Excerpt from the Hussman Funds' Weekly Market Comment (10/1/12):
In the context of historical evidence and outcomes, present market conditions give us no choice but to remain highly defensive. Valuations remain rich on the basis of normalized earnings (which are better correlated with subsequent returns than numerous popular alternatives based on forward operating earnings, the Fed Model and the like). Investor sentiment is overcrowded on the bullish side even as corporate insiders are liquidating at a rate of eight shares sold for every share purchased – a surge that Investors Intelligence describes as a “panic.” Market conditions remain steeply overbought on an intermediate and long-term basis, with the S&P 500 still near its upper Bollinger bands (two standard deviations above the 20-period moving average) on weekly and monthly resolutions. We continue to observe wide divergences in market action, from century-old criteria such as the weakness in transports versus industrials (which suggests an unwanted buildup of inventories) to more subtle divergences and signs of exhaustion in market internals.
Overall, we continue to estimate a steeply negative return/risk for stocks on horizons from 2-weeks to 18 months. I recognize that this is easy to treat as disposable news, given that the ensemble methods we developed to capture both post-war and Depression-era data have indicated a negative return/risk profile for stocks since April 2010, yet the S&P 500 is 18% higher today than it was at that time. Central bank interventions have certainly played a role in that gain. But then, our prospective return/risk estimates have been in the lowest 1% of historical data only since March, and the market loss that would erase the intervening gain since April 2010 is one that we would consider small from the perspective of present market conditions. The average cyclical bear market has historically wiped out more than half of the preceding bull market advance, and stocks have typically surrendered closer to 80% of their preceding bull market gains when the cyclical bear is part of a “secular” bear period such as the one we’ve experienced since 2000 (see the discussion of cyclical and secular fluctuations in A False Sense of Security). I remain convinced that we will observe numerous points in the market cycle ahead where the evidence will support a significant and even aggressive exposure to market fluctuations. Now is not one of those points.
Here in the U.S., the federal government is running a deficit approaching 10% of GDP despite suppressed interest costs. If addressing that deficit was just a political issue of doing the “right thing,” what would that right thing be? With total federal revenues at $2.3 trillion last year, and spending at $3.7 trillion, the gap itself represents more than half of total revenues and more than a third of total spending. That gap will not be closed even if lawmakers were to agree to an immediate repeal of the Bush tax cuts in their entirety. Assuming that all of the desired revenue actually showed up, the bump to revenues would only be about $100 billion a year - reducing the deficit by less than one-tenth. In the event of a recession (which we believe is already in progress), the increase in government debt - merely as a passive cyclical response to economic weakness – would swamp that effect even if all the tax cuts were repealed. Likewise, even in the current budget, less than $1.3 trillion represents discretionary spending that is negotiated between the President and Congress. The other spending represents mandatory outlays for Social Security, Medicare, military retirement, and so forth. Well over half of discretionary spending represents military spending. To balance the budget with spending cuts, Congress would have to wipe out discretionary spending altogether, including military outlays. Observers who believe that the fiscal cliff is simply a matter of political disagreement have vastly underestimated the depth of the challenges here.
In the present instance, the 6-quarter average of real GDI and GDP growth has been below 2.3% for nearly a year, with no apparent recession, and in fact has bounced around that threshold since 2010. The monetary interventions of the past few years have helped to kick the recessionary can down the road in short-lived fits and starts. Still, they certainly have not been effective in producing sustained recovery (nor should they be expected to – being largely a manipulation of financial markets with no reliable transmission mechanism to the real economy).
The key question is whether the absence of an obvious recession should be taken as an indication that the deterioration in income and output growth can be ignored – in effect, whether we should assume that this time is different. From our standpoint, the evidence from a wide variety of economic series, including but not limited to broad measures like GDI and GDP, continues to indicate that the U.S. economy most likely entered a recession in the middle of this year.