Fund manager John Hussman takes aim at one of the ludicrous excuses that is making its way around Wall Street: All past losses and future uncertainty can be forgiven because the market is in “uncharted territory.” Please.
We have 200 years of reasonably well charted market history to examine and 82 years of superbly charted history. And there have been lots of occasions on which the market has been in this territory (allowing for the fact that, to some extent, it’s always a bit different this time.)
So don’t let your fund manager or advisor tell you that he or she could never have seen this mess coming because nothing like this has ever happened before. What that excuse really means is “I, personally, have never lived through anything like this before, because I’ve only been in the business for a couple of decades.” (Even that would be a bit of a canard, because the market decline from 2000-2002 was, so far, just as bad, but whatever.)
One of the fallacies about the recent financial turbulence is that the markets are in “uncharted territory” and that there are no historical precedents for the volatility, panic, or economic uncertainty that we’ve observed. To make statements like this is to admit that one has not examined historical evidence prior to the 1990’s. The fact is that we’ve observed similar panics throughout market history. This decline has been deeper and more rapid than most, but that is largely a reflection of the rich valuation and overbought condition that characterised the market in 2007 (see the July 16, 2007 comment – A Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest).
If we seriously deem it necessary to talk about the Great Depression, fine. Even the Great Depression can be adequately used as a precedent for current conditions provided that one recognises that the market’s valuation during the Depression didn’t fall to the levels we currently observe until 1931 when the rate of unemployment was already 15%. Sure, if U.S. unemployment is headed to 25%, as it did in the Great Depression, then stock prices might fall in half even from here, as they did by 1932. But this is important – even if stock prices were to fall further, it would not be because of earnings losses that would permanently impair the fundamental value of U.S. companies. Rather, if further losses emerge, it will be because of increases in risk premiums that will be associated with extremely high subsequent returns. Indeed, even though unemployment shot to 25% in 1932, the S&P 500 more than doubled in the year following the 1932 Depression low, and tripled off of that low within less than three years.
The handful of historical instances when stocks fell to 7 times prior record earnings were also points that were accompanied by 15-25% unemployment, 12% yields on commercial paper (as at the 1974 lows), or 15% Treasury yields (as at the 1982 lows). Similar data is unlikely in this instance – and even if conditions deteriorate to that point, it will involve months and months of ebb and flow in the economic reports. We can be virtually certain that stocks would experience enormous rallies, not simply continuous decline, while the evidence accumulates. Meanwhile, it is notable that data that measure investor panic, such as risk-premiums and intra-day market volatility, already match historical extremes (1932, 1974, 1982, and 2002) – points where stock prices were not far from their lows even though negative economic news persisted for a longer period…
That’s not to say that I believe stocks have “hit their lows.” We always have to allow for the market to move significantly and unexpectedly, and there is plausible downside risk from here…
Investors can get a good understanding of market history by examining a great deal of data, or by living through a lot of market cycles and learning something along the way. Only investors who have done neither believe that current conditions are “uncharted territory.” Veterans like Warren Buffett and Jeremy Grantham have a good handle on both historical data, and on the concept that stocks are a claim to a very long-term stream of future cash flows. They recognise that even wiping out a year or two of earnings does no major damage to the intrinsic value of companies with good balance sheets and strong competitive positions. Most importantly, these guys never changed their standards of value even when other investors were bubbling and gurgling about a new era of productivity where knowledge-based companies would make the business cycle obsolete, and where profit margins would never mean-revert. They knew to ignore the reckless optimism then, because they understood that stocks were claims on a very long-term stream of cash flows. They know to ignore the paralyzing fear now, because they still understand that stocks are a claim on a very long-term stream of cash flows.
No thoughtful investor “calls a bottom” in the markets. Stocks are undervalued here, but they could decline further. Economic conditions are poor, but may be over or under-reflected in stock prices. Investors will find out over time, and the ebb-and-flow of information is slow enough to allow very large market fluctuations in the meantime. Current market conditions are extremely compressed, to the extent that the market could soar by 30% even in the context of an ongoing bear market. At the same time, investors remain skittish, and we should allow for fresh weakness into next year or perhaps a wide and prolonged trading range.
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