I’m Hearing A Lot Of Smart People Use “The Four Most Dangerous Words In Investing” These Days

Let me begin this post by saying that the three sources I quote here are among the handful of voices on social media and the financial blogosphere I respect most. This is also why I’m especially concerned about this new trend.

What worries me is that I’m now hearing the “four most dangerous words in investing” from some of the smartest guys in the game. Each of the arguments I’m going to look at represent some version of “it’s different this time” in relation to overall stock market valuation.

I’ve made the case for months now that stocks are extremely overvalued. In fact, I believe there is a very good case to be made that while we may not have another full-fledged tech bubble on our hands, the broader stock market is just as overvalued today as it was fifteen years ago, at the peak of the internet bubble.

To counter or to justify this idea, some very smart people have gotten very creative. First, Alpha Architect recently ran a post on valuations determining that, “the stock market isn’t extremely overvalued.” It’s “normalish.”

However, and they do acknowledge this in the post, they are looking at today’s valuations in relation to the history of just the past 25 years. The problem with this is that the past 25 years represent the highest valuations in the history of the stock market so, obviously, today’s valuations will look much more reasonable when framed in that light.

In acknowledging the limitation of using just the past 25 years, however, the author of the post questions whether, “market conditions 100+ years ago may be different than they are today.” In other words, ‘it’s different this time’ so those historical measures are no longer be relevant. To their credit, they recognize, “this sounds a bit like the ‘new valuation paradigm’ thinking that prevailed during the dotcom boom when valuations went crazy.” Still, they are putting it out there for less circumspect investors to rely upon.

Similarly, my friend Jesse Livermore of Philosophical Economics recently posited in a terrific piece that there are very good reasons justifying the persistent high valuations of the past 25 years.

Should the market be expensive?  “Should” is not an appropriate word to use in markets.  What matters is that there are secular, sustainable forces behind the market’s expensiveness–to name a few: low real interest rates, a lack of alternative investment opportunities (TINA), aggressive policymaker support, and improved market efficiency yielding a reduced equity risk premium (difference between equity returns and fixed income returns).  Unlike in prior eras of history, the secret of “stocks for the long run” is now well known–thoroughly studied by academics all over the world, and seared into the brain of every investor that sets foot on Wall Street.  For this reason, absent extreme levels of cyclically-induced fear, investors simply aren’t going to foolishly sell equities at bargain prices when there’s nowhere else to go–as they did, for example, in the 1940s and 1950s, when they had limited history and limited studied knowledge on which to rely.

My problem with this line of thought is that it assumes that human beings have essentially begun to outgrow the behavioral biases that have ruled them throughout a history that encompasses much longer than just the past century. We have seen “low real interest rates” and “aggressive policymaker support” in the past. See Ray Dalio’s excellent letter on 1937 as an analog for today’s economy and markets. So this argument really hinges upon, “the secret of ‘stocks for the long run’ is now… seared into the brain of every investor…. For this reason… investors simply aren’t going to foolishly sell equities at bargain prices when there’s nowhere else to go.”

In other words, we have entered a new era where human beings have fully embraced “stocks for the long run” for the long run and without reservation so cycles will be muted and valuations remain elevated for the foreseeable future. Never mind the fact that the recent history of the financial crisis may contradict this idea. I think the burden of proof for this argument lies squarely with its author. I have my doubts. In fact, this sounds strangely similar to Irving Fisher’s famous line just days before the 1929 crash, “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Finally, Alex Gurevich wrote a fascinating think piece over the weekend on the Fed, the economy and how they relate to stocks and bonds. While I truly appreciate following Alex’s thought process (as I do both of the previous authors’), it’s his case for owning stocks that strikes me as a clear rationalization of extreme valuations:

Singularitarians (such as Ray Kurzweil)  believe that we are on the brink of explosive self-acceleration led by computers designing better computers, which design better computers even faster, and rapidly surpassing every aspect of human intelligence. Singularitarian philosophy is migrating out of the province of science fiction writers into the  mainstream, and can no longer be ignored by long horizon investors… The idea of economic singularity allows me have a clear and consistent theory of unfolding events. I can be positive on stock market without being scared of valuations.

I don’t dispute the awesome idea of singularity. It seems inevitable and inevitably beneficial for society (though some very smart people would disagree). What I dispute is the idea that singularity should justify high valuations.

As I tweeted this morning, it reminds my of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on the awesome innovation of air conditioning and air travel. These things were miracle innovations that dramatically improved the lives of human beings but did they justify abandoning tried and true investment methods developed over long periods of history? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. Amazing innovation is truly inspiring but it shouldn’t inspire you to overpay for a simple stream of future cash flows that have been very easy to value accurately over very long periods of time.

Ultimately, only time will tell if it is, in fact, “different this time” or if history will rhyme once again and today will only represent another stanza in the poem it’s been writing for centuries. With all due respect to these three very wise market philosophers, my money is on the latter.