Investors who believe that history has lessons to teach should take our present concerns with significant weight, but should also recognize that tendencies that repeatedly prove reliable over complete market cycles are sometimes defied over portions of those cycles. Meanwhile, investors who are convinced that this time is different can ignore what follows. The primary reason not to listen to a word of it is that similar concerns, particularly since late-2011, have been followed by yet further market gains. If one places full weight on this recent period, and no weight on history, it follows that stocks can only advance forever.
What seems different this time, enough to revive the conclusion that “this time is different,” is faith in the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. Though quantitative easing has no mechanistic relationship to stock prices except to make low-risk assets psychologically uncomfortable to hold, investors place far more certainty in the effectiveness of QE than can be demonstrated by either theory or evidence. The argument essentially reduces to a claim that QE makes stocks go up because “it just does.” We doubt that the perception that an easy Fed can hold stock prices up will be any more durable in the next couple of years than it was in the 2000-2002 decline or the 2007-2009 decline – both periods of persistent and aggressive Fed easing. But QE is novel, and like the internet bubble, novelty feeds imagination. Most of what investors believe about QE is imaginative.
As Ray Dalio of Bridgwater recently observed, “The dilemma the Fed faces now is that the tools currently at its disposal are pretty much used up. We think the question around the effectiveness of QE (and not the tapering, which gets all the headlines) is the big deal. In other words, we’re not worried about whether the Fed is going to hit or release the gas pedal, we’re worried about whether there’s much gas left in the tank and what will happen if there isn’t.”