Active investment managers more bullish than ever

The average active manager is now leveraged long, according to NAAIM’s weekly survey:

Sustained bullishness is bearish, especially once the market starts to trend sideways. We don’t yet have that choppy sideways action on declining RSI that has been a death knell for rallies, but sooner or later it will emerge. If the market starts sidedays, this would complete the most bearish syndrome possible, though we already have a market that is overbought and overvalued, with overbullish sentiment and rising bond yields (John Hussman’s bearish syndrome that has nailed most major tops for decades).

In economic news, Q4′s negative GDP print supports the thesis that we entered a recession in the 2nd half of 2012, as leading indicators had been suggesting for months. It also comes right as the Citi Economic Surprise Index is again on the downward slope of its regular cycle, meaning surprises are more likely to be to the downside.

Hussman’s extreme risk syndrome present again

John Hussman does the best long-term statistical analysis of the broad equity market, bar none. He has identified a set of four conditions that has appeared at or just before significant tops in the stock market:

Overbought: S&P 500 within 3% of its upper Bollinger bands, at least 7% above its 52-week smoothing, and over 50% above its 4-year low

Overbullish: Investors Intelligence sentiment survey shows bulls above 52% and bears below 27%

Overvalued: Shiller P/E above 18 (it’s currently 23)

Rising yields: 10-year Treasury yields above their level of 6-months earlier.

This condition also appeared in 1929 (followed by a crash and 20 year bear market in real terms) and 1964 (stocks peaked in ’66 before going down 80% in real terms over the next 16 years). When stocks are overbought and overvalued, treasuries have fallen, and most investors are bullish, it is to your great advantage to eliminate market risk (sell your stocks or hedge them).

US already in recession? Hussman makes the case.

For those unfamiliar with John Hussman, I cannot offer high enough praise of this mutual fund manager for his prudent, long-term style of equity investing, and his actionable financial market and economic research. The man uses statistics better than anyone else I’m aware of in finance.

Lately, he has been making a strong case that the US entered recession in 2012, as shown by those indicators that, when viewed as a group, have a strong record of appearing at the start of recessions, and only at such times.

From his weekly market commentary:

While we continue to observe some noise and dispersion in various month-to-month economic reports, the growth courses of production, consumption, sales, income and new order activity remain relatively indistinguishable from what we observed at the start of the past two recessions. The chart below presents the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (3 month average), the CFNAI Diffusion Index (the percentage of respondents reporting improvement in conditions, less those reporting deterioration, plus half of those reporting unchanged conditions), and the year-over-year growth rates of new orders for capital goods excluding aircraft, real personal consumption, real retail and food service sales, and real personal income. All values are scaled in order to compare them on a single axis.

 

12.12. Fred recession data Hussman

Readers are strongly encouraged to read this week’s commentary in full and to browse Hussman’s archive here.

Topping pattern developing, stay tuned

We finally have a weakening trend on the daily RSI (see RSI on bottom of chart). This is a prerequisite for anyone considering taking a short position, especially with leverage.

It would be typical for some type of quick plunge to develop soon, perhap on the order of 5-8% in SPX, maybe 100 points (1000 Dow points). It would also be typical for stocks to recover from such a plunge and test the highs again, as in spring 2011 or Summer-Fall 2007. In May 2010, this process was compressed in the “Flash Crash,” which was followed quickly by a decline of around 20%.

However, the weekly trend is still up, though finally in overbought territory. Perhaps this begins to turn over the next few weeks as the market chops sideways.

Further strengthening the bear case is sentiment, which has now been elevated for at least two months (I recommend sentimenttrader.com at $30/month for all you can eat indicators). Sentiment is a powerful indicator, but actual price tops lag tops in sentiment by several weeks to months, as prices tend to levitate and chop sideways for a while on weakening RSI prior to major declines. Bottoms have a much closer time relationship to sentiment (extreme bearishness among traders is usually quickly followed by rallies).

The best free sentiment resource that I am aware of is the NAAIM Survey of Manager Sentiment. As you can see in the chart below, sustained bullish sentiment is required in order to register a valid sell signal, as the crowd is often right for a while. The relatively short period of bullishness here is another sign that any decline that develops soon could be short-lived.

