John Hussman’s presents a message no one wants to hear because nearly everyone is too busy believing for the third time in 17 years that “It’s different this time.”
Last week Hussman wrote about Valuations, Sufficient Statistics, and Breathtaking Risks. This week it’s more of the same with his post Behind the Potemkin Village.
The markets are so overvalued now that Hussman expects a 60% decline from here.
There’s an apocryphal story that in 1787, during the journey of Empress Catherine II to Crimea, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor of the region, erected fabricated villages along the Dnieper River, which would be disassembled after she passed by, and rebuilt again downstream overnight.
When one examines the collapses of the tech bubble and the housing bubble, it’s evident that one of the central elements of those collapses was the gradual recognition by investors that the overvalued pieces of paper they were holding were actually little Potemkin Villages; temporarily glorious and impressive on the surface, but backed by much less than investors had imagined was there. What sort of “catalyst” is needed for a Potemkin Village or a Ponzi scheme to disappoint? Only the gradual or sudden discovery of the reality behind it: the recognition that there is no “there” there.
Market returns don’t just emerge from nowhere. They are driven by the sum of three factors: growth in fundamentals, income from cash distributions, and changes in valuations (the ratio of prices to fundamentals). For example, the 10% annual total return of the S&P 500 since 1960 also derives from growth in S&P 500 revenues averaging 5.7% annually since the 2000 peak, dividend income averaging about 3.0% annually, and a much steeper increase in the S&P 500 price/revenue ratio contributing 1.3% annually (taking the current price/revenue multiple to the same level observed at the 2000 market peak).
Consider these drivers today. Combining depressed growth prospects with an S&P 500 dividend yield of just 2.0%, the likelihood is that over the coming 10-12 years, even a run-of-the-mill reversion of valuations will wipe out the entire contribution of growth and dividend income, resulting in zero or negative total returns in the S&P 500 Index on that horizon, with an estimated interim market loss on the order of -60%.
Here are the facts: over the past several decades, due to a combination of demographic factors and persistently slowing productivity growth, the core drivers of real U.S. GDP growth have declined toward just 1% annually, with a likely decline below that level in the coming 10-12 years. Indeed, in the absence of any recession, U.S. nonfarm productivity growth has averaged just 0.8% annually since 2010 and 0.6% over the past 5 years, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates labor force growth of just 0.3% annually in the coming years (which would be matched by similar growth in employment only if the unemployment rate does not rise from the current level of 4.3%). Add 0.6% to 0.3%, and the baseline expectation for real GDP growth is just 0.9%. Nominal growth is likely to be similarly weak.
While S&P 500 earnings growth has slightly outpaced revenue growth over the past two decades because of rising profit margins, recent record profit margins have now stagnated and have begun to retreat, resulting in the likelihood that earnings growth will match (at best) or even lag, overall economic growth in the years ahead. At the same time, the valuation measures we find most reliably correlated with actual subsequent S&P 500 total returns now average between 150-170% above historical norms that they have approached or breached by the completion of every market cycle in history. For a review of the historical reliability of these measures and popular alternatives, see the table in Exhaustion Gaps and the Fear of Missing Out
Let’s be clear. It has taken the third financial bubble in 17 years to bring the total return of the S&P 500 since the 2000 peak to just 4.8% annually, all of which we expect to be wiped out over the completion of the current market cycle. Even if investors are lucky, and valuations reach yet another bubble extreme 10-12 years from today, the annual total return of the S&P 500 between now and then is likely to be even lower than the 4.8% return since 2000, because the underlying economic drivers have deteriorated further. In my view, it’s substantially more probable that investors 10-12 years from now will find the S&P 500 Index at a lower level than it is today, with the average portfolio struggling to get back to zero from deeply negative interim losses.
It’s very difficult to present a fresh look each week on the same topic. I salute Hussman for his ability to do just that.
Even if he is only half-right on the duration and strength of the decline, public union pension plans in states like Illinois will be broke.
State of Denial and Hubris
In his article, Hussman present a total of seven charts to make a compelling case.
Most people ignore Hussman because they don’t like his message. Certainly, it’s not the message Wall Street wants you to hear. Importantly, Wall Street can repeat its message way more than those in the Hussman camp.
Some know full well the stock market is in a bubble but they expect they will get out on time. A few might manage. In aggregate, it’s impossible.
“Don’t Worry There is No Bubble”
Many of my readers think the “Fed won’t allow another major stock market decline”. But if the Fed could prevent bubbles from popping why did we have two crashes already?
That’s the message Wall Street wants people to believe. It’s also the message people want to believe.
I don’t know when this bubble will burst, nor does anyone else. But the bigger the bubble the louder the pop.