The financial markets are in a bit of a fight here between technicals and fundamentals. On a technical basis, a variety of widely-followed trendlines, moving average crossings, and resistance areas converge on the 1100 area for the S&P 500. Market internals have also firmed somewhat during the rally in recent weeks, suggesting that investors are eager to re-establish a speculative tone to the market. At the same time, fundamentals are bearing down hard on the market. We continue to observe a clear deterioration in leading indicators of economic activity.
Over the short-term, my impression is that the technicals may hold sway for a bit. The economic data points simply do not come out every day, and to the extent that economic news is not perfectly uniform in its implications, the eagerness of investors to speculate can easily dominate briefly. We established enough contingent call options at lower levels that we've now got about 1% of assets in roughly at-the-money index calls - a modest "anti-hedge" that removes any concern we might have about a frantic short-squeeze if the S&P 500 moves materially above 1100. At the same time, the historical evidence suggests that fundamentals have ultimately trumped technicals when we've observed similar warnings from economic indicators in the past. My impression is that the economic cold water could hit investors very abruptly, so that gains achieved over several weeks may be suddenly erased in a matter of a few days.
My basic concerns are the same here. Investors who will need to fund specific expenses within a short number of years - retirement needs, tuition, health care, home purchases etc - should not be relying on a continued market advance. If your life plans would be significantly derailed by a major market decline, get out. In contrast, if you are pursuing a disciplined, long-term investment strategy, and you know from your own experience of the past decade that you are diversified enough to ride out periodic losses without abandoning that strategy, ignore my views (and those of everyone else) and stick to your discipline.
Much of my research last week was spent working with our various measures of valuation. While the extent of implied overvaluation on our best measures does have a range of variation, that range runs between about 25%-40% overvalued. We certainly know of many valuation indicators that suggest that stocks are "cheap" here. Unfortunately, they don't demonstrate any reliability in historical tests. It is almost mind-numbing to observe how many analysts confidently make valuation claims about the market on CNBC, evidently without ever having done any historical research. If you don't require evidence, you can say anything you want.
Last week, Ben Bernanke appeared before Congress for his regular Humphrey-Hawkins testimony. For most of that testimony, it fascinated me that every time the Bernanke said that the Fed has taken no losses on its operations, there was absolutely no remark that the reason the Fed has not lost money is that the Treasury, directly (Fannie, Freddie) or indirectly (AIG) has made the liabilities held by the Fed whole.
From that perspective, the critical part of Bernanke's testimony was the following exchange with New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett of the House Financial Services Committee. Importantly, Bernanke concedes that by placing two-thirds of its balance sheet into the liabilities of insolvent agencies (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), now under conservatorship, the Fed is essentially relying on Congress to make these institutions whole at taxpayer expense. The Fed has put the public on the hook to bail out the GSEs.