I should also mention that John Hussman has noted that the market has exhibited his syndrome of overbought, overvalued, overbullish on rising yields, for several weeks now. This set of conditions coincides with many of the very worst times to be long stocks, and has almost no false positives. Advances made during such periods are soon given up, often in severe declines.

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27% (Investor’s Intelligence)

[These are observationally equivalent to criteria I noted in the July 16, 2007 comment, A Who's Who of Awful Times to Invest. The Shiller P/E is used in place of the price/peak earnings ratio (as the latter can be corrupted when prior peak earnings reflect unusually elevated profit margins). Also, it's sufficient for the market to have advanced substantially from its 4-year low, regardless of whether that advance represents a 4-year high. I've added elevated bullish sentiment with a 20 point spread to capture the "overbullish" part of the syndrome, which doesn't change the set of warnings, but narrows the number of weeks at each peak to the most extreme observations].

The historical instances corresponding to these conditions are as follows:

December 1972 – January 1973 (followed by a 48% collapse over the next 21 months)

August – September 1987 (followed by a 34% plunge over the following 3 months)

July 1998 (followed abruptly by an 18% loss over the following 3 months)

July 1999 (followed by a 12% market loss over the next 3 months)

January 2000 (followed by a spike 10% loss over the next 6 weeks)

March 2000 (followed by a spike loss of 12% over 3 weeks, and a 49% loss into 2002)

July 2007 (followed by a 57% market plunge over the following 21 months)

January 2010 (followed by a 7% “air pocket” loss over the next 4 weeks)

April 2010 (followed by a 17% market loss over the following 3 months)

December 2010

 

This chart from Hussman has data through March 3, but the latest blue band is now about a month wider:

-

This is clearly time to exit stocks or hedge all market risk. The upside is limited relative to the downside.

Hussman: recession imminent

This is from his always worthwhile weekly Market Comment (this week he makes an airtight case against taking market risk at this time, with a recession all but guaranteed and no cushion of safety or reasonable expectation of a decent return in stocks or bonds).

I liked his comment about how although his fund has been very conservative and fully-hedged for most of the last several years, this is more a reflection of unfavorable market conditions than some sort of permabear tendency:

The overvaluation, misguided policy, and misallocation of capital that has produced more than a decade of dismal returns for the S&P 500 has also forced us to take a regularly hedged investment stance in response (though we know that the ensemble methods presently in use would have done things differently in several periods, particularly 2009 and early 2010). While our investment approach is by construction risk-managed, it is not by construction hard-defensive or fully-hedged. These are positions that have been thrust on us by conditions that have, predictably, led to a decade of stock market returns far below the historical norm. Though the present menu of prospective investment returns remains unappealing, those conditions can change quickly, particularly in a crisis-prone environment. This is important to mention here, because I strongly expect that we will begin seeing opportunities – probably not immediately but also not in the distant future – to significantly and perhaps sustainably reduce the extent of our hedging.

We emphatically don’t need to wait for the world to solve its problems before being willing to accept risk. What we do need is for those risks to be more appropriately priced in view of those problems. We’re not there by any means, but a significant change in the market’s return/risk profile could come quickly. To quote MIT economist Rudiger Dornbusch (who was a professor to the new head of the ECB, Mario Draghi), “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.”

See this part on how his never-failing set of recession indicators is again flashing red:

Reduce Risk

Here in the U.S., our broadest models (both ensembles and probit models) continue to imply a probability of oncoming recession near 100%. It’s important to recognize, though, that there is such a uniformity of recession warnings here (in ECRI head Lakshman Achuthan’s words, a “contagion”) that even an unsophisticated, unweighted average of evidence indicates a very high likelihood of recession. The following chart presents an unweighted average of 20 binary (1/0) recession flags we follow (e.g. credit spreads widening versus 6 months earlier, S&P 500 lower than 6 months earlier, PMI below 54, ECRI weekly leading index below -5, consumer confidence more than 20 points below its 12-month average, etc, etc). The black brackets represent official recessions. The simple fact is that we’ve never seen a plurality (>50%) of these measures unfavorable except during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions. Maybe this time is different? We hope so, but we certainly wouldn’t invest on that hope.


Hussman: Market risk is extreme

John Hussman is the rare mutual fund manager who uses technicals and hedging to minimize risk and maximize returns during a full bull-bear cycle. He hedged up in 2000 and 2007 to preserve his fund’s equity during the ensuing bear markets, and is again tightly-hedged in preparation for another downturn.

