The current mindset of the mainstream view appears to be that both good and bad data are bullish for stocks. The rationale underlying this belief is that, if we have avoided a recession, stocks are undervalued, but even if the economy does begin to contract, the Federal Reserve will once again step in and inflate stock prices through additional quantitative easing programs. Therefore, good news is good and bad news is good. Unfortunately, this is a myopic, naive outlook that misses the big picture. The most reliable historical data continue to indicate that the stock market is priced to perform extremely poorly and that risk remains near historic extremes. In his latest weekly commentary, fund manager John Hussman reviews the case for caution.
For investors who don't rely much on historical research, evidence, or memory, the exuberance of the market here is undoubtedly enticing, while a strongly defensive position might seem unbearably at odds with prevailing conditions. For investors who do rely on historical research, evidence, and memory, prevailing conditions offer little choice but to maintain a strongly defensive position. Moreover, the evidence is so strong and familiar from a historical perspective that a defensive position should be fairly comfortable despite the near-term enthusiasm of investors.
There are few times in history when the S&P 500 has been within 1% or less of its upper Bollinger band (two standard deviations above the 20-period moving average) on daily, weekly and monthly resolutions; coupled with a Shiller P/E in excess of 18 - the present multiple is actually 22.3; coupled with advisory bullishness above 47% and bearishness below 27% - the actual figures are 51% and 24.5% respectively; with the S&P 500 at a 4-year high and more than 8% above its 52-week moving average; and coupled, for good measure, with decelerating market internals, so that the advance-decline line at least deteriorated relative to its 13-week moving average compared with 6-months prior, or actually broke that average during the preceding month. This set of conditions is observationally equivalent to a variety of other extreme syndromes of overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions that we've reported over time. Once that syndrome becomes extreme - as it has here - and you get any sort of meaningful "divergence" (rising interest rates, deteriorating internals, etc), the result is a virtual Who's Who of awful times to invest.
Consider the chronicle of these instances in recent decades: August and December 1972, shortly before a bull market peak that would see the S&P 500 lose half of its value over the next two years; August 1987, just before the market lost a third of its value over the next 20 weeks; April and July 1998, which would see the market lose 20% within a few months; a minor instance in July 1999 which would see the market lose just over 10% over the next 12 weeks, and following a recovery, another instance in March 2000 that would be followed by a collapse of more than 50% into 2002; April and July 2007, which would be followed by a collapse of more than 50% in the S&P 500, and today.
The prior instances were sometimes followed by immediate market losses, and were sometimes characterized by extended top formations - which produce a sort of complacency as investors say "see, the market may be elevated and investors may be over-bullish, but the market is so resilient that it's ignoring all that, so there's no reason to worry." Ultimately, however, the subsequent plunges wiped out far more return than investors achieved by remaining invested once conditions became so extreme. We are in familiar territory, but that territory generally marks the mouth of a vortex.
Based on ensemble methods that capture a century of evidence - from Depression-era data, through the New Deal, World War, the Great Society, the electronics boom, the energy crisis, stagflation, the great moderation, the dot-com bubble, the tech crash, the housing bubble, the credit crisis, and even the more recent period of massive central bank interventions - our estimates of prospective market return/risk have been negative since April 2010 and have remained negative even as new data has arrived. Since early March, those estimates have plunged into the most negative 0.5% of historical instances.
It's worth noting that the S&P 500 posted a negative total return between April 2010 and November of last year. Of course, the market has also enjoyed a risk-on mode since then. Through Friday, the S&P 500 has achieved a total return of nearly 25% since our return/risk estimates turned negative in early 2010. Defensiveness has clearly been taxing in that respect. But this doesn't remove the question of whether the market's recent gains are durable, much less whether they will be extended. Corporate insiders certainly don't seem to think so - their sales have tripled since July, to a rate of six shares sold for each share purchased.
Far from being some novel "new era" environment, present conditions - rich valuations, overbought trends, lopsided bullishness, heavy insider sales, and lagging market internals - are part of a historical syndrome that is very familiar in the sense that we've repeatedly seen it prior to the worst market declines on record. But as the chronicle above should make clear, this doesn't make our short-term experience any easier, because these conditions can emerge, go dormant for a few months while the market retreats modestly, and then reappear as the market registers a marginal new high. The ultimate outcome has historically been spectacularly bad, but it still takes patience and discipline to stay on the sidelines during late-stage, high-risk advances. Of course, the present instance may turn out differently than every prior instance has - it's just that we have no basis to expect that outcome.
Our own measures of the risk/reward profile of the stock market remain in the worst 1 percentile of all historical observations since the start of the Great Depression, agreeing closely with the research performed by Hussman. At a current duration of 42 months, the cyclical bull market from March 2009 is overdue for termination and a long-term top could form at any time.
If it seems as though we have been repeating this warning often during the last several months, that repetition has been intentional. Given the irrational expectations that have crept into the mainstream mindset recently, we believe it is important to revisit the big picture often. Despite the current faith that the majority of market participants has in the Federal Reserve to perpetually drive stock prices higher through stimulus programs, the fact remains that the stock market has an extremely poor risk/reward profile at these levels, so extreme caution is warranted.
We will identify the key developments as they occur in our daily market forecasts and signal notifications available to subscribers.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.