeowners’ equivalent rent replaces what it actually costs to buy a house with an estimate of what homeowners would have to pay to rent their homes – adjusted hedonically for quality improvements.” In short, the official inflation rate – in the US, and elsewhere – can be manipulated to look like whatever the authorities want it to seem.
But people are not so easily fooled. Another angry respondent to Martin Wolf’s article cited the “young buck” earning £30K who wanted to buy a house in Barnet last year. Having saved for 12 months to amass a deposit for a studio flat priced at £140K, he goes into the estate agency and finds that the type of flat he wanted now costs £182K – a 30% price increase in a year. Now he needs to save for another 9 years, just to make up for last year’s gain in property prices.
So inflation is quiescent, other than in the prices of houses, shares, bonds, food, energy and a variety of other financial assets.
The business of rational investment and capital preservation becomes unimaginably difficult when central banks overextend their reach in financial markets and become captive to those same animal spirits. Just as economies and markets are playing a gigantic tug of war between the forces of debt deflation and monetary inflation, they are being pulled in opposite directions as they try desperately to anticipate whether and when central bank monetary stimulus will subside, stop or increase. Central bank ‘forward guidance’ has made the outlook less clear, not more. Doug Noland cites a recent paper by former IMF economist and Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan titled ‘Competitive Monetary Easing: Is It Yesterday Once More ?’ The paper addresses the threat of what looks disturbingly like a modern retread of the trade tariffs and import wars that worsened the 1930s Great Depression – only this time round, as exercised by competitive currency devaluations by the larger trading economies.
Conclusion: The current non-system [a polite term for non-consensual, non-cooperative chaos] in international monetary policy [competitive currency devaluation] is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing. If I use terminology reminiscent of the Depression era non-system, it is because I fear that in a world with weak aggregate demand, we may be engaged in a futile competition for a greater share of it. In the process, unlike Depression- era policies, we are also creating financial sector and cross-border risks that exhibit themselves when unconventional policies come to an end. There is no use saying that everyone should have anticipated the consequences. As the former BIS General Manager Andrew Crockett put it, ‘financial intermediaries are better at assessing relative risks at a point in time, than projecting the evolution of risk over the financial cycle.’ A first step to prescribing the right medicine is to recognize the cause of the sickness. Extreme monetary easing, in my view, is more cause than medicine. The sooner we recognize that, the more sustainable world growth we will have.
The Fed repeats its 2% inflation target mantra as if it were some kind of holy writ. 2% is an entirely arbitrary figure, subject to state distortion in any event, that merely allows the US government to live beyond its means for a little longer and meanwhile to depreciate the currency and the debt load in real terms. The same problem in essence holds for the UK, the euro zone and Japan. Savers are being boiled alive in the liquid hubris of neo-Keynesian economists explicitly in the service of the State.
Doug Noland again:
“While I don’t expect market volatility is going away anytime soon, I do see an unfolding backdrop conducive to one tough bear market. Everyone got silly bullish in the face of very serious domestic and global issues. Global securities markets are a problematic “crowded trade.” Marc Faber commented that a 2014 crash could be even worse than 1987. To be sure, today’s incredible backdrop with Trillions upon Trillions of hedge funds, ETFs, derivatives and the like make 1987 portfolio insurance look like itsy bitsy little peanuts. So there are at this point rather conspicuous reasons why Financial Stability has always been and must remain a central bank’s number one priority. Just how in the devil was this ever lost on contemporary central bankers?”
“The European Central Bank has given its strongest signal yet that it is prepared to embrace quantitative easing to prevent the euro zone from sliding into deflation or even a prolonged period of low inflation.”
– ‘Draghi strengthens QE signal’, Financial Times, April 4, 2014.
Yes, heaven protect Europe’s embattled citizens and savers from a prolonged period of low inflation. How could they possibly survive it ?
If history is any guide, probably quite well. As Chris Casey points out in his essay ‘Deflating the deflation myth’, the American economy during the 19th Century twice experienced deflationary periods of roughly 50 percent:
Source: McCusker, John J. “How Much Is That in Real Money?: A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Volume 101, Part 2, October 1991, pp. 297-373.
This during a period of “sustained and significant economic growth”. But just think of all those poor consumers, having to make the best of constantly falling everyday low prices.
In their research article ‘Deflation and Depression: Is There an Empirical Link?’ of January 2004, Federal Reserve economists Andrew Atkeson and Patrick Kehoe found that “..the only episode in which we find evidence of a link between deflation and depression is the Great Depression (1929-1934). We find virtually no evidence of such a link in any other period.. What is striking is that nearly 90% of the episodes with deflation did not have depression. In a broad historical context, beyond the Great Depression, the notion that deflation and depression are linked virtually disappears.”
In his 2008 essay ‘Deflation and Liberty’, Jörg Guido Hülsmann writes as follows:
“In the present crisis, the citizens of the United States [he could have added: and of the UK, and Europe] have to make an important choice. They can support a policy designed to perpetuate our current fiat money system and the sorry state of banking and of financial markets that it logically entails. Or they can support a policy designed to reintroduce a free market in money and finance. This latter policy requires the government to keep its hands off. It should not produce money, nor should it appoint a special agency to produce money. It should not force the citizens to use fiat money by imposing legal tender laws. It should not regulate banking and should not regulate the financial markets. It should not try to fix the interest rate, the prices of financial titles, or commodity prices.