His weekly market comment is a must-read (if you just read this and Mish’s blog regularly, you’re all set). He uses a set of indicators to identify periods during which risk is elevated based on historical statistical analysis. They are: 1) stock market investor sentiment, 2) Case-Shiller PE ratio, 3) Treasury yield trends, and 4) price action (to indicate whether stocks are overbought or oversold using moving averages).

He concludes each market comment (in which he puts on his academic cap to discuss market statistics, Fed policy, etc in geeky detail), with a quick summary of where his funds are positioned according to the prevailing risk profile. When he starts his conclusion like this, you better not be long stocks:

Market Climate

As of last week, the Market Climate for equities was characterized by an unusually extreme profile of overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yield conditions. Both Strategic Growth and Strategic International Equity remain tightly hedged here.

Here is a chart showing where these market conditions have existed in the past:

Max caution alert: exit or hedge all market risk

This is one of those times where markets are stretched to the limit and any further upside will be minimal in relation to the extreme risk entailed. Sentiment has been dollar-bearish and risk-bullish for so long that a violent reversal is all but guaranteed. This is not to say that the absolute top is in, but that at the very least, another episode like last April-June is coming up.

Watch for a sharp sell-off in stocks, commodities and the EUR-CAD-AUD complex. Even gold and silver are vulnerable, especially silver. We could be near a secular top in silver, where the recent superspike has all but gauranteed an unhappy ending to what has been a fantastic technical and fundamental play for the last decade. Gold is much more reasonably valued and should continue to outperform risk assets because the monetary authorities are so reckless, but there is just too much froth in silver to hope for even that.

The rally since early 2009 has been not just another dead cat bounce in the bear market from 2007 (like I thought it would be), but another full-blown reflation and risk binge like the 2003-2007 cyclical bull. The secular bear since 2000 is still here, and valuations and technicals suggest that another cyclical bear phase is imminent. There is no telling how long it will take or how it will play out, but the only prudent move at times like this is to take all market risk off the table. Bears still standing should think about going fully short. Anyone holding stocks should sell or get fully hedged. History shows that the expected 10-year return on stocks from conditions like this is under 3.5%, and such a positive figure is often only acheived after a major drawdown and rebound. See John Hussman’s excellent research on the topic of expected returns from various valuation levels: http://hussmanfunds.com/weeklyMarketComment.html

Want to know what a secular bear looks like? Check out 1966-1982: a series of crashes and rallies that resulted in a 75% inflation-adjusted loss. In the absense of 70s-style inflation, this time the nominal loss should be closer to the real loss. Think Japan 1989-who knows?

The headlines this time around should have less to do with US housing, though that bear is still raging. We’re likely to hear much more about European sovereign debt, where haircuts and defaults need to happen, and Canadian, Australian and Chinese real estate. When the China construction bubble pops it will remove a major fundamental pillar from the commodities market.

There is no safe haven but cash, and cash is all the better since everyone has feared it for so long. If I had to build a bulletproof portfolio that I was not allowed to touch for five years, it would be something like this: 20% gold bullion, 25% US T-bills, 25% US 10-year notes, 25% Swiss Francs (as much as I hate to buy francs at $1.13) and 5% deep out-of-the-money 2013 SPX puts (automatic cash settlement).

There will be a great value opportunity in stocks before long (the tell will be dividend yields over 5% on blue chips). It’s just a matter of having the cash when it comes, so that you aren’t like the guy who said in 1932 that he’d be buying if he hadn’t lost everything in the crash.

-

PS – For those of you who think QE3,4,5,6 will save the markets, I’ll counter that it doesn’t matter, not on any time frame that counts. Risk appetite and private credit are what matter the most, and the Fed can’t print that. At 3AM, spiking the punchbowl doesn’t work anymore.

Or I can put it this way: the Fed has increased the monetary base from 850 billion to 2500 billion since 2007. Have your bank balance, salary and monthly bills increased 200%? If not, why should stock and commodity prices? Not even Lloyd Blankfein is 200% richer than four years ago.

John Hussman agrees May 6 decline no glitch, but normal and even predictable

Summary: Crashes are a normal consequence of extremely overbought and overpriced markets, and huge rallies like Monday’s are almost the exclusive providence of bear markets. Crashes and giant rallies are both characteristic of times of credit stress.

