Monday, October 30, 2017

Valuations, interest rates, and corporate profitability...

As I was re-reading some old letters from Seth Klarman, I thought the below paragraphs were worth sharing once again. Given Mr. Buffett's recent comments about interest rates and valuations, and how those comments have been discussed in the media, as well as Berkshire's growing cash balance and difficulty finding bargains in today's market, history seems to be rhyming a bit. The paragraphs below from Klarman were published in June of 1998. 
You might think that the increasing percentage of investor funds managed by professional ("professional"?) money managers would serve as a check on market excess. If you did, you would be seriously wrong. Very few professional investors are willing to give up the joy ride of a roaring U.S. bull market to stand virtually alone against the crowd, selling overvalued securities without reinvesting the proceeds in something also overvalued. The pressures are to remain fully invested in whatever is working, the comfort of consensus serving as the ultimate life preserver for anyone inclined to worry about the downside. As small comfort as it may be, the fact that almost everyone will get clobbered in a market reversal makes remaining fully invested an easy relative performance decision. Isn't this what always happens at the top of historic bull markets? The answer, of course, is of course.  
Investors and the financial media, always eager to grasp at straws, however slim and brittle, jumped on the year-end shareholder letter of legendary investor Warren Buffett as fodder for the bull case. The Dow immediately rallied 200 points. What Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, said is that at today's level of interest rates, and assuming prevailing levels of corporate profitability, in his view U.S. equities as a whole are not overvalued (and, just as assuredly, not undervalued.) Virtually no one explored his real message, equally prominent, suggesting that today's unprecedented level of corporate profitability may well be unsustainable; future profits may fall far short of today's lofty expectations. The U.S. stock market is extremely vulnerable to disappointments; nothing short of perfection is built into today's prices. And Buffett confesses that it has become increasingly difficult for him to find bargains in the current market environment. 
And the comments referenced above from Buffett in the 1997 Berkshire letter (published in February of 1998) are below: 
Though we don't attempt to predict the movements of the stock market, we do try, in a very rough way, to value it. At the annual meeting last year, with the Dow at 7,071 and long-term Treasury yields at 6.89%, Charlie and I stated that we did not consider the market overvalued if 1) interest rates remained where they were or fell, and 2) American business continued to earn the remarkable returns on equity that it had recently recorded. So far, interest rates have fallen -- that's one requisite satisfied -- and returns on equity still remain exceptionally high. If they stay there -- and if interest rates hold near recent levels -- there is no reason to think of stocks as generally overvalued. On the other hand, returns on equity are not a sure thing to remain at, or even near, their present levels. 
In the summer of 1979, when equities looked cheap to me, I wrote a Forbes article entitled "You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus." At that time skepticism and disappointment prevailed, and my point was that investors should be glad of the fact, since pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels. Now, however, we have a very cheery consensus. That does not necessarily mean this is the wrong time to buy stocks: Corporate America is now earning far more money than it was just a few years ago, and in the presence of lower interest rates, every dollar of earnings becomes more valuable. Today's price levels, though, have materially eroded the "margin of safety" that Ben Graham identified as the cornerstone of intelligent investing.
And for a more extensive analysis and opinion on valuations and interest rates, see John Hussman's Why Market Valuations are Not Justified by Low Interest Rates.