Market bubbles are called bubbles for good reason. They form, they inflate, they grow to an unstably distorted size, and ultimately they undergo the effects of rapid decompression in search of equilibrium. In a word … they pop. And generally speaking, the bigger the bubble the bigger the bang. … Most of us are pretty good by now, we think, at spotting bubbles. After all, we know what they look like; we recognize their characteristics, don’t we? Maybe. Maybe not. Not all bubbles look or act the same. … Is there a bubble inflating again? … people often shrug their shoulders, scratch their heads, and simply accept that there must be good reasons why stocks have been on a roll. The average investor, after all, is at least one step removed from the markets for intangible assets and therefore has comparatively little experience to help avoid becoming their occasional Venus flytrap dinner. … When it comes to assessing the state of the real economy, on the other hand, most people are more circumspect and not so easily taken in. … this bubble was born of desperation, first by the misguided monetary policy regime and then by investors who are sure to become its unsuspecting victims as they look for return—any return—in all the wrong places. … Railing against Fed policy, of course, doesn’t change it. … we continue to believe it is possible—and necessary—to see both the forest and the trees in order to fulfill our highest obligation: to continue acting in the best interests of our clients. As noted investment manager Francois Sicart said recently: “The attitude of many professional investors toward the current market makes me think of a crowd enjoying a dance party on top of an active volcano. They know it is going to erupt but, instead of planning an exit, they keep dancing while trying to guess the exact date and time of the eruption.”
In 1948, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner reported an experiment in which pigeons were presented with food at fixed intervals, with no relationship to any given pigeon’s behavior. Despite that lack of relationship, most of the pigeons developed distinct superstitious rituals and maneuvers, apparently believing that these actions resulted in food. As Skinner reported, “Their appearance as the result of accidental correlations with the presentation of the stimulus is unmistakable.” ... Superstition is a by-product of the search for patterns between events – usually occurring in close proximity. This kind of search for patterns is essential for the continuation of a species, but it also lends itself to false beliefs. As Foster and Kokko (2009) put it, “The inability of individuals – human or otherwise – to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them… will often force them to make many incorrect causal associations, in order to establish those that are essential for survival.” ... The ability to infer cause and effect, based on the frequency with which one event co-occurs with some other event, is called “adaptive” or “Bayesian” learning. Humans, pigeons, and many animals have this ability to learn relationships in their world. Still, one thing that separates humans from animals is the ability to evaluate whether there is really any actual mechanistic link between cause and effect. When we stop looking for those links, and believe that one thing causes another because “it just does” – we give up the benefits of human intelligence and exchange them for the reflexive impulses of lemmings, sheep, and pigeons.
The recent slowdown in China’s growth has caused concern about its long-term growth prospects. Evidence suggests that, before 2008, China’s growth miracle was driven primarily by productivity improvement following economic policy reforms. Since 2008, however, growth has become more dependent on investment and overall growth has slowed. If the recent reform plans can successfully address the country’s structural imbalances, China could maintain a solid growth rate that might help smooth its transition to high-income status. ... Theory suggests that three factors contribute to economic growth: capital accumulation, labor force expansion, and productivity improvement. ... China’s growth miracle since the early 1980s has significantly raised the standards of living in China. It has also made China an increasingly important contributor to world economic growth and a large and growing market for U.S. exports. The rapid growth was driven primarily by productivity gains and capital investment. The recent growth slowdown has raised the concern that China’s growth miracle could be ending.
Something else must be driving the fall in Chinese equities. ... What could that be? Have China’s banks overextended themselves more recently? Central planning or not, as we all learned in 2008, a surge in shadow banking can lead to terrible things. ... I am no expert on China, but it is very tempting to conclude that the Chinese gambling spirit has simply migrated from Macau to Shanghai. ... Relative to 1999, when the euro was first introduced as an accounting currency, Greek workers had at one point (around 2009-10) enjoyed almost twice the wage growth compared to the average German worker. Although much of the advantage has since been given up, Greek workers have still out performed their German colleagues since the introduction of the euro – at least as far as wage growth is concerned ... Ukraine, the Middle East and Puerto Rico are all in the dumps – but for three very different reasons. ... the deflation talk is likely to blossom up again, and several countries on either side of the Atlantic could be flirting with recession later this year or early next. Consequently, yields on long bonds could fall further, and stock markets may be in troubled waters for a while. I don’t expect this to be anywhere nearly as bad as 2008, though. It is a normal cyclical downturn, which may not even be strong enough to be classified as a recession. But a slowdown it is. ... I think the U.S. economy will substantially outperform most other OECD economies over the medium as well as the long term – even if there is a modest cyclical slowdown just around the corner.