First, let John Stewart explain (if like me you’re not in the US, try this trick to watch restricted videos) :

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
A Nightmare on Wall Street
www.thedailyshow.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:309127
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

-

Now on to Hussman. The below is taken from his latest market comment. You could also say that Hussman “called” this decline, since starting several weeks prior to the peak (see archive) he characterized the market as “overvalued, overbought, and overbullish” and hedged up his stock mutual fund with put options and short call positions. I have followed him for some time, and he is as good a market timer as I know*; you don’t want to be long stocks when he’s fully hedged!

Of all the mysteries of the stock exchange there is none so impenetrable as why there should be a buyer for everyone who seeks to sell. October 24, 1929 showed that what is mysterious is not inevitable. Often there were no buyers, and only after wide vertical declines could anyone be induced to bid … Repeatedly and in many issues there was a plethora of selling orders and no buyers at all. The stock of White Sewing Machine Company, which had reached a high of 48 in the months preceding, had closed at 11 on the night before. During the day someone had the happy idea of entering a bid for a block of stock at a dollar a share. In the absence of any other bid he got it.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1955, The Great Crash

“I started accumulating stocks in December of ’74 and January of ’75. One stock that I wanted to buy was General Cinema, which was selling at a low of 10. On a whim I told my broker to put in an order for 500 GCN at 5. My broker said, ‘Look, Dick, the price is 10, you’re putting in a crazy bid.’ I said ‘Try it.’ Evidently, some frightened investor put in an order to ‘sell GCN at the market’ and my bid was the only bid. I got the stock at 5.”

Richard Russell, 1999, Dow Theory Letters

…If the decline we’ve seen to date is the entire resolution of the recent overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields syndrome, investors will be fortunate. Given that last week’s decline was just enough to clear the “overbought” component of this condition at least on short-term basis, we lowered our S&P 500 put strikes closer to current market levels and “re-set” our staggered strike hedge in the Strategic Growth Fund enough to put us in a more constructive position if the market advances more than a few percent, while maintaining a strong defense against a further market loss. Our overall position is much like a fully hedged stance with a couple of percent of assets in out-of-the-money index calls. We’re in no hurry to “buy the dip.” We don’t rule out much larger, and possibly profoundly larger market losses, but again, last week gave us a nice opportunity to re-set our strikes in a way that allows us to be comfortable in the event that the market recovers.

Thursday was a fascinating day in the market, featuring a 20-minute span in which the Dow moved from a loss of about 300 points to a loss of nearly 1000 points and then back again within a span of about 15-20 minutes. While the decline and recovery was interesting, the fascinating part was the eagerness of investors to view the decline as a “glitch” in trading. My hope is that the opening quotations in this weekly comment are sufficient reminders that illiquidity is not a “glitch,” but a typical feature of panicked markets. In a market where active market makers have increasingly been replaced by “high frequency” trading algorithms that can be switched off at will, it is important for investors to avoid the assumption that there will be a willing buyer close at hand if risk concerns begin to escalate.

If you spend a good portion of your time studying price-volume behavior, “air pockets” of the type we observed last week become familiar parts of the landscape (though they are typically not so distilled into a single intra-day move). Robust demand is the only thing that holds prices from falling vertically in the face of eager selling. Overvalued, overbought, overbullish markets are often already spent of that demand. As investors suddenly became aware of that reality on Thursday, all I could think was “welcome to my world.”

…I think the best way to characterize the market here is to view the area between 1080 and about 1130 on the S&P 500 as something of an “inflection point.” A clear decline below about 1080 on the S&P 500 would most likely put market internals in a clearly negative position, leaving the market with a coupling of overvaluation and negative market internals that has historically been very hostile. We’re not yet to that point, however, so it’s reasonable to allow for the potential for a recovery from these levels while still maintaining a tight hedge against further weakness.

I made many of the same points prior to the mini-crash (, noting the likely record extreme in bullish complacency in the equity put:call ratio, as well as extreme overvaluation and mutual fund cash levels matching the 2007 peak.

After the crash last Thursday I noted that these things just happen. They are one of the risks of the stock market, and are as old as floor trading:

The fact is, markets just fall out of bed sometimes. It’s normal, and they don’t need the kind of reasons you can read about in the paper. Greece had nothing to do with it.

