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:

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.

That should do it for today.

Just put the hedges back on. Wouldn’t mind going long from these levels, even.


But boy, hard selling across the board: stocks, metals, oil, currencies — nothing is excempt. But hurray for the grains, which have held steady. When risk appetite comes back, they should benefit.

You know what? We might be doing a megaphone pattern here — big ramp up tomorrow if that is the case. It would all be an interesting, wide-ranging correction before we continue down, and down we are going: I wouldn’t be surprised to see SPX 700 by summer, 800 by April.

The tables are turning, and panic is on the way back.

I was extremely, almost uncomfortably short for the last couple of weeks, and with the Dow down 175 a few minutes ago, I covered my stock futures shorts and bought a few contracts to hedge up my long-term puts. It’s looking very good for the shorts — dollar up across the board, bond spreads wider, and stocks and commodities down together. Classic deflation trade.

Here’s the Dow. You can see that RSI says we’re already into oversold territory on the daily bar, which indicates the power of this move. There could be a bounce here, but I think stocks are where gold was after it fell hard from $1228 last month: they can rally, but the high is in. Now the bulls will be the ones fighting the tape.



Of course, the rally taught us bears to go easy and hedge up after little sell-offs like this, but that is going to be a frustrating stragegy if we’ve turned. As with the euro since the dollar index put in its low, surprises will be to the downside. I suspect not even this initial move down is over yet, maybe just the most violent part.

Take a look at the VIX. It has just blasted off – jumping over 50% in a week, most of it in just two days! This is giving us a very, very strong signal that panic is coming back, and in fact, was never very far off:

Hussman sees danger ahead

Top-performing mutual fund manager John Hussman sees no value in this “overvalued, overbought and overbullish” market.

Last week, the dividend yield on the S&P 500 dropped below 2%, versus a historical average closer to double that level. While part of the reason for the paucity of yield in the current market can be explained by the 20% plunge in dividend payouts over the past year, as financial companies have cut or halted dividends to conserve cash, the fact is that current payouts are not at all out of line with their historical relationship to revenues, and even a full recovery of the past year’s dividend cuts would still leave the yield at a paltry 2.5%. The October 1987 crash occurred from a yield of 2.65%, which was, at the time, the lowest yield observed in history, matched only by the 1972 peak prior to the brutal 1973-74 bear market.

Those two periods had a few other things in common. In the weeks immediately preceding the market downturn, stocks were overbought, had advanced significantly over prior weeks, bond yields were creeping higher, and investment advisory bearishness had dropped below 19%. All of those features should be familiar, because we observed them at the 1987 and 1972 peaks, and we observe them now…

So when will we accept more risk? Easy – when the expected return from accepting risk increases, or when the expected range of outcomes becomes narrower. Presently, two things would accomplish that. One is clarity, the other is better valuation.

First, and foremost, we have to get through the next 5-6 months, which is where we will at least begin to see the extent to which “second wave” credit risks materialize. We emphatically don’t need to work through all of the economy’s problems. What we do need, however, is for the latent problems to hatch, so we can have more clarity about what we’re dealing with. I’m specifically referring to the second round of delinquencies and foreclosures tied to Alt-A and Option-ARM loans, the requirement beginning in January that banks and other financials bring “off balance sheet” entities onto their books (which, as Freddie Mac observed in a recent footnote, “could have a significant negative impact on its net worth”), and the disposition of a mountain of mortgages that have been increasingly running delinquent, but where foreclosure has been temporarily delayed.


Hussman’s fund doesn’t go net-short, but past times when he’s gone fully-hedged have been good opportunities to think about short selling.

Optionality pays off.

In the Goldilocks spring of 2007, by allocating 2.5% of one’s equity portfolio to December 2009 1000 strike puts on the S&P 500, a manager could have greatly reduced, if not eliminated the risk of the (then 4.5-year-old) bull market topping out over the next 30 months. The puts, even if not purchased at ideal prices, could very easily have appreciated by a factor of 10 as of today’s close, or even 20 if purchased on dips and sold last Friday.

At approximately $130 each, they could still easily appreciate by another two or three times by expiration if the bear market deepens.

It goes to show that it can pay to worry, even if you don’t have enough conviction to take decisive measures like liquidating a portfolio and going to cash (or short) while a bull market is still intact.

You can also insure against missing out on gains.

The same strategy can be applied on the long side. Suppose the Dow falls under 3500 by mid-2010 (actually, plan on it). Most people would by then have a perhaps unhealthy fear of stocks, just as they had an unhealthy attachment to them 18 months ago (and still do). The market could be approaching a turning point by then, but few will have the conviction to dive in with a significant portion of what is left of their capital.

In this case, our worrywart manager (who has since seen the light and bailed out of his stocks), if he gets another contrarian hunch, could risk just a few bucks for, say, December 2012 calls at 5000 on the Dow. Since he is still 97.5% in cash, if the market continues ever further into the abyss (distinctly possible this time), it is no big deal, but if stocks sport a classic recovery rally, the manager could get himself a very nice portfolio return.

The key to the lopsided risk-reward balance is to act contrary to popular sentiment when it has been running in one direction for several years. At such times, optionality on counter-trend moves is dirt cheap. I suspect that such an options strategy could generate very satisfactory long-term returns without ever risking more than three percent of principal.

You would not even have to own options all the time. You would just start buying puts after say, a three year and 40% gain in the S&P, and add to the position on rallies as the bull market matured, never allocating more than perhaps 1.5% of assets per year. Your sell trigger for the puts could be the moment the S&P records its first 20% decline.

Some inverse could of course be applied when the S&P is deep into a bear market. Bears often don’t last as long as bulls, so perhaps you would start to buy long-dated calls at the two-year mark or after a 30% decline.

That said, this particular bear is of the sort that hibernates for 300 years and couldn’t care less what all the other little bears have been doing while he was asleep. I am going to be very patient about waiting for him to exhaust himself, and may not to waste any ammo on him at all, but hunt the smaller game in Asia.