Combined stock repurchases by U.S. public companies have reached record levels, a Reuters analysis finds, but as the recent history of such iconic businesses as Hewlett-Packard and IBM suggests, showering cash on shareholders may exact a long-term toll. ... A Reuters analysis shows that many companies are barreling down the same road, spending on share repurchases at a far faster pace than they are investing in long-term growth through research and development and other forms of capital spending. ... Almost 60 percent of the 3,297 publicly traded non-financial U.S. companies Reuters examined have bought back their shares since 2010. In fiscal 2014, spending on buybacks and dividends surpassed the companies’ combined net income for the first time outside of a recessionary period, and continued to climb for the 613 companies that have already reported for fiscal 2015. ... In the most recent reporting year, share purchases reached a record $520 billion. Throw in the most recent year’s $365 billion in dividends, and the total amount returned to shareholders reaches $885 billion, more than the companies’ combined net income of $847 billion. ... Among the 1,900 companies that have repurchased their shares since 2010, buybacks and dividends amounted to 113 percent of their capital spending, compared with 60 percent in 2000 and 38 percent in 1990. ... For decades, the computer hardware, software and services company has linked executive pay in part to earnings per share, a metric that can be manipulated by share repurchases.
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.
“My career has largely been successful as a consequence of the fact that I love to test ideas,” says Rob Arnott, chairman and CEO of Research Affiliates and former editor in chief of the Financial Analysts Journal. Arnott’s reputation for testing conventional investment wisdom made him one of the key contributors when the Research Foundation of CFA Institute gathered leading academics and practitioners in 2011 to discuss the equity risk premium (ERP), the expected return for equities in excess of a risk-free rate. He delivered a presentation titled “Equity Risk Premium Myths,” which was subsequently included in the book Rethinking the Equity Risk Premium. In this interview with CFA Institute Magazine, Arnott corrects some of the misconceptions about the ERP, argues that “a cult of equities is worshipping a false idol,” deconstructs the notion of a risk-free rate, and explains why “our industry, both on the practitioner and on the academic sides, has tremendous inertia, a resistance to new ideas.”
Welcome to the world of zombie tech stocks—once-highflying IPOs wandering aimlessly in the wasteland of the public equity markets and understandably unloved by investors. ... To be fair, some major tech IPOs have soared in recent years ... The detritus far outnumber the success stories, raising the question, Is the method by which companies go public as broken and inequitable as it ever was? That would certainly seem to be the case. And the problem is especially acute when it comes to tech companies for which relentless forward momentum is key not only to pleasing investors but also to attracting talent and keeping their competitive edge. ... a tremendous backlog of potential technology IPOs is building up just as the stock market is beginning to look very wobbly after its nearly seven-year bull run. ... It appears that a reckoning is coming in the tech world. The combined value ascribed to the 173 unicorns by their investors is a stunning $585 billion—an especially astonishing figure given that so many of them aren’t even close to profitable. Sky-high valuations—driven in part by unicorn mania and an influx of money from nontraditional (and less disciplined) venture investors—have limited the number of potential acquirers for a lot of the buzziest companies.
- Also: Gartner - 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies < 5min
- Also: The New York Times - Protections for Late Investors Can Inflate Start-Up Valuations < 5min
- Also: Business Insider - Evernote, the first dead unicorn < 5min
- Also: Bloomberg - The Man Who Taught Mutual Funds How to Invest in Startups < 5min
Part I: I would like to examine two areas where the U.S. really does have documentable advantages. They are both incredibly important, one especially for good times with thriving capitalism and the other as a protection against possible bad times in the future that I for one fear ... In a world in which most things continue to work well, or at least well enough, the U.S. has the advantage of simply being more entrepreneurial. More of us risk starting new enterprises than do others in developed countries. ... You can even be associated with several bankruptcies and still be a strong-running candidate for President! How unlikely that would be anywhere else. And if three times more of us charge at the Internet, medical research, or social enterprises than in other countries, then we do not have to be better. ... The list of our advantages in Canamerica, as we could call it, is a very long one. First, we are uniquely defensible and difficult to attack. We are well-armed and well-organized. Less obviously, perhaps, we are more than self-sufficient in food production, energy, and mineable resources.