A move like this off a top does not mark the end. If we had plunged hard and reversed like this after we were already reading oversold on sentiment and momentum gauges, it could mark a bottom, but not right off the top — that is what should scare people today. This was not like Black Monday ‘87 — it’s more like the Black Thursdays of ‘29 and ‘08 (huge intraday crashes with recoveries, followed the next week by the real crashes), or the Friday before the ‘87 crash (down 5%). It’s likely a kickoff to more downside. New highs are possible, but looking less and less likely, and we doomsayers might be right after all these months…

You can’t predict a crash, but you can tell probabilities, and the probability of a decline was high as of last week. We had an extremely, extremely depressed put:call ratiomomentum was rolling over, mutual funds were all-in, and just about every measure of sentiment showed that complacency and bullishness were off the charts.

Also the day after the crash I said not to blame the computers and not to reverse those trades:

I didn’t mention anything about computers here, which any discussion of yesterday should have. So yes, computer stop-loss orders kicked in and buy orders were pulled, but this is just what would happen with humans. Every market in the world has experienced some kind of crash this week. It’s not the machines – they basically just do what people do, but faster.

However, you can probably blame computers if you got screwed out of something during a split-second 50-99% drop — that would probably be less likely to happen in a market with human specialists to absorb order flow with their brokerage’s books.  But that’s not the cause of the crash, just something that happens during a crash — buyers pull out and stop-losses kick in. In ‘29 you also had solid companies selling for a buck for a few trades. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, and one of the myriad risks of the equity market.

(BTW, breaking those trades was likely a bad decision on the part of the exchanges. If they had let them sit, those kinds of ridiculous plunges to a penny would be less likely to happen again, as everyone today would be coding away to program their bots to snap up “bargains” during the next swoon. If they could just turn around and cancel the trades, who’s going to take that risk, since you might end up short a stock trading at $20 the next day that you’d bought for $10 and sold for $15?  Doesn’t anyone believe in markets anymore? Not even people who run the stock markets? Just let them be, and participants will naturally seize opportunities and add efficiency to the market.)

The cause of this crash is just an overbought, overbullish, overvalued market during a depression (9.9% headline unemployment again, 17% real).

-

-
Mish provided these charts (visit his post to see more data) which help to put the drop into perspective (“largest point drop in history” is meaningless — what counts is the percentage). The data here also shows that huge single-day rallies like Monday’s seem to only happen in bear markets, (as I pointed out on Day 2 of this blog back in August 2008 before the crash):

-
*By the way, here’s the 10-year record of Hussman’s equity mutual fund (top blue line), which, as I understand it, is contractually obligated to be near fully invested in stocks at all times, though it may hedge 100% of its long exposure but not go net short:

Analysts and institutions: stocks “extremely cheap” despite 1.7% yields after 80% rally. Hussman & Prechter: another crash likely.

Bloomberg today gives a tour of the bull camp, which believes in a V-shaped recovery and soon-to-be record S&P earnings:

Even after the biggest rally since the 1930s, U.S. stocks remain the cheapest in two decades as the economy improves…

…Income is beating analysts’ estimates by 22 percent in the first quarter, making investors even more bullish that the rally will continue after the index climbed 80 percent since March 2009. While bears say the economy’s recovery is too weak for earnings to keep up the momentum, Fisher Investments and BlackRock Inc. are snapping up companies whose results are most tied to economic expansion.

“The stock market is incredibly inexpensive,” said Kevin Rendino, who manages $11 billion in Plainsboro, New Jersey, for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. “I don’t know how the bears can argue against how well corporations are doing.”

S&P 500 companies may earn $85.96 a share in the next year, according to data from equity analysts compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with the index’s record combined profits of $89.93 a share from the prior 12 months in September 2007, when the S&P 500 was 19 percent higher than today.

Those figures would be for operating earnings, not the bottom line. In recent years it has been increasingly common to simply call operating earnings “earnings” and to imply that multiples on this figure should be compared to historic multiples on the bottom line. Ken Fisher, readers may recall, was running obnoxious video web ads through 2007-2008 touting a continued rally just before stocks fell off a cliff. His equity management firm makes the most money if people are all-in, all the time, as it collects fees as a percent of assets.

