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Hussman on Valuation; Stocks Higher? Bulls Dance On Edge Of Cliff

Inquiring minds are reading Clarity and Valuation by John Hussman.

Last week, the dividend yield on the S&P 500 dropped below 2%, versus a historical average closer to double that level. While part of the reason for the paucity of yield in the current market can be explained by the 20% plunge in dividend payouts over the past year, as financial companies have cut or halted dividends to conserve cash, the fact is that current payouts are not at all out of line with their historical relationship to revenues, and even a full recovery of the past year’s dividend cuts would still leave the yield at a paltry 2.5%. The October 1987 crash occurred from a yield of 2.65%, which was, at the time, the lowest yield observed in history, matched only by the 1972 peak prior to the brutal 1973-74 bear market.

Those two periods had a few other things in common. In the weeks immediately preceding the market downturn, stocks were overbought, had advanced significantly over prior weeks, bond yields were creeping higher, and investment advisory bearishness had dropped below 19%. All of those features should be familiar, because we observed them at the 1987 and 1972 peaks, and we observe them now.

On the basis of normalized profit margins, the average price/earnings ratio for the S&P 500, prior to 1995, was only about 13. Higher historical “norms” reflect the addition into that average of extremely high “recession P/Es,” based on dividing the S&P 500 by extremely low, but temporarily depressed earnings. For example, the P/E for the S&P 500 currently is 86, because earnings have been devastated, but it would be foolish to take that figure at face value, and equally foolish to work it into a historical “average” P/E. The pre-1995 norm of 13 for price-to-normalized earnings is important, because at present – and again, we are not using current depressed earnings, but properly normalized values – the S&P 500 P/E would currently be over 20. That’s higher than 1987 and 1972, and about even with 1929. Of course, valuations have been regularly higher in the period since the late 1990’s (and not surprisingly, subsequent returns, even after the recent advance, have been dismal overall, with the S&P 500 posting a negative total return for the past decade).

So overvalued, check. Overbought, check. Overbullish, check. Upward pressure on yields, check. Market internals? – certainly mixed, but not bad – and there’s the wild card.

It’s important to recognize that when I quote probabilities, I am generally using a form of Bayes’ Rule. So when I say, for example, that I estimate a probability of about 80% of fresh credit difficulties accompanied by a market plunge over the coming year, that figure is based on various combinations of historical evidence, and what has (and has not) happened afterward, and how often. As a side note, a “market plunge” in this context need not be a “crash.” In the context of a credit-driven crash and rebound (which is what I believe we’ve observed), a typical post-rebound correction would be about -28%, but even that would take stocks to less than 20% above the March lows.

From current valuations, durable market returns appear very unlikely. As I noted last week, whatever merit there might be in stocks is decidedly speculative. That doesn’t mean that the returns must be (or even over the very short term, are likely to be) negative. What it does mean is that whatever returns emerge are unlikely to be durably positive. Market gains from these levels will most probably be given back, possibly very abruptly.

Stocks Higher? New Bull Market?

New bull market for the new year? Famed bond investor El-Erian of Pimco says don’t bet on it.

Homes are selling at their fastest clip in nearly three years, the unemployment rate is falling and stocks are up 66 percent since their March lows — the best performance since the 1930s.

What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive of giant bond manager Pimco. The investor says the recovery may be gaining steam but is no different than a kid who eats too much candy at one of the birthday parties his 6-year-old daughter attends.

“We’re on a sugar high,” El-Erian says. “It feels good for a while but is unsustainable.”

His point: This burst of economic activity fed by government spending and near-zero interest rates will soon peter out.

As CEO at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Pimco, El-Erian, 51, oversees nearly $1 trillion in assets, more than the gross domestic product of most countries. So when he talks, people listen.

What he’s saying now:

–Stocks will drop 10 percent in the space of three or four weeks, bringing the Standard & Poor’s 500 index below 1,000 — though he’s not predicting when.

–The unemployment rate will be hovering above 8 percent a year from now.

El-Erian says people are fooling themselves if they think all the bullish data of late means a strong recovery is in the offing. So he’s buying Treasurys and selling riskier stuff.

His bet: Investors will get scared again and want U.S.-guaranteed debt so they know they’ll get repaid.

James Paulsen, chief strategist at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis, with $355 billion under management, has been pounding the table for months to buy stocks. Just like in the early 1980s, the recovery will take the form of a “V,” he says. The reason: Companies have cut inventories and payrolls to the bone, so just a little revenue growth could translate into a bumper crop of profits.

El-Erian says many of the bulls don’t appreciate just how much the government props still under the economy are masking its weakness. Instead of focusing on the fundamentals today, he says, they’re looking to the past, expecting a quick economic rebound because that’s what’s happened before.

We’re trained to think the “farther you fall, the higher you’ll bounce back,” El-Erian says. “We’re hostage to the V.”

El-Erian says we’ve probably seen the worst of the crisis but consumers, and not just Washington, need to start spending again for the recovery to really take hold.

He doesn’t expect that to happen soon. Like in the Great Depression, Americans are saving more and borrowing less — a shift in attitudes toward family finances that Pimco thinks will last a generation.

That, plus the impact of more regulation and higher taxes, El-Erian says, will crimp growth for years to come.

El-Erian Is An Optimist

As I see it, El-Erian is an optimist. A year from now it is extremely unlikely the unemployment rate will approach 8%. Please note El-Erian is not calling for 8% unemployment, he is only saying it will be above 8%.

How much above 8% are we talking about? Arguably, the answer to that question is another question: How nuts will Congress get with more stimulus packages? Then again, the current stimulus package did not create any lasting jobs, so why would the next one?

It is pretty clear the bulk of the current stimulus efforts is behind us. We will see the results in 4th quarter GDP, with some additional but smaller effect in the 1st quarter 2010 GDP. What then?

Hussman’s viewpoint is very similar to mine. I think the bottom may be in, but returns going forward are unlikely to be very good, and a strong pullback is very likely.

Other possibilities include a scenario in which the market goes nowhere (say +-150 S&P points) in either direction, for a number of years. There is also a 20% chance Congress and the administration totally wrecks the US dollar and stocks magically go flying.

I think the probabilities look something like this:

  • 20% chance of a durable rally
  • 20% chance the market meanders nowhere for as long as 5 years
  • 30% chance of of a hard 25-30% correction
  • 30% chance the bottom is not even in

Unlike Hussman, I have not done any statistical analysis of those estimates. Certainly his “estimate a probability of about 80% of fresh credit difficulties accompanied by a market plunge over the coming year” is reasonable enough.

Note that Hussman’s 80% probability of a plunge encompasses a plunge where the bottom holds and also where it doesn’t.

The key for me is that on average it does not pay to be fully invested here, regardless of what the stampede of bulls say. Bear in mind, the bulls were saying exactly the same thing as they are now right at the October 2007 high. I received taunts for several months for my market top call late summer of 2007, about 3% and 3 months early.

Is the top in now? No one knows, but that is not even the right question to be asking. A far better question to be asking is “Is the bottom in?” Even if it is, a major test coming of that bottom down the road is highly likely and that will gore a lot of overly complacent bulls along the way.

In 2007, Chuck Prince former CEO of Citigroup proclaimed “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

Once again, bulls are dancing on a clifftop, oblivious to the fact that the next step might be right over the edge.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com


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