Part II: The positive effects of low resource prices are underestimated. The U.S. and global economies are likely to do significantly better this year than recent opinions predict. The U.S. has plenty of spare capacity to grow above its longer-term limits. The biggest risk would be China’s GDP becoming much more disappointing. ... The U.S. and global markets do not look like they are in bubble territory. They can always suffer a regular bear market (and are almost in one now). But I still believe we will have to wait longer for the BIG ONE and that global equity markets will regroup once more. ... Currently ultra-low resource prices are not sustainable, particularly those of grains and oil. Oil producers need $65/barrel and rising to finance new oil exploration. Resource prices will inevitably rise and as they do they will reduce once again the growth rates of the global economy.
One thing we are exceptionally good at in the West is to blame China for pretty much anything that goes haywire. If you believe various commentators, it is all China’s fault that global equity markets have caught a serious cold more recently and, before that, China was blamed for the extraordinary weakness in industrial commodity prices. They have weakened - or so the argument goes - because China’s growth is not quite what it used to be, and commodity producing countries are over-producing as a result. ... Whilst entirely correct that China’s GDP growth rate has indeed slowed substantially, perhaps someone should consider whether China is as much the consequence as the cause; whether China is in fact a victim rather than a villain? Let me explain. ... I see no reason why the present combination of low oil prices and attractive foreign exchange rates shouldn’t invigorate economic growth across emerging markets ... EM equities could quite plausibly end up being the bargain of the year, although I am concerned about corporate leverage in many EM countries. One would therefore have to step carefully ... Finally a general observation: This is not a repeat of 2008, as many have suggested. An EM crisis is not likely to do nearly as much damage to the financial system in our part of the world, as the GFC did. Why? Because the banking system in DM countries have only limited exposure to corporates in EM countries.
- Also: Foreign Policy - China’s Coming Ideological Wars < 5min
- Also: Quartz - The most egregious examples from the Chinese government’s long, sordid history of data-doctoring 5-15min
- Also: Financial Times - M&A: China’s world of debt < 5min
- Also: Wall Street Journal - Chinese Developers Build in America, but Look for Buyers at Home < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - China’s great game: Road to a new empire < 5min
Xu had consistently produced returns that were truly unbelievable: His worst-performing fund had grown by nearly 800 percent in five years. He had also survived countless corruption investigations, market falls, purges and other scares. Yet even as his legend grew, Xu remained intensely secretive. ... That equilibrium seemed certain to crumble on June 12, when the Chinese stock market began a free-fall. In the span of three weeks, the market lost a third of its value. ... Unlike in the United States, where institutional investors dominate the market, China’s 200 million mom-and-pop investors make roughly 85 percent of all trades. ... “All these small individual investors are called ‘chives’ in the market,” says Hong Yan, a finance professor at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance. “They get cut over and over again, but they come back every time, like little weeds.” ... By the late 1990s, he became the unofficial captain of a group popularly known as the Ningbo Death Squad. The squad made its reputation by manipulating cheap, relatively unknown stocks, which in the Chinese market are not allowed to rise or fall more than 10 percent in a single trading day. To game the system, the squad devised a strategy: Out of nowhere, it would place a gigantic order for a chosen stock. Other traders, seeing the sudden upward movement in price, would flood in, pushing the stock toward its daily 10-percent limit. Once the stock hit the limit on the first day, the momentum became self-perpetuating. Eager traders rushed to buy the stock as soon as the market opened the next day, propelling it toward the 10-percent limit once again. The movement generated its own publicity and easy profits. After a few days, the squad would sell out, and the stock would tumble back to a lower price as other traders followed. ... “Xu Xiang is always trading,” a longtime friend said. “If he’s not trading, he’s thinking about trading.” ... Nearly every one of the experts I spoke with repeated some version of the same rumor: that Xu was less a financial genius than a puppet of even larger powers. Most often, this explanation was deployed in response to a question that had been troubling observers of the Chinese financial world for months: Why hadn’t Xu stopped earlier? Rumors of his illegal methods were an open secret, and he had already built the most successful hedge fund in China, reaping billions of dollars in personal wealth in the process. Why keep going and risk a reckoning?
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.
Following 17 months of mostly negative equity returns in Europe, very recently, I have noticed an inclination amongst European investors to increase the risk profile in their portfolios. They may not exactly be going for broke (yet), but the willingness to take more risk is clearly on the rise. The rising appetite for risk could be driven by one of two factors. Investors could either be turning more optimistic, or it could be the result of less benign factors, such as a need to generate higher returns, whether they really believe in such an outcome or not. ... In short, I suspect investors are chasing returns that (I think) are unrealistic, and it is not the first time that happens. When investors are under extreme pressure, as I think many are now, they sometimes behave quite irrationally. They do things they would have sworn only a short while earlier they would never do. ... Is there anything else investors could do to raise the overall return level and, in particular, to generate more income without necessarily taking more risk?
