An immediate note on market conditions. Last week's market advance cleared out the "predictable" expectation for constructive returns that briefly emerged from the recent market selloff. That doesn't mean that the market can't advance further, but given that the expected return/risk profile of stocks has now shifted hard negative again, any such advance would be a random fluctuation rather than a predictable one. Strategic Growth and Strategic International Equity have shifted from a briefly constructive position back to a full hedge. Our principal investment position in Strategic Total Return remains a 20% allocation to precious metals shares, where the ensemble of conditions remains very favorable on our measures, despite what we view as a welcome correction in the spot price of physical gold. The Fund has a duration of only about 1.5 years in Treasury securities, mostly driven by a modest exposure in 3-5 year maturities.
It is now urgent for investors to recognize that the set of economic evidence we observe reflects a unique signature of recessions comprising deterioration in financial and economic measures that is always and only observed during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions. These include a widening of credit spreads on corporate debt versus 6 months prior, the S&P 500 below its level of 6 months prior, the Treasury yield curve flatter than 2.5% (10-year minus 3-month), year-over-year GDP growth below 2%, ISM Purchasing Managers Index below 54, year-over-year growth in total nonfarm payrolls below 1%, as well as important corroborating indicators such as plunging consumer confidence. There are certainly a great number of opinions about the prospect of recession, but the evidence we observe at present has 100% sensitivity (these conditions have always been observed during or just prior to each U.S. recession) and 100% specificity (the only time we observe the full setof these conditions is during or just prior to U.S. recessions). This doesn't mean that the U.S. economy cannot possibly avoid a recession, but to expect that outcome relies on the hope that "this time is different."
While the reduced set of options for monetary policy action may seem unfortunate, it is important to observe that each time the Fed has attempted to "backstop" the financial markets by distorting the set of investment opportunities that are available, the Fed has bought a temporary reprieve only at the cost of amplifying the later fallout.
Historically, the typical bull-bear market cycle has produced a range of 10-year prospective returns in a band between about 7.5% and 13%. That band presently corresponds to a range for the S&P 500 index between 600 and 1000. A 10% prospective return is right in the middle, at about 800 on the S&P. Once you recognize that profit margins are in fact cyclical, that range is about right, as uncomfortable as it may be to contemplate. Jeremy Grantham of GMO estimates that fair value is "no higher than 950." A tighter norm for prospective return between 9-11% maps to an S&P 500 between 750 and 850.
Finally, while I certainly would not expect it in the absence of extreme macroeconomic upheaval, major secular undervaluation as we observed in 1950, 1974 and 1982 would presently map to about 400 on the S&P 500. When you think of "once in a generation" valuations and "secular bear market lows" - that number, not anything near present levels, should be what crosses your mind. I am well aware that even discussing numbers like these, given the present mindset of investors, is likely to be dismissed as utterly ridiculous. Frankly, I would rather risk the ridicule of those who pay lip-service to research, cash flows, fundamentals, and value than to pretend these outcomes are impossible, when the historical record (and even the experience of the past decade) strongly indicates otherwise.
As Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital has noted, "We hear a lot about 'worst-case' projections, but they often turn out to be not negative enough.. most people view risk taking primarily as a way to make money. Bearing higher risk generally produces higher returns. The market has to set things up to look like that'll be the case; if it didn't, people wouldn't make risky investments. But it can't always work that way, or else risky investments wouldn't be risky. And when risk bearing doesn't work, it really doesn't work, and people are reminded what risk's all about."