Dow 36,000 Is Back

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In a testament to just how euphoric stock markets are right now, James K. Glassman the co-author of the fabled Dow 36,000 — a book published in 1999 that claimed that stock prices could hit 36,000 by as soon as  2002 (and which quite understandably is now available for just 1 cent per copy) — has written a new column for Bloomberg View claiming that he might have been right all along:

When we wrote our book, we expected that the stock market, as represented by the 30 blue chips of the Dow, would rise to 36,000 for two reasons.

First, investors had mistakenly judged the risk in stocks to be greater than it really was. Here, we drew from the work of Jeremy Siegel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He showed that, over long periods, stocks were no more volatile, or risky, than bonds.

We saw indications that the risk aversion of investors was declining — as we believed it should. Lower perceived risk would mean higher stock valuation measures: rising price-to- earnings ratios, for instance.

Second, we assumed that real U.S. gross domestic product, the main driver of corporate profit growth, would rise at 2.5 percent a year — a bit below the historic post-World War II rate, but still a decent clip. We warned, however, that small changes in growth rates could have big effects on stock prices.

What’s happened since 1999?

First, investors have become more frightened of stocks, not less — as reflected in a higher equity risk premium, the excess return that investors demand from stocks over bonds.

These fears may be perfectly reasonable. We wrote our book before the Sept. 11 attacks, the dot-com debacle, the 38 percent decline in stocks in 2008, the “flash crash” of 2010 that sent the Dow down 1,000 points in minutes, the Japanese tsunami and the euro crisis. There’s a good case to be made that, because of the instant interconnections wrought by new technology, unprecedented “black swan” events are increasing and markets are becoming more volatile as a result.

The heightened fears of investors are reflected in lower valuations. Currently, for example, the forward P/E ratio (based on estimated earnings for the next 12 months) of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is about 14. In other words, the earnings yield for a stock investment averages 7 percent (1/14), but the yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is only 1.9 percent — a huge gap. Judging from history, you would have to conclude that bonds are vastly overpriced, that stocks are exceptionally cheap or that investors are scared to death for a good reason. Maybe all three.

Explaining why Glassman and Hassett were wrong is simple. They believed that they had found a fundamental truth about how stocks should be valued — that stocks were really less risky than the market perceived them to be — and that the market would correct to meet their beliefs. The problem is that there is no fundamental truth about what stocks are worth. The fundamentals of a company are determined by profit and loss, but the market prices of stocks are created from the meeting of different parties with different subjective beliefs. A buyer of a stock at $10 might believe it will become worth $100, and the seller might believe it is really worth $5. The future performance of that stock will be determined by the future beliefs of market participants in light of the future performance of the firm. Market participants have for some reason always valued equities as a class within a certain P/E range:

P/E

With one exception — the peak during which Dow 36,000 was written — equities have traded roughly between 5 and 30 times earnings. That’s a large range.  Glassman and Hassett believed — and subsequently tried to convince markets — that they were pricing equities wrong, and that stocks should be priced at roughly 100 times earnings.  They failed. Markets just wouldn’t go there.

One significant issue with such predictions is that there are far too many unknown variables. They didn’t know future technology or energy trends. They didn’t know future geopolitical trends. They didn’t know future social or demographic trends. They didn’t know the shape or style of future financial markets. All of these trends are critical in determining market sentiment, and the financial, economic and material fundamentals that drive earnings. It was all a big extrapolation with a catchy-sounding number that they effectively pulled out of the air and dressed up in the false clothes of economic rigour. And the real economy — as Glassman candidly admits — just didn’t match up to their assumptions.

Glassman thinks that Dow 36,000 is attainable with a return to strong growth:

Let’s set investor fears aside for a moment. For investment gains over the long term, there is absolutely no substitute for faster economic growth.

To get it, we need policy changes that will create a better environment for businesses to increase revenue, profits and jobs: a rational tax system that keeps rates low and eliminates special deductions and credits; immigration laws that encourage the best and the brightest to move here and stay; entitlement reform to bring down costs and provide incentives for productive seniors to keep working; sensible environmental, workplace and financial regulation that allows entrepreneurship to thrive; a K-12 education system that boosts student achievement and holds teachers, administrators and politicians accountable …

Chime in and make your own list, because it’s time to focus on what counts in an economy: growth. Even with relatively high risk aversion (let’s say, what we have now), faster growth would significantly increase stock prices.

