Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hussman Weekly Market Comment: Quotes on a Screen and Blotches of Ink

Link to: Quotes on a Screen and Blotches of Ink
Implied volatility in S&P 500 index options fell to just 10.3% last week, indicating enormous complacency about potential risk. I’ve noted before that extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions tend to feature “unpleasant skew”: the raw probability of an advance is typically greater than the probability of a decline, so the market tends to achieve a series of successive but fairly marginal new highs, which can feel excruciating for investors in a defensive position. The “skew” part is that while the raw probability favors an advance, the remaining probability often features vertical drops that can wipe out weeks or months of market gains in a handful of trading days. We’ve certainly seen an unusual persistence of overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions without consequence in recent quarters, but it is notable that the implied skew in S&P 500 index options has soared. Indeed, the ratio of implied skew to implied volatility spiked to the highest level in history on Friday. Again, we’ll quietly state our case here, with an understanding that there is little use in waving our arms about.

Again, on a broad range of historically reliable measures, our estimate of 10-year S&P 500 nominal total returns is now less than 1.8% annually. That said, the most reliable measures actually project negative returns, but then, the most reliable measures are those that adjust most fully for cyclical variations in profit margins, and we are continually reminded that this time is different. The ratio of market capitalization to GDP, which Warren Buffett (correctly) observed in a 2001 Fortune interview is “probably the single best measure of where valuations stand at any given moment” is now about 150% (not just 50%) above its pre-bubble norm, even imputing a rebound in Q2 GDP growth. Of course, Buffett also wrote "A group of lemmings looks like a pack of individualists compared with Wall Street when it gets a concept in its teeth" - which may explain why Wall Street seems so entranced with the concept of QE instead of actually doing the math. The ratio of market capitalization to GDP, presented below on an inverted scale, is beyond every point in history except for the final quarter of 1999 and the first two quarters of 2000.


Last week, the Bank for International Settlements, which acts as the central bank to central banks, issued its annual report. It is about the most insightful warning that one is likely to see from the central banking system, even if the Federal Reserve, ECB and other individual central banks are the ones being warned.

“Financial markets have been exuberant over the past year, at least in advanced economies, dancing mainly to the tune of central bank decisions. Volatility in equity, fixed income and foreign exchange markets has sagged to historical lows. Obviously, market participants are pricing in hardly any risks. In advanced economies, a powerful and pervasive search for yield has gathered pace and credit spreads have narrowed. The euro area periphery has been no exception. Equity markets have pushed higher. To be sure, in emerging market economies the ride has been much rougher. At the first hint in May last year that the Federal Reserve might normalize its policy, emerging markets reeled, as did their exchange rates and asset prices. Similar tensions resurfaced in January, this time driven more by a change in sentiment about conditions in emerging market economies themselves. But market sentiment has since improved in response to decisive policy measures and a renewed search for yield. Overall, it is hard to avoid the sense of a puzzling disconnect between the markets’ buoyancy and underlying economic developments globally.

“In the countries that have been experiencing outsize financial booms, the risk is that these will turn to bust and possibly inflict financial distress. Based on leading indicators that have proved useful in the past, such as the behaviour of credit and property prices, the signs are worrying.