Excerpt from the Hussman Funds' Weekly Market Comment (12/20/10):
1) Investors dangerously underestimate the risk of an abrupt and possibly severe equity market plunge
Look back over history at points in time where stocks were trading at a rich multiple to normalized earnings (the Shiller multiple is a useful gauge here, as forward operating and price/peak earnings are both corrupted by profit margins that are about 50% above their historic norms). Combine that with overbought, overbullish conditions and rising interest rates. What you will get is a list of most historical pre-crash peaks. Depending on precisely how you define your classifier, you may pick up one or two benign outcomes, such as April 1999 (which I noted in the Hazardous Ovoboby piece in early 2007), but ask whether, on average, you would have knowingly chosen to take market risk at those points.
5) The U.S. economy is recovering, but that recovery is vulnerable to even modest shocks.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, in the ideal case where the economy grows continuously without further credit strains, the "mean-reversion benchmark" scenario would be for GDP growth to approach an average rate of 3.8% annually for about 4 years, followed by about 2.3% annual growth thereafter. The corresponding mean-reversion benchmark for employment growth would be an average of about 200,000 new jobs per month on a sustained basis.
There has certainly been some improvement in various indicators of economic activity. As strange as this may sound, given my criticism of the Fed, I would attribute much of this improvement to a sentiment effect in response Fed's policy of quantitative easing. While long-term Treasury yields are significantly higher than before QE2 was announced, and though I continue to believe that the main effect of QE2 has been to encourage ultimately short-sighted speculation, the Emperor's-clothes enthusiasm about QE2 has had at least the short-term effect of buoying short-term spending and hiring plans. Unfortunately, this sort of sentiment-dependent bounce in activity is not very robust to shocks.
So while the surface activity of the U.S. economy has observably improved, it is in the context of an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields market that is vulnerable to abrupt losses, a global financial system that remains subject to strains from sovereign default, a housing market where one-in-seven mortgages is delinquent or in foreclosure, and nearly one-in-four is already underwater with a huge overhang of unliquidated foreclosure inventory still in the pipeline, and a domestic financial system that lacks transparency and may still be slouching toward insolvency. The U.S. economy is progressing on the surface, but it remains a house built on a ledge of ice.