How fast can the U.S. grow? Four percent is attainable, but I’d settle for 3 percent. Get there quickly, and we’ll get to Dow 36,000 quickly, too.

Back in the real world, we have the opposite problem. Stocks are soaring, on the back of a very weak economy. In fact, the fact that Glassman is being given a platform again to talk about the possibility of huge future stock gains is probably testament to just how overvalued stocks are. The market has more than doubled since the trough in 2009 on the back of the idea that Bernanke will do whatever it takes. But that illusion could easily be shattered, because there are many kinds of negative shocks that central bankers cannot prevent or control. To justify present valuations in the next two years, we would need a significant uptick in American and probably also global growth. Instead we have what may be the biggest housing bubble in history, declining global growth, North Korean threats to start a nuclear war, and so on. And all the while the market is setting new nominal highs.

The uber-optimistic atmosphere permeating much of the financial press is frightening to me. The resurrection of the Dow 36,000 zombie is a symbolically significant event that likely signals much the same thing as it did first time around: a correction.

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The Unsustainable US Financial Sector

According to Bloomberg, the vast majority of the Big Five banks’ profits consisted of a taxpayer subsidy — the Too Big To Fail guarantee. If the Too Big To Fail banks had to lend at the rates offered to their non-Too Big to Fail competitors, their profits would be severely shrunk (in some cases, to a net loss):

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What does that mean?

That means that the American financial sector is a zombie, existing on the teat of the taxpayer.

It means the huge swathes of liquidity spent on saving the financial sector are ultimately good money chasing after bad.

As Bloomberg notes:

The U.S. financial industry — with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy — would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.

Neither bank executives nor shareholders have much incentive to change the situation. On the contrary, the financial industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle on campaign donations and lobbying, much of which is aimed at maintaining the subsidy. The result is a bloated financial sector and recurring credit gluts.

This is extremely prescient stuff. The Fed since 2008 has reinflated the old bubbles, while allowing the same loot-and-pillage disaster-corporatist financial model to continue.

It is insane to repeat the same methods and expect different results. This credit glut, this new boom that has seen stocks rise closer and closer to their pre-crisis high (which may soon be exceeded) will just lead to another big 2008-style slump, just as the Fed’s reinflation of the burst tech bubble led to 2008 itself. This time the spark won’t be housing, it will be something else like an energy shock, or a war. Something that the Federal Reserve cannot directly control or fix by throwing money at it.

America (and the Western world in general) post-2008 needed real organic domestic growth built on real economic activity, not a reinflated bubble that let the TBTF financial sector continue to gorge itself into oblivion. 

The High Frequency Trading Debate

A Senate panel is looking into the phenomenon of High Frequency Trading.

Here’s the infamous and hypnotic graphic from Nanex showing just how the practice has grown, showing quote volume by the hour every day since 2007 on various exchanges:

It is a relief that the issue is finally being discussed in wider venues, because we are witnessing a stunning exodus from markets as markets mutate into what we see above, a rampaging tempestuous casino of robotic arbitrageurs operating in millisecond timescales.

The conundrum is simple: how can any retail investor trust markets where billions of dollars of securities are bought and sold faster than they can click my mouse and open my browser, or pick up the phone to call their broker?

And the first day of hearings brought some thoughtful testimony.

The Washington Post notes:

David Lauer, who left his job at a high-frequency trading firm in Chicago last year, told a Senate panel that the ultra-fast trades that now dominate the stock market have contributed to frequent market disruptions and alienated retail investors.

“U.S. equity markets are in dire straits,” Lauer said in his written testimony.

One man who I think should be testifying in front of Congress is Charles Hugh Smith, who has made some very interesting recommendations on this topic:

Here are some common-sense rules for such a “new market”:

1. Every offer and bid will be left up for 15 minutes and cannot be withdrawn until 15 minutes has passed.

2. Every security–stock or option–must be held for a minimum of one hour.

3. Every trade must be placed by a human being.

4. No equivalent of the ES/E-Mini contract–the futures contract for the S&P 500 — will be allowed. The E-Mini contract is the favorite tool of the Federal Reserve’s proxies, the Plunge Protection Team and other offically sanctioned manipulators, as a relatively modest sum of money can buy a boatload of contracts that ramp up the market.

