Fund manager John Hussman lays out the two schools of thought with respect to our current economy. It’s not hard to figure out which camp he falls into.
One possibility, which is clearly the one that Wall Street has subscribed to, is that the recent downturn was a standard, if somewhat more severe than normal, post-war recession; that the market’s recent strength is an indication that it is looking forward to a full “V-shaped” recovery, and that the positive print for third-quarter GDP is a signal that the recession is officially over. Applying the post-war norms for stock market performance following the end of a recession, the implications are for further market strength and the elongation of the recent advance into a multi-year bull market.
The alternate possibility, which is the one that I personally subscribe to, is that the recent downturn was the initial phase of a more prolonged deleveraging cycle; that the advance we’ve observed in recent months most likely represents mean-reversion – qualitatively and quantitatively similar to the large and often abruptly terminated “clearing rallies” of past post-crash markets; that major credit losses are continuing quietly but are going unreported thanks to changes in accounting rules by the FASB this past spring, which allowed for “substantial discretion” in accounting for loan losses and deterioration in the value of securitized mortgages; that a huge second-wave of mortgage losses can be expected from a reset schedule on Alt-A and Option-ARMs that has just started (following a lull in the reset schedule since March) and will continue into 2010 and 2011; that intrinsic economic activity remains abysmal; that recent GDP growth is an artifact of massive fiscal stimulus that is unlikely to have sustained follow-through; and that recent market valuations are not representative of those observed at the end of most post-war recessions, but are instead similar to those observed at major market peaks prior to the mid-1990’s.
In the first view, the recent market pullback is a buying opportunity. In the second, it’s the first realisation that the the outlook is not as rosy as Wall Street thinks that it is.
Either way, stocks are still overvalued by about 20%. This suggests a long-term return of about 6%-7% per year, versus the 10% that investors have been told to expect.