1. Factor returns, net of changes in valuation levels, are much lower than recent performance suggests.
2. Value-add can be structural, and thus reliably repeatable, or situational—a product of rising valuations—likely neither sustainable nor repeatable.
3. Many investors are performance chasers who in pushing prices higher create valuation levels that inflate past performance, reduce potential future performance, and amplify the risk of mean reversion to historical valuation norms.
4. We foresee the reasonable probability of a smart beta crash as a consequence of the soaring popularity of factor-tilt strategies.
As we have observed in the past, financial markets appear to solely focus on one major risk/return catalyst at any given time, before, like a bored teenager, turning attention to the “next new thing.” Over the past year and a half, we have seen primary market focus transition from the dramatic decline in oil prices, to economic stresses in China, and most recently to the forthcoming referendum in the United Kingdom and the possibility of “Brexit.” We are not for a moment suggesting that these factors are unimportant, as indeed they are all critical parts to a broader puzzle, but we would suggest that stepping back to apprehend the full image on the puzzle is vital when too many market participants are overly focused on one part of it. In fact, we think that such an overly limited focus in a world of complex market crosscurrents may be part of what leads many to underperform. To that end, we seek to take a broader view with our market outlook. ... In this edition of the outlook we begin by sorting through and evaluating some partial market myths that have recently been promulgated to explain market volatility. These include exaggerated concerns that the volatility is due to bond market illiquidity, or overdone assertions that markets are being driven higher and lower primarily on the back of oil price movements. Rather, we think that secular structural changes involving demographic trends and profound technological innovations are much more important considerations when judging those forces that are truly impacting economic and asset valuation dispersions. Further, we believe these secular challenges should also be the focus of the risk factors that represent the major fault lines in markets today, or the locations of potentially serious left tail risks.
- Also: Project Syndicate - The Fear Factor in Global Markets < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Central banks prove Einstein’s theory < 5min
- Also: Wall Street Journal - The High Consequences of Low Interest Rates < 5min
- Also: CFA Institute - Policy Divergence and Investor Implications 5-15min
- Also: Bloomberg - Japan Negative Rates Alchemy Beats Australia's Highest AAA Yield < 5min
My point is a simple one: Innovations are rarely life-changing events nowadays. Almost as important, at least from a macro-economic point of view, they are not likely to have nearly the same impact on productivity as the car had on the productivity of my parents, or the washing machine had on my grandmother’s ability to free up precious time. Productivity enhancements simply get more and more marginal, even if we think that all these new gadgets are wonderful. ... I am aware that there are people out there who would disagree with that statement; they don’t think the marginal impact of innovations is diminishing at all, but the macro-economic data suggests otherwise. ... at the most fundamental level, the change in economic output is equal to the sum of the change in the number of hours worked and the change in the output per hour. ... The workforce will fall nearly 1% per year in Japan and Korea between now and 2050; it will fall almost 0.5% per year in the Eurozone but only marginally in the UK, whereas it will rise almost 0.5% per year in the U.S. Significant regional differences in economic growth are therefore to be expected, but economic growth will be weak everywhere, at least when compared to what we got used to between the early 1980s and the Global Financial Crisis (‘GFC’). Those who argue that GDP growth will be disappointingly low for many years to come are on very solid ground. ... Some dynamics behave in the New Normal no different from the way they used to, but many don’t. In the following, I will review some of the outliers, and I will explain why (and how) that is an opportunity for investors, as long as the investment strategy is adjusted accordingly. Only the most naïve would expect an investment strategy that worked well in the great bull market to deliver similar, spectacular results in the years to come.
The past five years have been challenging for long-term value-based asset allocation. We do not believe this constitutes a paradigm shift, dooming such strategies in the future. The basic driver for long-term value working historically has been the excessive volatility of asset prices relative to their underlying fundamental cash flows, and recent history does not show any evidence of that changing. Outperforming the markets given that pattern requires either betting that the excessive swings will reverse over time or accurately predicting what those excessive swings will be. The former strategy amounts to long-term value-based investing, while the latter requires outpredicting others as to both what surprises will hit the markets and how the markets will react to them. Our strong preference is to focus on long-term value, despite the inevitable periods of tough performance that strategy will entail. ... The volatility of U.S. stocks since 1881 has been a little over 17% per year. The volatility of the underlying fair value of the market has been a little over 1% per year. Well over 90% of the volatility of the stock market cannot be explained as a rational response to the changing value of the stream of dividends it embodies. This means that the volatility is due to some combination of changing discount rates applied to those cash flows, and changes to expectations of future dividends that turned out to be incorrect. It is difficult to determine exactly which has been the driver at any given time, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for changing discount rates having been a major force. Even in the most extreme overvaluation in U.S. stock market history, the 1999-2000 internet bubble, none of the investors we heard explaining why the stock market was rational to have risen to such giddy heights explained it on the basis that future returns should be lower than history.
