The Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing has produced a historically prolonged period of speculative yield-seeking by investors starved for safe return. The problem with simply concluding that quantitative easing can do this forever is that even speculative assets have to compete with zero. When a safe zero return is above the medium or long-term return that one can estimate for a very risky asset, the rationale for continuing to hold the risky asset becomes purely dependent on expectations of immediate short-term price gains. If speculative momentum starts to break, participants often try to get out the door simultaneously – especially if there is some material event that increases general aversion to risk. That’s the dynamic that produces market crashes.
I’m not saying a market crash is imminent, but it is a risk because very reliable valuation methods (that have remained reliable even in the recurring bubbles since the late-1990’s) presently estimate negative prospective nominal total returns for the S&P 500 on every horizon of 7 years or less, and an annual total return of about 1.9% over the coming decade. On the other hand, these same methods projected negative 10-year prospective returns – even on optimistic assumptions – at the 2000 peak (see the August 2000 Hussman Investment Research & Insight). While those projections turned out to be perfectly accurate (indeed, the 10-year total return of the S&P 500 was still negative even after the index had nearly doubled from its 2009 low), it also means that the overvaluation of the S&P 500 Index in 2000 was even greater than it is today. As I’ve noted before, the median S&P 500 component is more overvalued today than in 2000, and the average component is similarly overvalued. It’s only the capitalization-weighted valuation that was higher in 2000, primarily because of eye-popping valuations of large technology companies.
In any event, it’s fair to say that valuations could go higher still, and we can’t rule that out. Historically, the emergence of similarly extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes (as we also observed in 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000 and 2007) would suggest that the possibility is negligible – but we’ve been punished for our knowledge of history in this cycle. Overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes have now been extended without consequence for a much longer period than at any prior speculative extreme. Once you’ve seen a single flying pig, you’re forced to conclude that it’s at least possible for a pig to fly – even if you’re fairly sure it’s only been shot out of cannon.
The best we can do here is to choose one of two courses: a) speculate that valuations will move still higher, waiting not only for 7-year but 10-year prospective returns to go negative, understanding that those dismal long-term returns will still emerge, but hoping that we can eke out some gains before the well runs dry and we’re forced to beat millions of other speculators to the door, or b) maintain a defensive stance, recognize that equity risk taken at present levels is likely to produce negative returns on horizons of 7 years and less, and that a 10-year expected annual nominal total return of 1.9% for the S&P 500 is not worth the commensurate risk, but adapt to a world of flying pigs by allowing them to float a bit more freely without raising the safety nets further. Our choice would be b).
So yes, this time is different. It is different because the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest rate policy has starved investors of all sources of safe return, forcing them to accept risk at increasingly higher prices and progressively dismal long-term prospective returns. More importantly, this time is different because warning signs that appeared at every major pre-crash market peak have persisted and escalated, without resolution, far longer than they have done so historically. Reckless? Shortsighted? Probably. But like dot-com speculation, flipping overpriced houses, and getting a “yield pickup” by holding subprime mortgage debt on margin, reckless and shortsighted speculation always looks like enlightened investment genius until the hammer drops.