“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Last week, Investors Intelligence reported that bullish sentiment surged above 60%, coupled with a 5-year high in the S&P 500 and valuations beyond 18 times record trailing earnings. The same combination was last seen the week of the October 2007 market peak, last seen before that in January and May 1999 (which we should emphasize was good for only a 5% correction in the short run before a choppy run to the 2000 peak, but would still leave the S&P 500 more than 40% lower three years later), last seen before that the week of the August 1987 pre-crash peak, and last seen before that in January 1973, just before the S&P 500 lost half of its value.
Market conditions presently match those that have repeatedly preceded either market crashes or extended losses approaching 50% or more. Such losses have not always occurred immediately, but they have typically been significant enough to wipe out years of prior market gains. Aside from the 2000-2002 instance, they also have historically ended at valuations associated with prospective 10-year S&P 500 nominal total returns in excess of 10%. At present, reliable valuation measures are associated with estimated total returns for the S&P 500 of just 2.0% annually over the coming decade. On the basis of historically reliable measures, the S&P 500 would have to move slightly below the 1000 level to raise its prospective returns to a historically normal 10% annually. Given short-term interest rates near zero, economic disruptions would probably be required in order to produce that outcome over the completion of the current cycle, and we have no forecast or requirement for that to occur. Of course, there is no shortage of historically unreliable measures available to offer assurance that equity valuations are just fine.
Regardless of whether the market’s losses in this cycle turn out to be closer to 32% (which is the average run-of-the-mill bear market loss) or greater than 50% (which would be required to take historically reliable valuation measures to historical norms, though most bear markets have continued to undervalued levels), it’s going to be difficult to avoid steep losses without a plan of action. In our view, that action should be rather immediate even if the market’s losses are not. However uncomfortable it might be in the shorter-term, the historical evidence suggests that once overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions become as extreme as they are today, it’s advisable to panic before everyone else does.