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Archive for the ‘Austrian Economics’ Category

Here’s the updated St Louis Fed’s FRED on Warren Buffett’s favored market measure, total market capitalization-to-GNP:

FRED Graph

The Q1 2013 ratio – the most recent point – is 110 percent.

According to the FRED data, the Q1 2000 TTM/GNP peak ratio was 158 percent, and the Q3 2007 TTM/GNP peak was 114 percent. The average for the full period – Q3 1949 to Q3 2012 – is 69 percent. The last time the market traded at a below-average ratio was Q1 2009.

Here’s the log version:

FRED Graph

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Margin debt in the United States — money borrowed against securities in brokerage accounts — has risen to its highest level ever, at $384 billion, surpassing the previous peak of $381 billion set in July 2007 according to New York Times Business Day’s Off The Charts: Sign of Excess?. Margin debt as a proportion of GDP is not quite yet at the peak set in 2007, but it has exceeded 2.25% only twice previously in the last 50 years–2000 and 2007. The bottom panel shows that each of those instances was followed by a large drawdown:

NYT Margin Debt

Read Off The Charts: Sign of Excess?

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h/t SD.

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I’m back from the Value Investing Congress in Las Vegas. There were a number of outstanding presentations, but, for mine, the best was Vitaliy Katsenelson’s epic presentation based on his Little Book of Sideways Markets.

12 years into this sideways market, valuations are still 30% above the historical average, while in 1982 they were about 30% percent below average! Also, historically, stocks spent a good amount of time at below-average valuations before sideways market turned into a secular bull market.

Vitaliy shows that genuine 1930s-style bear markets are rare. Most of the time the market trades sideways or up.

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Since 2000, the market has traded sideways. Vitaliy expects this to continue for another decade:

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Read GDP growth has been consistent. There’s little relationship between earnings growth and stock returns.

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Real GDP growth is very similar in both sideways and bull markets…

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…the difference in returns is the change in valuation.

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Don’t chase stocks. In the absence of good stocks, hold cash.

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Sideways markets contain many cyclical bull and bear markets.

slide-321During a sideways market, asset allocation is not as important as stock selection.

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See the full presentation:

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Chris Turner has a guest post at Doug Short’s Advisor Perspectives called When Warren Buffett Talks … People Listen examining Warren Buffett’s favored market valuation metric: Market Value divided by Gross National Product. (I’ve also examined market value-to-GNP several times. See Warren Buffett and John Hussman On The Stock MarketFRED on Buffett’s favored market measure: Total Market Value-to-GNPThe Physics Of Investing In Expensive Markets: How to Apply Simple Statistical Models)

Here Chris looks at the metric using the CPI deflator on both the numerator — market value — and the denominator — Gross National Product.

Here Chris calculates two fair values for the S&P 500. The blue line shows the historical mean and the green line shows Buffett’s 80 percent value estimate:

Chris comments:

Readers can see from the chart that based on both Buffett’s rule and the historical mean, the S&P would be trading much lower from present levels. The S&P would be sub 1000 based on the historical mean and around 1150 based on the 80% Buffett rule.

Read When Warren Buffett Talks … People Listen.

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Montier Corporate Profit Margins

Source: “What Goes Up Must Come Down!” James Montier (March 2012)

In his recent piece The Endgame is Forced Liquidation John Hussman eloquently describes the reason why investors need to be wary of structural arguments intended to dispose of indicators with a very reliable cyclical record:

On the temptation to disregard proven indicators

As a side-note, it’s important for investors to be wary of “structural” arguments intended to discard indicators that have very reliable cyclical records. For example, hardly a day goes by that we don’t see an attempt to harness some long-term structural factor, such as increasing globalization of trade, to explain away the spike in profit margins over the past few years – in the hope of proving that these margins will be permanent this time. Some of these arguments are discussed in recent weekly comments. But these factors don’t explain the cyclical fluctuations in profit margins at all, and can’t be used to discard the accounting relationships and decades of evidence that corporate profits have a strong secular and tight cyclical mirror-image relationship with the combined total of government and household savings.

Investors get themselves in trouble when they embrace “new economy” theories not because those new theories can be demonstrated in the data; not because existing approaches fail to fully explain the subsequent historical outcomes; but solely because time-tested approaches suggest uncomfortable outcomes in the present instance.