Record Pace

The earnings upgrades come as income beats Wall Street estimates at the fastest rate ever for the third time in four quarters. More than 80 percent of the 173 companies in the S&P 500 that reported results have topped estimates, compared with 79.5 percent in the third quarter and 72.3 percent in the three- month period before that, Bloomberg data show.

It is impressive how companies have protected themselves since the downturn began, but the way they have done this is by simply cutting costs, hence the stubborn 9.5% (headline U-3) or 17% (U-6) unemployment rate.

David Rosenberg, as usual, is the cooler head in the room:

Alternate Valuation

David Rosenberg, chief economist of Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc., says U.S. stocks are poised for losses because they’ve become too expensive. The S&P 500 is valued at 22.1 times annual earnings from the past 10 years, according to inflation-adjusted data since 1871 tracked by Yale University Professor Robert Shiller.

Economic growth will slow and stocks retreat as governments around the world reduce spending after supporting their economies through the worst recession since the 1930s, said Komal Sri-Kumar, who helps manage more than $100 billion as chief global strategist at TCW Group Inc. The U.S. budget shortfall may reach $1.6 trillion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to figures from the Washington-based Treasury Department.

“The correction is going to come,” Sri-Kumar said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in New York on April 21. “You now have a debt bubble growing in the sovereign side, and we’re slow to recognize how negative that could be.”

We are still in the thick of the largest credit bubble in history. Consumer and real estate debt has yet to be fully liquidated (and hasn’t even started in China), corporate indebtedness is the highest ever, and now government debt has reached the point of no return where default is inevitable.

Equity is the slice of the pie left over after all debts are serviced, so to say that it is cheap when it only yields 1.7% (in the case of S&P dividends) is insane. It is much safer to be a creditor of a business than an owner, so debt yields should be lower than equity yields. In today’s perverse investment climate, even 10-year treasuries of the US and Germany yield more than twice equities.

This extreme confidence in stocks and dismissal of risk considerations further indicates that this is a toppy environment, highly reminiscent of 2007.

John Hussman explores this theme a bit further in his latest market comment:

As of last week, our most comprehensive measure of market valuation reached a price-to-normalized earnings multiple of 19.1, exceeding the peaks of August 1987 (18.6) and December 1973 (18.3). Outside of the valuations achieved during the late 1990′s bubble and the approach to the 2007 market peak, the only other historical observation exceeding the current level of valuation was the extreme of 20.1 reached just prior to the 1929 crash. The corollary to this level of rich valuation is that our projection for 10-year total returns for the S&P 500 is now just 5.3% annually.

While a number of simple measures of valuation have also been useful over the years, even metrics such as price-to-peak earnings have been skewed by the unusual profit margins we observed at the 2007 peak, which were about 50% above the historical norm – reflecting the combination of booming and highly leveraged financial sector profits as well as wide margins in cyclical and commodity-oriented industries. Accordingly, using price-to-peak requires the additional assumption that the profit margins observed in 2007 will be sustained indefinitely. Our more comprehensive measures do not require such assumptions, and reflect both direct estimates of normalized earnings, and compound estimates derived from revenues, profit margins, book values, and return-on-equity.

That said, valuations have never been useful as an indicator of near-term market fluctuations – a shortcoming that has been amplified since the late 1990′s. The lesson that valuations are important to long-term investment outcomes is underscored by the fact that the S&P 500 has lagged Treasury bills over the past 13 years, including dividends. Yet the fact that these 13 years have included three successive approaches (2000, 2007, and today) to valuation peaks – at the very extremes of historical experience – is evidence that investors don’t appreciate the link between valuation and subsequent returns. So they will predictably experience steep losses and mediocre returns yet again. Ironically, before they do, it also means that investors who take valuations seriously (including us) can expect temporary periods of frustration.

I’ve long noted that the analysis of market action can help to overcome some of this frustration, as stocks have often provided good returns despite rich valuations so long as market internals were strong, and the environment was not yet characterized by a syndrome of overvalued, overbought, overbullish, and rising yield conditions. In hindsight, the stock market has followed this typical post-war pattern, and we clearly could have captured some portion of the market’s gains over the past year had I ignored the risk of a second wave of credit strains (which I remain concerned about, primarily over the coming months).

It is important to recognize, however, that even if we had approached the recent economic environment as a typical, run-of-the-mill postwar downturn, we would now be defensive again, as a result of the current overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising yields syndrome. I do recognize that my credibility in sounding a cautious note would presently be stronger if I had ignored further credit risks and captured some of the past year’s gains. But the awful outcome of this same set of conditions, which we also observed in 2007, should provide enough credibility.

