Quantitative easing wasn’t about creating more “liquidity,” or encouraging more bank loans, or any of the other excuses tossed around for it. What quantitative easing really did was to replace interest-bearing Treasury bonds held by the public with a mountain of zero-interest money that was so uncomfortable to hold that it drove investors absolutely crazy.
Valuations are informative about long-term returns and full-cycle risks. Market internals are informative about investor psychology over shorter segments of the cycle. Presently, neither valuations nor internals are favorable, and that is what opens up a trap door under the market.
The music is fading out, and a trap-door has opened up in the floor, but they're still dancing.
Current stock market capitalization is largely an artifact of speculative psychology, not reasonably discounted cash flows. Unless investors rely on eternal sunshine of the spotless mind – the assumption that current levels of extreme cyclical optimism will be permanent – they should not expect the associated valuation extremes to be permanent either.
Market returns and economic growth have underlying drivers. At their core, extended periods of extraordinary growth and disappointing collapse reflect large moves in those drivers from one extreme to another. Extrapolation becomes a very bad idea once those extremes are reached.
Even when extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” warning signs are present, we now require explicit deterioration in market internals before adopting a negative market outlook. That, however, is far different than saying that extreme conditions can be ignored altogether. With market internals negative here, underlying market risks may be expressed abruptly, and with unexpected severity.
The hallmark of an economic Ponzi scheme is that the operation of the economy relies on the constant creation of low-grade debt in order to finance consumption and income shortfalls among some members of the economy, using the massive surpluses earned by other members of the economy. The factors most responsible for today’s lopsided prosperity are exactly the seeds from which the next crisis will spring.
Strong investment opportunities are almost always born out of discomfort. Likewise, market collapses are almost always born out of confidence and euphoria. Markets peak when investors feel confidence about the economy, are impressed by recent market gains, and are comforted by the perception of safety and resilience that follows an extended market advance.
Investment is about valuation. Speculation is about psychology. Both factors are unfavorable here. We’re observing the very early effects of risk-aversion in a hypervalued market. Based on the deterioration we’ve observed in our most reliable measures of market internals, investor preferences have subtly shifted toward risk-aversion, which opens up something of a trap-door.
In my view, the idea that higher risk means higher expected return is one of the most dangerous and misunderstood propositions in the financial markets. The reason it’s dangerous is that it ignores the central condition: “provided that one is choosing between portfolios that all maximize expected return per unit of risk.” Presently, the S&P 500 is both a high risk and a low expected return asset.