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Economy, Investing, Markets, Posts

Why Comparing Dividend Yields To Interest Rates Is A Dumb Idea

I’m hearing a lot of folks these days draw attention to the fact that the dividend yield on the S&P 500 (2.17%) is now greater than the yield on the 10-year treasury note (1.7%). In doing so, they are obviously making the case that stocks are undervalued relative to bonds.

There are a few problems with this line of thought. First, just because the dividend yield is currently higher than the 10-year treasury yield doesn’t mean stocks will necessarily outperform risk-free treasury notes going forward. If you hold that treasury note to maturity you know exactly what you’re going to get over that time. The same can’t be said for owning stocks which carry far more risk.

To get an idea of what to expect from stocks, you need to study valuations. Personally, I like to use the Buffett Indicator (market cap-to-GDP) because it’s about 90% negatively correlated to 10-year future returns. History shows that the higher starting valuations are the lower your future returns will be and vice versa. This has been true regardless of where interest rates have been or where they are going.

Right now valuations, based upon this measure, suggest the total return from owning stocks is likely to be less than the risk-free return on 10-year treasury notes. So why, you might ask, should you take far more risk in owning stocks when you are likely to do better in risk-free treasuries? Good question.

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Some might say that high valuations today are justified by low interest rates. And this is really the case folks are making when they compare the dividend yield in owning stocks to the interest rate on the 10-year treasury note. Well, there are a few guys plenty smarter than I am that have demonstrated why this is such a, ‘dumb idea.’ I would mainly direct you to Cliff Asness’ now classic treatise on the subject, “Fight the Fed Model.”

To boil it down to the simplest argument, Cliff shows that low interest rates imply low future inflation and concomitant low earnings growth. High valuations in equities, on the other hand, imply high future growth. Thus, the idea that low interest rates, which imply low growth, somehow justify high valuations, which are completely dependent upon on high-growth, is faulty, at best.

But probably the best real world example of the inanity of this argument is the experience of Japan over the past couple of decades or so. The interest rate on the Japanese 10-year bond in 1990 was 7%. At the same time, the Nikkei stock market index stood at 39,000 and carried a CAPE ratio of 90. Today, that yield has fallen from 7% to below zero. At the same time, the Nikkei has fallen 60% to 16,000 and a CAPE ratio of 25.

Over the past 25 years, then, both interest rates and stock market valuations have fallen together. According to the Fed Model, this should never happen. Intuitively, though, it makes perfect sense. Japanese inflation and economic growth have fallen dramatically over that time so both of these asset classes have reflected this development in their valuations.

If the Fed Model were a viable way to forecast equities, Japanese stock market valuations should have soared in reaction to such an massive drop in interest rates. In fact, according to the Fed Model, Japanese equity valuations should have no upper limit today. At the very least, they should be trending higher as interest rates have trended lower yet just the opposite has happened. Sadly, even massive buying of equities by the Bank of Japan, which now owns more than half of the country’s outstanding equity ETFs, hasn’t been enough to make this theory a reality.

So even though it’s been demonstrated to be false in both the academic realm an in the financial markets, that clearly hasn’t stopped investors from continuing to embrace it and making costly errors in the process. But before you go buying stocks believing that falling interest rates will support prices you might want to ask yourself this very basic question: “Are plunging interest rates and, perhaps more importantly, a plunging yield curve bullish signs for economic and business fundamentals?” Because those are what really matter to stock market valuations, not some theory that both defies common sense and also has no historical validation anywhere in the real world.

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Investing, Markets

Mind The Gaps

A version of this post first appeared in The Felder Report PREMIUM.

About a month ago former Fed head, Richard Fisher, came out and confirmed the idea that the FOMC’s quantitative easing policies over the past seven years have pushed prices of risk assets, including stocks, beyond what would otherwise be supported by their fundamentals.

There are a few ways to visualize this. The first comes from Dr. Ed Yardeni who tracks a fundamental indicator shown below. Notice the yawning gap between the S&P 500 Index and the major economic fundamentals.

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We can also just look at the index versus its components’ earnings. Here’s another gap:

And if you prefer to look at forward earnings estimates, you’ll find another massive gap:

Specifically, Fisher said that the Fed had, “front-loaded a tremendous rally.” All this means is that the Fed pulled returns forward from the future to generate larger gains today. Notice in the chart below that returns have recently been significantly better than valuations (using the Buffett indicator) 10 years ago justified. This is exactly what Fisher is referring to.

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The last time this happened was in the late 1990’s. From that peak, stocks fell more quickly than forecast in order to play, “catch up,” to the downside. Interestingly, the 3-year forecasts I generate using margin data show the very same gaps in the late 1990’s and today.

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And there are other indicators suggesting these gaps could close sooner rather than later. Bond market risk appetites (very similar to spreads in corporate bonds, junk bonds and leveraged loans) have been falling farther and for a longer period of time than stocks. These are normally very highly correlated to stock prices yet here is another major gap.

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Another way to visualize this is to compare bond market risk appetites to stock market volatility. While fear in the bond market has soared recently, fear in stocks is relatively subdued. Notice the gap between them in the chart below.

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So when Richard Fisher says he, “can see significant downside,” in the stock market right now, he’s probably thinking about these sort of gaps between stocks prices and economic fundamentals. Between stocks and their earnings. Between stocks and the corporate credit markets. Because he helped create them. And, like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, nobody knows better what they’re capable of.