Jeremy has written extensively about the long-term prospects for natural resources,1 but there are advantages to commodity investing beyond potential commodity price appreciation, including diversification and inflation protection. Resource equities are a great way to gain commodity exposure, while also accessing the equity risk premium. Given their somewhat hybrid nature, with one foot in the equity market and the other foot in the commodity market, resource equities display some unusual characteristics; over various timeframes, resource equities may move more with equities or more with commodities and can look more or less risky than the broad market. Perhaps due to their quirky nature, resource equities are generally unloved and possibly misunderstood. However, we believe that resource equities present a compelling investment opportunity, both strategically and tactically, and that long-term investors could benefit from larger allocations to these assets. ... investors are still wary of investing in commodity producers due to the commodity price risk and the always uncertain commodity outlook. Long-term investors willing to tolerate that shorter-term risk should strongly consider whether they have allocated enough to this exciting and unloved segment of the market.
Ferro, who declined to be interviewed for this story, began his career as an entrepreneur, launching companies in the 1980s and ’90s, including a software startup. By the time he met Fiasco, Ferro had long since transitioned from creating businesses to buying them—especially ones in financial trouble. And for an investor in distressed companies, few industries have targets as numerous and tempting as newspapers. ... The Ferro era at Tribune has quickly become one of the more baffling chapters in media history. Within eight months, Team Ferro has rejected one purchase offer, angering shareholders; promised to unveil a “content monetization engine” that would unleash newspapers’ true potential as a “rock star business”; posted a want ad for an employee to assist “news content harvesting robots”; rejected another, more lucrative purchase offer; rebranded Tribune as Tronc, or tronc, as the company insists; and split and re-rebranded tronc into troncM, for media, and troncX, for exchange. ... corporate renaming ignited extended spasms of #tronc mockery on social media. Sample tweet: “WHAT YOU GONNA DO WITH ALL THAT JONC ALL THAT JONC INSIDE YOUR TRONC.” ... yet, until recently, Ferro was on the verge of laughing all the way to the bonc, as it were. ... now the spotlight is back on Ferro and his vision for saving journalism.
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.
Two groups of true believers are driving changes in the developed world. The first: single-minded central bankers who spent trillions of dollars pushing government bond yields close to zero (and below). While this unprecedented monetary experiment helped owners of stocks and real estate, its regressive nature did little to satisfy the second group: voters who are disenfranchised by globalization and automation, and who are on the march. What next? The fiscal experiments now begin (again). ... why do we see 2017 as another year of modest portfolio gains despite the length of the current global expansion, one of the longest in history? As 2016 came to a close, global business surveys improved to levels consistent with 3% global GDP growth, suggesting that corporate profits will start growing at around 10% again after a weak 2016. More positive news: a rise in industrial metals prices, which is helpful in spotting turns in the business cycle ... Furthermore (and I understand that there’s plenty of disagreement on the benefits of this), many developed countries are transitioning from “monetary stimulus only” to expansionary fiscal policy as well. Political establishments are aware of mortal threats to their existence, and are looking to fiscal stimulus (or at least, less austerity) as a means of getting people back to work. The problem: given low productivity growth and low growth in labor supply, many countries are closer to full capacity than you might think. If so, too much fiscal stimulus could result in wage inflation and higher interest rates faster than you might think as well. That is certainly one of the bigger risks for the US.
His time among the horses and chickens—outside the money management industry—may even have helped him return to the top of his game. Slimmed down and fighting fit, he’s been winning big on a series of short bets against Canadian companies since he made his comeback. ... Cohodes says he’s committed to exposing companies that he believes may be ripping off ordinary, unwary investors—“Joe Six-pack,” as he puts it. ... he’ll go to great lengths to chase them down: dumpster-diving to find clues of wrongdoing, lambasting enemies on Twitter (where his rambunctious character is on full display) ... Short-biased funds managed only $5.5 billion in assets as of the end of September, a tiny fraction of the roughly $3 trillion the hedge fund industry oversees, according to Hedge Fund Research. The number of short-biased funds had fallen to 18 at that time, from 50 in 2009. Cohodes wants to make sure the “old-school” craft gets passed along to a new generation of people with—he jokes—that “genetic defect” that makes them want to take on all of Wall Street.