The last decade has seen an extraordinary rise in the importance of a unique class of investor. Generally referred to as “price-insensitive buyers,” these are asset owners for whom the expected returns of the assets they buy are not a primary consideration in their purchase decisions. Such buyers have been the explanation behind a whole series of market price movements that otherwise have not seemed to make sense in a historical context. In today’s world, where prices of all sorts of assets are trading far above historical norms, it is worth recognizing that investors prepared to buy assets without regard to the price of those assets may also find themselves in a position to sell those assets without regard to price as well. This potential is compounded by the reduction in liquidity in markets around the world, which has been driven by tighter regulation of financial institutions, and, paradoxically, a greater desire for liquidity on the part of market participants. Making matters worse, in order to see massive changes in the price of a security, you don’t need the price-insensitive buyer to become a seller. You merely need him to cease being the marginal buyer. If price-insensitive buyers actually become price-insensitive sellers, it becomes possible that price falls could take asset prices significantly below historical norms. This is not to suggest that such an event is inevitable, still less is it an attempt to predict in which assets and when it will occur, but anyone conditioned to think that these investors provide a permanent support for the markets should be aware that the support may at some point be taken away.
In this essay I want to build on some of the ideas that were developed in my last essay specifically as they pertain to thinking about asset markets. The most obvious place to start is with the idea that the natural rate of interest is a myth. Accepting this idea has many ramifications for the way in which one conducts asset pricing. ... Perhaps the clearest implication from my previous essay with respect to investing is that the cash rate is potentially unanchored. That is to say, without a natural rate it isn’t obvious what cash rate one should expect to see in the long term. ... If, like any number of my colleagues, you don’t believe a word I’ve written (and quite possibly think that I either have escaped from or belong in an asylum), then let me leave you with one last chart. Even if you believe that real interest rates do matter for equity market valuations, and, hence, that lower real rates justify higher sustainable levels of P/E, you still need to ask yourself the following question: Would I need to believe that today’s U.S. equity market valuations represent fair value?
Is it any wonder investors are questioning why they allocate to emerging markets in the first place? Even going beyond the woes of emerging, we are starting to hear some investors asking whether holding non-U.S. stocks is at all necessary. As market historians we can say that the timing of such sentiments tends to be bad – no one seems to ever decide to give up on an asset class after it has just had good performance, and the last burst of “why bother with non-U.S. stocks” occurred just before the top for the S&P 500 in 2000. But just complaining that investors got it wrong last time they voiced these sentiments does not qualify as thoughtful analysis. ... while emerging markets “deserved” some of their bad luck over the last several years and the outperformance of the U.S. has made some sense, we do not believe that emerging is a value trap, nor do we believe that the U.S. has proved itself particularly extraordinary. ... In total, we can surmise that emerging currencies are a “risk asset” of sorts and that they have delivered a return above U.S. cash over time and should probably continue to do so given the capital needs and vulnerabilities of emerging economies. ... even if the U.S. has somehow managed to unlock the secret to permanently high profits and the economy remains solid, it seems unlikely that the secret will remain an entirely U.S. phenomenon. If we imagine a world in which U.S. profitability is able to remain well above historical levels, we would expect non-U.S. companies to begin to copy their American counterparts, similar to the way profitability converged from the 1970s to the early 2000s. ... we have seen an impressive expansion of American profitability that has not been mirrored in the rest of the world, and U.S. stocks have duly outperformed. This has, not surprisingly, led investors to try to convince themselves of the inherent superiority of U.S. stocks to justify continuing to hold them. We cannot completely reject the possibility that those arguments are correct, but the evidence seems pretty thin.
At current spreads, high yield seems to be no worse than fair value and probably better than that, even if we assume (as we do) that we are entering a fourth default cycle. In today’s environment, that makes it one of the best available risk assets for investors. But the nature of the high yield market suggests it is a good candidate for overshooting fair value to the downside whenever defaults begin to rise in earnest. Our response for BFAS at current levels is to continue to search for credit securities offering a superior combination of expected returns and downside protection while augmenting this at the margin with more index-like credit exposure. ... It would be lovely to claim we will be able to time the bottom for credit precisely. We will not, and unlike with equities, even if we did know the timing perfectly, getting material exposure to the asset class quickly would be extremely difficult. This leaves us with the hunch we are probably getting in a little early, the fear that we might not get all the exposure we would like before spreads move to less attractive levels, and the sure knowledge we won’t get the bragging rights of having called the turn. In other words, it seems to be an utterly classic value investing opportunity.
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.
Over the last six or seven years, most financial assets have done very well. The performance divide has not been between low-risk assets and high-risk assets or between liquid assets and illiquid assets, but between long-duration assets and short-duration assets. Long-duration assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate, and private equity have benefitted from a large fall in the discount rate associated with their cash flows, while short-duration assets have been hurt by the same fall. Investors tend to tilt their portfolios in favor of those assets that have done well, and today that pushes them to be increasing effective duration in their portfolios, just when the potential returns to those assets have dropped. What we believe would be most helpful to investors are short-duration risk assets, as they offer the potential of decent returns over time with less vulnerability to rising discount rates. These assets, generally lumped together under the “alternatives” title, are generally out of favor today given their disappointing performance since the financial crisis, but the characteristics that made them disappoint may well prove a blessing if discount rates start to rise.
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.
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.