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RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - JANUARY 10: US President George W. Bush holds a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at Abbas's Muqata headquarters on January 10, 2008 in Ramallah, West Bank. Bush is on his second day of his first visit to the Middle East aimed at advancing peace negotiations. After talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday, he vowed to apply pressure if it is needed in finding a lasting peace  (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** George W. Bush
Charts, Economy, Investing, Markets, Posts

Don’t Dismiss The Systemic Risk Of A Corporate Credit Bust

After the worst start to a new stock market year in history, some have begun to wonder if the unusual weakness is a sign of larger problems in the economy or financial system. Certainly, the growing strains in the credit market suggest it’s more than, “just an energy thing.”

These worries have been met with a popular response. I’ve seen a variety of headlines conclude, “why this market meltdown isn’t a repeat of 2008,” or something along those lines. But this rush to judge may be premature.

The incredible boom we have seen in corporate credit in recent years is actually very similar to the boom in the mortgage market which led to the financial crisis. As Jeff Snider noted yesterday, just the past few years issuance of lower-rated corporate debt dwarfs the size of the entire subprime mortgage market in 2007.

ABOOK-Feb-2016-DB-Corporate-Bubble-JunkAt the same time, lenders’ underwriting standards have never been more lenient. Covenant-lite lending, as a percent of total leveraged loans, has absolutely exploded in recent years. In effect, corporations have had access to their own version of NINJA (no income, no job, no assets) loans.

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Finally, sub-prime mortgages were highly-levered (in terms of loan-to-value) and built upon inflated home prices compounding the problem. Similarly, corporate leverage is now off the chart.

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At the same time, these soaring leverage ratios are built upon similarly inflated profit margins.

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So it’s probably far too early to say that the current weakness in risk assets, especially in the credit markets, is in any way, “contained,” as of yet. In fact, there are many similarities between today’s corporate credit boom and the mortgage boom that led to the financial crisis nearly a decade ago. And to dismiss the systemic risk once again? Shame on you.

RELATED:

The Only Guy On The FOMC With Any Experience Actually Managing Risk Is Sounding The Alarm

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Posts

5 Different Technical Tools For Traders In One Chart

Last fall I wrote a post titled, “This Is Now The Worst Possible Environment For Stock Market Investors.” My point then was that stocks were very expensive, sentiment was exuberant and the trend had shifted to the downside. In other words, all three of the major components of my investing strategy were bearish.

None of this his has changed (though stocks may bounce after the persistent selling we have seen recently). But, in that post, I shared a version of the chart above which became fairly popular so I thought I’d explain what’s going on it and the individual components noted in it.

First, the horizontal blue lines show a Fibonacci target for the S&P 500 at 2138 (2015’s high was 2134.72 on May 18). This target is calculated simply by projecting a 61.8% (the Fibonacci Ratio) extension of the bull market gains from 2009 to 2013, the point at which we finally broke above the old 2007 high. (Apple reached a similar target about a year ago which was a decent sell signal, as well.)

The vertical blue lines simply measure the time between major peaks. The span from the March 2000 peak to the October 2007 peak was seven years and seven months. Seven years and seven months from October 2007 was May 2015, the exact month the S&P 500 peaked last year.

I’ve also highlighted the momentum divergences on the chart. While prices made higher highs in March of 2000 and October of 2007, RSI was making lower highs, suggesting momentum was waning. The MACD crosses at the bottom of the chart were also decent sell signals on those occasions. Both occurred again last year in very similar fashion to those prior occurrences.

The “9” and “13” on the chart are DeMark Sequential signals. The 9 signifies a completed sell setup and the 13 is the completed sell signal. These are essentially the inverse of the buy signals I highlighted in March of 2009. (I also used these as part of my sell signal in Apple.)

Finally, I have included a 10-month moving average on the chart, roughly equivalent to the 200-day moving average. This may be the easiest signal for individual investors to monitor. It’s also Paul Tudor Jones single most important indicator. When prices close above this average, stocks are in an uptrend. Below and stocks are in a downtrend.

Do these things work on their own merit or do they work because so many traders watch and use them? That’s the age-old question posed regarding technical analysis. However, it’s fairly plain to see that simply paying attention to the overall trend can make a massive difference in your investing success by keeping you on the right side of the market. If it’s good enough for Paul Tudor Jones, it’s good enough for me.

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Posts

“The Big Short” Is Only Half The Story

On Monday I finally got around to seeing “The Big Short.” I’m no film buff but I really enjoyed it and thought Christian Bale and Steve Carrell both gave amazing performances.

To me, the film did a great job of profiling a few of the guys who really nailed the mortgage crisis and fully understood its implications for the broader financial system way before anyone else even had a clue. I especially appreciated how the movie treated the abject loneliness of being a true contrarian. I’ve gone through it many times in my career. The film does about as good a job as I can imagine of putting you in their shoes as they are ostracized, ridiculed and eventually even victimized to some degree by their peers, clients, the media and the big banks before finally being vindicated.

There is one major component, however, that is glaringly absent from the movie and that is the role of the Fed in laying the groundwork for the crisis in the first place. For a more holistic view, I highly recommend my friend, Jim Bruce’s documentary, “Money For Nothing.”

Ultimately, I believe both films are “must watch” for anyone who truly wants to understand what really went wrong back in 2008 and why. More than that, they can help us understand just how history rhymes, knowledge which may prevent us from making these same, critical mistakes again and again, both as investors and as a society.

Get your copy of “Money For Nothing” at moneyfornothingthemovie.org and follow Jim on Twitter. He may even have a few t-shirts left (pictured above).

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