“Clearly, these measures are radical by present-day standards, and they are not likely to find sufficient support. But they lack support out of ignorance and fear.
“We are told by virtually all the experts on money and finance – the central bankers and most university professors – that the crisis hit us despite the best efforts of the Fed [..and the Bank of England, and the ECB..]; that money, banking and financial markets are not meant to be free, because they end up in disarray despite the massive presence of the government as a financial agent, as a regulator, and as money producer; that our monetary system provides us with great benefits that we would be foolish not to preserve. Those same experts therefore urge us to give the government an even greater presence in the financial markets, to increase its regulatory powers, and to encourage even more money production to be used for bailouts.”
But as Hülsmann goes on to argue, all of these contentions are wrong, and have been proven to be wrong since the times of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. A paper money system is not beneficial “from an overall point of view”. (Nor has any unbacked paper money system ever lasted.) A paper money system does not create real resources on which our welfare depends. “It merely distributes the existing resources in a different manner; some people gain, others lose. It is a system that that makes banks and financial markets vulnerable, because it induces them to economize on the essential safety valves of business: cash and equity.”
The conventional view of deflation is that if it sets in, “the banking industry, the financial markets, and much of the rest of the economy will be wiped out in a bottomless deflationary spiral.” But as Hülsmann goes on to argue, such a spiral would not prove fatal to the lives and welfare of the general population. Rather, it would destroy “essentially those companies and industries that live a parasitical existence at the expense of the rest of the economy, and which owe their existence to our present money system.”
Let us be more explicit. Severe deflation threatens at an existential level bankrupt banks and the bankrupt governments that perpetuate their existence. Deflation is a mortal enemy to the heavily indebted state and its embedded parasites, but it is a friend to the saver and to anyone with a positive net worth. Because it is so dangerous to the debtor, (unelected) central bankers clearly feel they have no option but to incinerate savers at the altar of perpetuating an unsustainably indebted banking and political elite.
So it would seem that the euro zone, under Mario Draghi, is on the verge of outright quantitative easing, and that the ECB is also committed to using “unconventional instruments” in an increasingly desperate attempt to revive the corpse through explicit inflationism, not least by actually buying sovereign debt of dubious underlying value, rather than merely pledging to. The financial markets certainly appear to think so: the yields on Spanish 5-year government paper fell below those of their US equivalents last week. Spanish bonds yielded more than 7% above US paper as recently as 2012. And as Bloomberg pointed out, the yields on Spanish and Italian five year paper, and the yield on 10 year Irish government debt, all fell to record lows last Friday.
Whether in terms of goosed bond markets or inflated stock markets, inflated higher not necessarily by any improvement in corporate prospects but primarily by expectations of more ex nihilo money courtesy of the world’s major central banks, these are false markets. They cannot entirely be trusted – assuming that markets ever can. Fund manager Seth Klarman has written well on the artificiality of today’s markets:
“The Fed and the Treasury openly discuss the aims of their policies: to manipulate financial markets higher and to generate reported economic “growth” and a “wealth effect”. Inside the giant Plexiglas dome of modern capital markets, just about everyone is happy, the few doubters are mocked and jeered, bad news is increasingly ignored… The artificiality of today’s markets is pure Truman Show. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve purchased about 90% of all the eligible mortgage bonds issued in November.”
John Phelan of the Cobden Centre writes well that “the Federal Reserve has become an enabler of the financial havoc it was designed (a century ago) to prevent.”
Messrs Yellen, Draghi et al should be careful what they wish for. Inflation targeting is hardly a precise science. Achieving an entirely arbitrary 2% inflation level is bad enough for savers on fixed incomes when deposit rates are close enough to zero as to make no difference, but markets have a tendency to overshoot. Most government bond markets are clearly overbought – but in a QE world given fresh impetus by the looming arrival of the ECB, overbought markets can become even more overbought. When we don’t claim to understand the underlying dynamics (political) or the final destination (though we have our own fears), it’s much better simply not to play. From an asset allocation perspective, classic, benchmark-unconstrained Benjamin Graham-style ‘deep value’ equity is, we now believe, pretty much the only game in town – and that is where we now focus our attention, almost exclusively.
Meanwhile, we watch in disbelief as market distortions become even more untenable.
“One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we’ve developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.”
– Malcolm Muggeridge.
Finding a cure for cancer always makes for a good story. So the New York Times runs it:
“Within a year, if all goes well, the first cancer patient will be injected with two new drugs that can eradicate any type of cancer, with no obvious side effects and no drug resistance..”
Cancer experts, including a Nobel Laureate, are reported to be “electrified” by the results. While existing treatments can only slow the disease, the new trials are said to eradicate tumours completely. The company that holds the licence for the treatments is mentioned as well. Its name is Entremed. The stock price responds immediately, and rises by 600%. The news is extraordinary, and extremely exciting.
