Chart from Doug Short, Advisor Perspectives:
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.
Readers are strongly encouraged to read this week’s commentary in full and to browse Hussman’s archive here.
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:
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.
I like how at the end Keynes is pulled up to his feet and declared the victor (no matter how obvious a failure, the corrupt system keeps applying his theories). Then the Washington mandarins, Wall Street bigwigs and press all gather around him while the nerds come to congratulate Hayek. The press often implies that the Wall Street crowd loves Hayek and laissez-faire (“unrestrained markets” and all that), when in reality the moneyed political players support intervention since they are successful rent seekers and bailout recipients.
The key point that well-intentioned supporters of government (like most everyone in Europe) often miss is summed up in this phrase from Hayek:
“With political incentives, discretion’s a joke.
Those dials they’re twisting, just mirrors and smoke.”
For those who haven’t seen it, this is the first video:
And the real Hayek on Keynes:
Bottom line: Declines in earnings and mood could result in an 80% drop in stock prices from here.
The S&P 500 is still priced at over 15 times last year’s earnings ($66 as reported*). Since the late ’90s, corporate earnings have been as inflated as the rest of the economy by cheap credit. From 2003, they spiked up even further, way out of line with long-term trends, largely due to inflated financial profits from the real estate scam and consumer-related and other income from society-wide profligacy. Here’s a 20-year chart:
Click image for larger view. Source: Techfarm
To make matters worse, in the optimism of the bubble environment, investors extrapolated the recent pace of earnings growth out into the distant future, completely forgetting that growth is mean-reverting. This long-term mean in the US has been about 6% (good luck keeping that up under socialism). Earnings growth will always revert to a mean in a market economy simply because excess earnings attract competition. In an economy with government-supported fractional reserve lending, the downside of the credit cycle will also undercut earnings (and generate large losses).
2006 S&P 500 earnings of $81.51 were an extreme historical anomaly, so applying a 19-handle to them was insanity. If Mr. Market hadn’t been so hopped up on the energy drinks popular at the time, he would have thought long and hard before paying more than $8 for 2006 earnings, especially because stocks were hardly paying any dividends at all.
The first two quarters of 2008 came in with $15.54 and $13.17 in earnings, respectively. If you assume that each of the remaining quarters will be worse than the last by $2 (pretty optimistic if you ask me), you come up with a final 2008 figure of $49.
When thinking about what to pay for those earnings, you want to think about what kind of mood Mr. Market will be in next year. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be quite as optimistic as of late, since the aftermath of that tuarine/caffeine cocktail can be a downer. After such a frenzy, his mood typically declines for years and doesn’t turn up again until he has put a sub-10 multiple on recession year earnings.
Looking at past episodes, the odds are strong that Mr. Market pays less than $12 for each dollar of 2008 earnings by the end of 2009: an index value of 588 using our ’08 estimate.
But then 2009 earnings aren’t looking so rosy either: even sell-side analysts are predicting that they will be lower than this year’s. Extrapolating a decline of $1 per quarter from our $9.17 estimate for Q4 ’08, you get $27 per the index for 2009. This happens to be about what the 500 earned in the mild recessionary year of 2002. Think next year will be worse? Adjust accordingly.
Whatever your own ’09 estimate, keep in mind that Mr. Market will be downright angry with stocks’ performance and extremely cynical by the time 2010 rolls around. If history is any guide, by the end of 2010 he might not even pay $8 for those earnings. That would be an S&P 500 value just north of 200.
*S&P provides a big Excel spreadsheet of such figures here (download).
**See disclaimer. I own a ton of these.