Hussman proceeds to offer a detailed statistical analysis of how valuation and market action impact risks and returns. Curious parties are encouraged to read his essay in its entirety.

Here is how he rather bluntly sums up the current environment:

As of last week, the Market Climate in stocks remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields syndrome that has historically produced periods of marginal new highs, slight declines, and yet further marginal highs, followed somewhat unpredictably by nearly vertical drops. I’ve often accompanied the description of this syndrome with the word “excruciating,” because the apparent resiliency of the market and the celebration of each fresh high, can make it difficult to maintain a defensive stance. Interestingly, the analysts at Nautilus Capital recently noted that the most closely correlated periods in market history to this one were the advances of 1929 and 2007. While exact replication of those advances would allow for a couple more weeks of further strength, we’ve generally found it dangerous to expect history to do more than rhyme. These hostile syndromes have a tendency to erase weeks of upside progress in a few days.

I have to agree with this assessment as well as that of Robert Prechter that this spring offers perhaps the greatest short-selling opportunity in history.

Market overvalued even if you accept very optimistic forecasts.

These charts and analysis come from Bill Hester at Hussman Funds. Hester and John Hussman do the best fundamental analysis of anyone I follow. It was Hussman’s writing, more than anything else, that first convinced me of the bear case back in 2006.

Except in relation to bubble valuations between 1997 and 2007 (which have produced flat or negative market returns), the market’s valuation looks overpriced based on widely-tracked fundamentals. Whether you look at price-to-normalized earnings, price-to-dividend multiples, price-to-book values, or price-to-sales multiples, they all sit above their long-term averages. The graph below shows the price to sales ratio for the S&P 500 since the early 1960′s. The current price-to-sales ratio of 1.28 percent is far above its long-term average (outside of the bubble valuations of 1997-2007) of about .83. Prior to the late 1990′s, major market peaks such as 1972 and 1987 were typically marked by a price/sales multiple not much above 1.0.

-

Since traditional measures of valuation are broadly overvalued, analysts who are recommending additional equity exposure tend to use P/E ratios based on future estimates for operating earnings. On that measure stocks are still overvalued, but less so. But the current forward operating earnings may be overly optimistic once you back out the assumptions they rely on. More modest assumptions would suggest that the market is overvalued even on forecasted fundamentals.

Analysts forecast that the S&P 500 companies will $78 by the end of this year, $93 through next year, and $106 through 2012, based on analyst estimates tracked by Bloomberg. That’s an expected jump of 25 percent this year, 20 percent next year, and another 14 percent the following year. Clearly, stock analysts aren’t buying the New Normal…

the aggressive expectations in forecasted earnings growth rates rest not only in corporate performance detaching from the economic climate, but also from corporate fundamentals veering far from their long-term typical performance. The clearest example of this is in the expectations for profit margins.

While earnings growth expectations are steep, sales growth expectations are more modest. Sales-per-share for S&P 500 companies is expected to grow about 5.5 percent this year and about 7 percent next year, according to forecasts. The difference between the growth rates of the top and bottom lines is implies a forecast for sharply rising operating profit margins. The graph below is updated from an earlier piece, and includes forecasts through the end of 2012. It plots the long-term level of S&P operating margins in blue. In red, I’ve plotted the operating margins currently being forecasted by analysts based on their projections for sales and earnings. Last October, analysts were about half way to pricing in profit margins that matched the record levels of 2007. Now, they are just about there.

-

These forecasted operating margins are important to investors who rely on using a P/E multiple based on forward earnings. Even with these forecasts for near-record profit margins, valuations on forward operating earnings are not favorable. The current multiple is about 14.8. As John Hussman has noted , the long-term average P/E ratio based on forward operating earnings is about 12. Taking the 14.8 multiple at face value implicitly assumes that the near-record profit margins assumed by analysts are now the long-term norm. Even a minor lowering of expected profit margins would cause the scale of the overvaluation to widen materially. Considering the aggressive expectations for profit margins, the market’s valuation based on expected results may be as stretched as it is on trailing fundamentals.

I recommend reading Mr. Hester’s analysis in full here, as well as John Hussman’s weekly market comments.