The same sort of structural second-guessing is evident in the gold market here – a good example of what forced liquidation looks like, as my impression is that leveraged longs have been forced into a fire-sale in recent weeks, creating good values for longer-term investors, but with continued near-term risks.  If we look at the ratio of gold prices to the Philadelphia gold index (XAU), we do believe there are structural factors that affect that ratio (primarily the increasing cost of extracting gold over time). But these don’t explain away or eliminate the strong cyclical relationship between the gold/XAU ratio and subsequent returns on the XAU over the following 3-4 year periods. So while we don’t believe that the record high gold/XAU ratio can be taken entirely at face value, there’s no question that it is elevated even on a cyclical basis (that is, even allowing for a gradual structural increase over time), and there’s no question in the data that cyclically elevated gold/XAU ratios have been associated with strong subsequent gains in the XAU index over a 3-4 year period on average, though certainly not without risk or volatility.

As a final example, some analysts (such as the Dow 36,000 authors) have argued that the proper risk premium on stocks, relative to Treasury securities, should be zero. This line of argument was used in 2000 to suggest that stocks were still cheap despite high apparent valuations. But this “secular” argument for high valuations ultimately did not weaken the long-term evidence and tight cyclical relationship between valuations and subsequent market returns. Despite all the new economy arguments about productivity growth,  the internet, globalization, the great moderation, and the outdated relevance of risk premiums, stocks still went on to lose half their value over the next two years, and to produce negative returns over the decade that followed.

The bottom line is that it becomes very tempting – both in speculative markets and fearful ones – to discard well-proven indicators as meaningless by arguing that some “structural” change in the market or the economy makes things different this time. True, those arguments can sometimes be used to explain very long-term changes in the level of an indicator. But even then, new economy arguments are typically ineffective at explaining away the informative cyclical variations in good indicators. Be particularly hesitant about ignoring indicators whose cyclical variations have been effective even in recent data, as is true of the ability of time-tested valuation approaches to explain subsequent 10-year market returns even during the period since the late-1990’s, and the ability of government and household savings to tightly explain cyclical swings in profit margins and subsequent profit growth, even in the most recent economic cycle.

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h/t Joe

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Corporate profit margins are presently 70 percent above the historical mean going back to 1947, as I’ve discussed earlier (see, for example, Warren Buffett, Jeremy Grantham, and John Hussman on Profit, GDP and Competition). John Hussman attributes it to the record negative low in combined household and government savings:

The deficit of one sector must emerge as the surplus of another sector. Corporations benefit from deficit spending despite wages at record lows as a share of economy.

John Hussman spoke recently at the 2013 Wine Country conference. Here he describes the relationship between corporate profits, and government, and household savings (starting at 22.08):

Hussman’s whole talk is well worth hearing.

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h/t Meb Faber

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Ratio of Corporate Profits-to-GDP and Returns (1947 to Present)

Source: Hussman Weekly Comment “Taking Distortion at Face Value,” (April 8, 2013)

Warren Buffett, 1999

[F]rom 1951 on, the percentage settled down pretty much to a 4% to 6.5% range.

In my opinion, you have to be wildly optimistic to believe that corporate profits as a percent of GDP can, for any sustained period, hold much above 6%. One thing keeping the percentage down will be competition, which is alive and well.

– Warren Buffett, Mr. Buffett on the Stock Market (November 1999)

Jeremy Grantham, 2006

Profit margins are probably the most mean-reverting series in finance, and if profit margins do not mean-revert, then something has gone badly wrong with capitalism. If high profits do not attract competition, there is something wrong with the system and it is not functioning properly.

– Jeremy Grantham, Barron’s (c. 2006), via Katsenelson, The Little Book of Sideways Markets.

John Hussman, 2013

In general, elevated profit margins are associated with weak profit growth over the following 4-year period. The historical norm for corporate profits is about 6% of GDP. The present level is about 70% above that, and can be expected to be followed by a contraction in corporate profits over the coming 4-year period, at a roughly 12% annual rate. This will be a surprise. It should not be a surprise.

– John Hussman, Two Myths and a Legend (March 11, 2013)

h/t Butler|Philbrick|Gordillo and Associates

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