Given today’s low yields and high valuations across almost all asset classes, there are no particularly good outcomes available for investors. We believe that either valuations will revert to historically normal levels and near-term returns will be very bad, or valuations will remain elevated relative to history. If valuations remain elevated indefinitely, near-term returns will be less bad but still insufficient for investors to achieve their goals. Furthermore, given elevated valuations in the long term, long-term returns will also be insufficient for investors to achieve their goals. It would be very handy to know which scenario will play out, as the reversion versus no reversion scenarios have important implications both for the appropriate portfolio to run today and critical institution-level decisions that investors will be forced to make in the future. Unfortunately, we believe there is no certainty as to which scenario will play out. As a result, we believe it is prudent for investors to try to build portfolios that are robust to either outcome and start contingency planning for the possibility that long-term returns will be meaningfully lower than what is necessary for their current saving/ contribution and spending plans to be sustainable. ... By now some of our clients are probably thoroughly sick of hearing about the topic, but this piece is going to delve into it yet again, because the question of whether we are in Purgatory or Hell is a crucial one, not only for its implications for what portfolio is the right one for an investor to hold at the moment, but also for the institutional choices investors have to make that go well beyond simple asset allocation. ... In the long run, we can hope that valuations fall to historically normal levels, because only if that happens will the institutional business models and savings and investing heuristics that institutions and savers have built still be valid.
Along the way there were early signs that things had changed. First was the decline from the greatest bubble in US equity history, the 2000 tech bubble. Compared to the previous high of 21x earnings at the 1929 bubble high, this 2000 market shot up to 35x and when it finally broke, it fell only for a second to touch the old normal price trend. And then it quite quickly doubled. Compare that experience to the classic bubbles breaking in the US in 1929 and 1972 (Exhibit 2) or Japan in 1989. All three crashed through the existing trend and stayed below for an investment generation, waiting for a new crop of more hopeful investors. The market stayed below trend from 1930 to 1956 and again from 1973 to 1987. And in Japan, the market stayed below trend for… you tell me. It is 28 years and counting! Indeed, a trend is by definition a level below which half the time is spent. Almost all the time spent below trend in the US was following the breaking of the two previous bubbles of 1929 and 1972. After the bursting of the tech bubble, the failure of the market in 2002 to go below trend even for a minute should have whispered that something was different. Although I noted the point at the time, I missed the full significance. Even in 2009, with the whole commercial world wobbling, the market went below trend for only six months. So, we have actually spent all of six months cumulatively below trend in the last 25 years! The behavior of the S&P 500 in 2002 might have been whispering in my ear, but surely this is now a shout? The market has been acting as if it is oscillating normally enough but around a much higher average P/E. ... We value investors have bored momentum investors for decades by trotting out the axiom that the four most dangerous words are, “This time is different.”2 For 2017 I would like, however, to add to this warning: Conversely, it can be very dangerous indeed to assume that things are never different. ... I believe it was precisely these other factors – increased monopoly, political, and brand power – that had created this new stickiness in profits that allowed these new higher margin levels to be sustained for so long.
They think Amazon is going to grow faster, longer and bigger than almost any firm in history ... only ten firms with sales of more than $50bn have managed to grow by an average of 15% or more for ten years straight since 1950; no company with sales of more than $100bn has done so. If Amazon were to pull it off, it would be the most aggressive expansion of a giant company in the history of modern business. ... That raises two questions. The first is how Amazon could possibly achieve this. The second is which industries it might upend in the process. ... Mr Bezos claims, as a corollary to thinking only of customers, never to think of rivals. However, the list of current and possible competitors that Amazon is required to include in its annual filings is long and getting longer. It ranges from retailers and search engines to film producers and, as of last year, logistics and advertising firms. ... the best defence is simple: sell something that customers want and Amazon does not have. Exceptional merchandise and service helps.