It just isn’t new. As Thomas Schuster points out in his study of financial markets and their relationships with mass media (you can read it here), the New York Times had itself reported the same story in an article half a year earlier. The original copy contained all the ‘active ingredients’ repeated in the more recent cover story: the amazing research results; the breathless enthusiasm of experts; the name of the licensee, Entremed. CNN and CNBC also happened to report the story. Economically speaking, the cover story is news without any information content: the market already knew the pertinent facts six months ago. If the efficient market hypothesis were valid, the republication of the story should have had little or no effect on Entremed’s share price. But it did.
“Isn’t it funny,” said a senior portfolio manager once, “when you walk into an investment firm and you see all of the financial advisers watching CNBC. That gives me the same feeling of confidence I would have if I walked into the Mayo clinic or Sloan Kettering and all the medical staff were watching General Hospital.”
The media structure content by selection and evaluation. But the weighting of information in the media, suggests Schuster, never corresponds to the distribution of information in reality:
“The media produce explanations by establishing logical links and causal relations; these interpretations, though, are only more or less adequate to reality. The media enrich information by adding new elements such as “emotion” or “suspense”; through this process, however, the character of the information is altered. The media can even create their own events where nothing would happen otherwise – or they can encourage others to do so. In short: the media select, they interpret, they emotionalize and they create facts.”
Pity the poor journalist who must make a daily market report trying to explain price movements with (necessarily) imperfect knowledge of what really triggered them.
“A typical stock market report looks like this: Stock X increased because.. Index Y crashed due to.. Prices Z continue to rise after.. Most of these explanations are post-hoc rationalizations. Correlations which do not really exist are established. Reasons are constructed which can be interchanged arbitrarily. The explanations, as it seems, are quite obvious, even if they are far- fetched. In a nutshell: an artificial logic is created, based on a simplistic understanding of the markets, which implies that there are simple explanations for most price movements; that price movements follow rules which then lead to systematic patterns; and of course that the news disseminated by the media decisively contribute to the emergence of price movements.”
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so humanity abhors uncertainty. The tragedy of flight MH370 shows this human characteristic in spades. The families of the passengers are wholly justified in wanting to know the truth. But for the rest of us, we find it extraordinarily difficult to live with the uncertainty of a missing plane. We demand answers. And human beings are suckers for narrative. We would rather grasp onto the most fanciful theorizing than accept that some things may never be known to us. In a world of uncertainty, we crave concrete certitude. So we are inevitably setting ourselves up for disappointment; we are invariably going to be fooled, at least some of the time, lured by plausible nonsense.
Speaking of plausible nonsense, there must have been some reason for investors to have been buying shares of newly listed King Digital (makers of the online game Candy Crush) in the secondary market this week, but we’re not aware of any compelling ones. Certainly not on valuation grounds. But then valuations in the US equity market as a whole seem to have got somewhat ahead of themselves. Value investor Tobias Carlisle (along with Tocqueville Funds’ François Sicart, and Farnam Street Investments) points out that the distribution of price / earnings multiples within the S&P 500 index is at its tightest level for 25 years. Or to put it in plainer English, this is the worst value opportunity set within the US stock market for a quarter of a century. James Montier of GMO agrees, calling it a “hideous opportunity set” for investors.
“…a reflection of the central bank policies around the world. They drive the returns on all assets down to zero, pushing everybody out on the risk curve. So today, nothing is cheap anymore in absolute terms. There are pockets of relative attractiveness, but nothing is cheap or even at fair value. Everything is expensive. As an investor, you have to stick with the best of a bad bunch.”
We’re not quite as downbeat as Montier, but perhaps only because, since we manage less money than GMO, we’re completely unconstrained as to benchmarks, markets and indices, and have no pressure whatever to own US stocks when they don’t offer compelling value – which they don’t appear to, today. Such is the curse of indexation and benchmarking – when you have to own a market irrespective of whether you like it. (This is also the curse of the asset gatherer versus the asset manager.) Since we’re not obligated to fish for stocks in US waters, we can take advantage of deep value opportunities in smaller and mid-cap markets throughout Asia (and notably Japan), where Ben Graham-style deep value opportunities still exist offering some semblance of a margin of safety.
The 1,000 lb gorilla in the room remains the Fed. Can the US central bank really end QE without material consequences across asset markets ? Place your bets. There is not much evidence of the ‘worry gene’ prevalent in financial media, which have a vested interest in delivering positive, reassuring news. Robert Shiller in his celebrated ‘Irrational Exuberance’ noted that:
“Many news stories.. seem to have been written under a deadline to produce something – anything – to go along with the numbers from the market.. Sometimes the article is so completely devoid of genuine thought about the reasons for the bull market and the context for considering its outlook that it is hard to believe that the writer was other than cynical in his or her approach.”
If it’s any consolation (either to Shiller or to ourselves), those market updates are increasingly being written by machines. Stupid or cynical they are not, unless programmed to be so. But trustworthy?