John Hussman: The Elephant In The Room

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by: John Hussman

Excerpt from the Hussman Funds' Weekly Market Comment (12/02/13):

In a classic case of not only locking the barn door after the horse is loose, but removing its best opportunity to return home, we’re seeing a capitulation by investment managers across every discipline, from technical, to value-conscious, to global macro. Historically extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions were in place even ten months ago, and my impression is that every further extension worsens the payback will inexorably follow.

Investors Intelligence reported last week that the percentage of advisory bears has plunged to 14.4%, lower than at the 2000, 2007, and 1987 peaks, and every point in-between. I’ll spare a full review of the overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes we observe here (see A Textbook Pre-Crash Bubble) – it’s clear that over the past year, even the most extreme variants of these conditions haven’t “worked,” having already appeared in February and May of this year to absolutely no effect. I have no question – at all – that the market has simply climbed a higher cliff from which to plunge, but I learned in 2000 and 2007 that there’s no hope of convincing many investors of this sort of thing – despite the fact that these reckless speculative peaks seem so “obvious” after the market collapses. Even when investors listen, at least some of the tears they would have shed after the plunge are substituted for tears they have to endure while missing the final advance.

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Our focus has always been on outperforming the market over complete market cycles (combining both bull and bear markets), with smaller periodic losses than a passive investment approach. In pursuit of that objective, we’ve always been willing to accept periods where we don’t track the market. By 2009, it was easy to demonstrate the success of that discipline. I was a fully-leveraged raging bull in the early 1990’s; was defensive well before the 2000 bubble peak, was more than absolved by prospering during a market plunge in 2000-2002 that wiped out every bit of total return in the S&P 500, in excess of Treasury bills, all the way back to May 1996; shifted to a constructive outlook in early 2003 as a new bull market took hold; warned loudly about an oncoming credit crisis and severe market losses in 2007; and navigated the crisis well in the 2007-2009 plunge as the S&P 500 lost 55% of its value, again wiping out every bit of total return in the S&P 500, in excess of Treasury bills, all the way back to June 1995.

I’ve been as comfortable being an aggressive bull as I am being a raging bear today. I can hardly wait for the opportunity to change species when the evidence presents itself. But it is purely a function of the data that I’ve been generally defensive in a period where stocks have been so overpriced that the S&P 500 has scarcely achieved a 3% nominal annual total return in over 13 years, and even then only because valuations have again been driven above every pre-bubble extreme except 1929.

What obscures perspective and shakes confidence is the elephant in the room – our disappointing “miss” since 2009. My sense is that many investors are inclined to ignore the objective warnings from a century of evidence because our own subjective experience since 2009 has been disappointing. Before investors dispense with evidence that may very well define their investment future over the next several years, or even the next decade, they may be well-served to understand that most of that miss had little to do with the overvaluation and extremely overbought, overbullish conditions that concern us at present.

As in 2000 and 2007, my concern is deepest for investors who have relatively short horizons until their funds are needed, who don’t have a great number of years ahead in which they’ll be adding to their investments, and who have allocations to stocks that don’t recognize that equities have a duration of 50 years here (so an investor who needs the funds in 5 years should really have no more than 10% of assets in stocks, particularly at present valuations). We presently estimate a nominal annual total return for the S&P 500 over the coming decade somewhere between zero and 2.2%. We are observing overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes that are uniquely associated with peaks that preceded the worst market losses in history (including 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000 and 2007). Speculators are now leveraged to the greatest extent in history, with NYSE margin debt surging last month to a record high in dollar terms, and 2.5% of GDP in relative terms (a level previously observed only at the 2000 and 2007 extremes). Our challenges of the past few years – most of which trace to a single decision – should not encourage investors to ignore evidence that is specific to the markets.

I believe that more than half, and perhaps closer to all, of the market’s gains since 2009 will be surrendered over the completion of this cycle. Investors will do themselves terrible harm if they ignore the objective warnings of history based on our subjective experience in this unfinished half-cycle. That subjective experience is far more closely related to my 2009 stress-testing decision than many investors recognize.