Talking Tom Cat was an instant hit, launching a franchise whose titles have reached No. 1 in more than 100 countries on the App Store. Today, almost 350 million monthly active users support the apps, and Tom’s YouTube channel has more than 2 billion views. Unlike many mobile app creators, the Logins have proved adept at turning popularity into profit. Playing Talking Tom triggers an onslaught of advertising and in-game purchase offers, and Outfit7 earns more than $100 million a year. In early 2016 the Logins decided to cash out, hiring Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to find the most lucrative deal. ... The industrialists were willing to match the Logins’ asking price of $1 billion and let their team maintain autonomy. Samo and Iza signed away their company—having never taken money from outside investors, their stake was worth about $600 million. ... It’s hard to see the synergies between a maker of chemical solvents and a digital cat perched over a toilet. And curiously, the buyer, which had recently been renamed Zhejiang Jinke Entertainment Culture Co., had revenue of only $133 million in 2016, according to Bloomberg data pulled from regulatory filings, and its gross profit was $55 million. Jinke won’t say where the money to buy Outfit7 came from. ... The deal activity can best be understood as a consequence of quirks in the Chinese stock market. In China, industrial companies trade at valuations they’d never receive elsewhere in the world. ... some may trade at as much as 100 times their annual earnings—more than four times the multiple of General Electric Co. This means they can acquire companies at what is effectively a discount. ... Chinese companies are betting that by adding game studios that have better margins than a stodgy industrial business, their stock price will rise.
Long-time GMO clients have become accustomed to a certain kind of behavior from our asset allocation portfolios. If they are reading stories about how well an asset class has been doing, chances are pretty good that their next account statement will show that we are a seller of that asset (assuming we owned some in the first place). If, on the other hand, headlines are about how horribly things are going for an asset class, our clients have come to expect to see us buying in the coming quarters. But recently we made a move across a number of our asset allocation portfolios that goes counter to that general pattern. After a strong first half of 2017 for emerging equities that saw them rise over 18%, we actually bought more emerging in early July. It seems like a non-intuitive move for us to make, but we believe it is the correct one despite the fact that the prospective returns to emerging equities have dropped a bit since the beginning of the year. Even though the absolute expected return for emerging market value stocks has decreased, we believe the margin of superiority of emerging value over other assets has actually increased. As its superiority is higher and emerging-specific risk is relatively benign, our willingness to bear its risk has increased at the margin, which created the opportunity for us to increase our allocation.
In an investing and economic world in which almost everything seems to have changed in the last 20 years, one thing has remained constant: human nature. And, we can more or less prove it. At least in the case of the stock market. ... Our model does not attempt to justify the P/E levels as logical or deserved, nor does it attempt to predict future prices. It just shows what has tended to be the market’s typical response over the years to major market factors. By far, the two most important of these are pro t margins, the higher the better, and inflation, where stable and lower is better, except not too low. ... A third behavioral factor, which we first modeled 16 years ago and still has explanatory power, although much less than the first two, is the volatility of GDP growth. Notice that this is absolutely not the growth rate of GDP. ... we added two new factors, which we believe provide a little further value. The first addition was an on-off switch, which causes P/Es to be a bit lower after a down quarter. Again, not a very scientific reflex in a mean-reverting world, but understandable. The second was to add the US 10-year bond rate, where higher rates are negative, modestly improving the model even after the inflation component had done the heavy lifting for nominal interest rates. ... The market, however, appears not to care at all about the past or to learn much from it. This model for sure seems to say that for 92 years, at least, the market has with remarkable consistency been a coincident indicator of superficially appealing variables that in a strict economic sense have been inappropriate, and that have caused spectacular and unnecessary market volatility. The model is apparently a reflection of human nature and, of all factors influencing the market, human nature, as economically inefficient and unsophisticated it may be, seems the least likely to change.
- Also: Barron's - Coping With the “Foie Gras” Stock Market < 5min
- Also: Bloomberg - Renting an Apartment Toronto Is a Total Nightmare 5-15min
- Also: Bloomberg - Quants Are Clamoring for Data, Causing Soul Searching at Large Banks < 5min
- Also: Business Insider - Inside the world of Silicon Valley's 'coasters' — the millionaire engineers who get paid gobs of money and barely work < 5min