Investors have learned the same wrong lessons over the last couple of years that they learned in the run-up to 2000, evidently. I remember that in the latter part of 1999, every mild equity market setback was met immediately with buying – the thought was that you had to jump quickly on the train before it left the station again. There was no thought about whether the bounce was real, or whether it “made sense”; for quite a number of them in a row, the bounce was absolutely real and the train really did leave the station.
Then, the train reached the end of the line and rolled backwards down the mountain, gathering speed and making it very difficult to jump off. I remember getting a call from my broker at the time, recommending Lucent at around $45 – quite the discount from the $64 high. I noted that I was a value investor and I didn’t see value in that stock, and to not call me again until he had a decent value idea. He next called with a recommendation later that year, with a stock that had just hit $30… a real bargain! And, as it turned out, that stock was also Lucent. The lesson he had learned was that any stock at a discount from the highs was a “value” stock. (Lucent ended up bottoming at about $0.55 in late 2002 and was eventually acquired by Alcatel in 2006).
This lesson appears to have been learned as well. On Thursday and Friday a furious rally took stocks up, erasing a week and a half of decline. This happened despite the fact that Friday’s Employment number was just about the worst possible number for equities: weak enough to indicate that the December figure was not just about seasonal adjustment, but represented real weakness, but nowhere near weak enough to influence the Federal Reserve to consider pausing the recent taper. We will confirm this fact tomorrow, before the market open, when new Fed Chairman Janet Yellen delivers the Monetary Policy Report (neé Humphrey-Hawkins) testimony to the House Financial Services Committee (her comments to be released at 8:30 ET). While I believe that Yellen will be very reluctant to raise rates any time soon, and likely will seize on signs of recession to stop the taper in its tracks, she will be reluctant to be a dove right out of the gate.
And that might upset the apple cart tomorrow, if I’m right.
I have been fairly clear recently that I see a fairly significant risk of market volatility to come, both on the fixed-income side but especially on the equity side. I think stocks are substantially overvalued and could fall markedly even without any important change in the underlying economic dynamics. But there is actually good news which should be considered along with that fact: when markets were last egregiously overpriced, financial institutions were also substantially more-levered than they are today. The chart below (source: Federal Reserve) shows that as a percentage of GDP, domestic financial institutions are about one third less levered than they were at the 2008 peak.
Now, this exaggerates the deleveraging to some extent – households, for example, appear to have deleveraged by about 20% on this chart, but the actual nominal amount of debt outstanding has only declined from about $14 trillion to about $13.1 trillion. Corporate entities have actually put on more debt (which made sense for a while but probably doesn’t now that equity is so highly valued relative to earnings), but in terms of a percentage of GDP they are at least not any more levered than they were in 2008.
The implication of this fact is some rare good news: since the banking system has led the deleveraging, the systemic risk that could follow on the heels of a significant market decline is likely to be much less, at least among U.S. domestic financial institutions. So, in principal, while it was clear that a decline in equity and real estate prices in 2007-2008 would eventually cause damage to the real economy as the financial damage was amplified through the financial system, this is less true today. We can, in other words, have some reasonable market movements without having that automatically lead to recession. The direct wealth effect of equity price movements is very small, on the order of a couple of percent. It’s the indirect effects that we have to worry about, and the good news is that those indirect effects are smaller now – although I wouldn’t say those risks are absent.
Now for the bad news. The bad news is that significant market volatility – say, a 50% decline in stock prices – would likely be met with “help” from the federal government and monetary authorities. It is that help which likely would hurt the economy by increasing business uncertainty further. It is probably not a coincidence that the last couple of months, which correspond to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, have led to some weaker growth figures. Whether change is perceived as positive or negative, it’s the constant changing of the rules – and especially now that these rules are increasingly changed by executive fiat without the moderating influence of Congress (I never thought I would write that) – that damages business confidence.
In other words, I wouldn’t be concerned about the direct economic effect of a 50% decline in equity prices; but I would be concerned if such a decline led to meddling from the Fed, the Congress, or the White House.
While investors learned the hard lessons after 2000 and 2008 about the wisdom of automatically buying dips, they eventually forgot those lessons. But that makes them almost infinitely smarter than policymakers, who have refused to learn the obvious lesson of the last few years: your ministrations do little to help, and most likely hurt. So, maybe it really is true that there are two types of people: those who listen to everybody, and those who listen to nobody. The former become investors, and the latter enter government service!