5. All bids, offers and trades will be transparently displayed in a form and media freely available to all traders with a standard PC and Internet connection.

6. Any violation of #3 will cause the trader and the firm he/she works for to be banned from trading on the exchange for life–one strike, you’re out.

However, I doubt that any of Smith’s suggestions will even be considered by Congress (let alone by the marketplace which seems likely to continue to gamble rampantly so long as they have a bailout line). Why? Money. Jack Reed, the Democratic Senator chairing the hearings, is funded almost solely by big banks and investment firms:

It seems more than probable that once again Congress will come down on the side of big finance, and leave retail investors out in the cold. Jack Reed opened a recent exchange on Bloomberg with these words:

Well I believe high frequency trading has provided benefits to the marketplace, to retail investors, etcetera.

Yet retail investors do not seem to agree about these supposed benefits.

Retail investors just keep pulling funds:

Reed failed to really answer this question posed by the host:

Senator, US equity markets are supposed to be a level playing field for all kinds of investors; big companies, small companies and even individuals. That said, how is it possible for an individual investor ever to compete with high frequency traders who buy and sell in milliseconds. Aren’t individuals always going to be second in line essentially to robots who can enter these orders faster than any human possibly can?

The reality is that unless regulators and markets can create an environment where individual investors can participate on a level playing field, they will look for alternative venues to put their money. It is in the market’s interest to create an environment where investors can invest on a level playing field. But I think the big banks are largely blinded by the quick and leverage-driven levitation provided by high frequency trading.

Student Debt Malinvestment

Student debt levels continue to soar. In 2012 they hit $1 trillion for the first time ever.

But college education isn’t reaping the rewards it once did.

According to the Associated Press:

About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years.

And real wages have fallen for recent college graduates — although this has been part of a broader trend of falling real wages in the general population:

So why is student debt still soaring?

The crucial factor is that student debt isn’t like other debt — it cannot be discharged simply through bankruptcy.

There’s no incentive for private lenders to be particularly careful in who they lend money to, becuase they know that there’s no way that whoever they lend the money to will ever be able to get rid of the debt short of dying.

But just because a loan is nondischargeable doesn’t mean that the loanee will be able to repay. With labour conditions for recent graduates still quite awful, student debt defaults have climbed. The Washington Times notes:

The number of borrowers defaulting on federal student loans has risen substantially, highlighting concerns that rising college costs, low graduation rates and poor job prospects are getting more and more students over their heads in debt.

The national two-year cohort default rate rose to 8.8 percent last year, from 7 percent in fiscal 2008, according to figures released Monday by the Department of Education.

That means that more unemployed former students will end up being hounded for debts that they cannot afford to repay, yet cannot discharge through bankruptcy. If those debts had been accrued at the roulette wheel, though, they could.

It wasn’t always this way.  Until 1976, all student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy. Until 1998, student loans could be discharged after a waiting period of five years.  In 1998, Congress made federal student loans nondischargeable in bankruptcy, and, in 2005, it similarly extended nodischargeability to private student loans.  Since 2000, student loan debt has exploded, and private student loans have grown even faster.

This presents a bigger problem than simply sending people to college who end up unemployed or underemployed. It means that capital is being misallocated. If debt for education cannot simply be discharged through bankruptcy, as other debt can be, private lenders will tend toward offering much more of the nondischargeable debt, and less of dischargeable debt. This means that there is less capital available for other uses — like starting or expanding a business. If the government’s regulatory framework leans toward sending more people to college, more people will go (the number of Americans under the age of 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree has grown 38 percent since 2000) — but the money and resources that they are loaned to do so is money and resources made unavailable for other purposes.

The efficient allocation of capital demands that lending is undertaken based on the real underlying market conditions. To ensure that this is the case, the bankruptcy rules for debt should be universal so that loan applications are considered on merit. This should mean that student loan debt should be dischargeable under the same bankruptcy conditions as other debt. More discerning lenders would likely mean less student lending — but would also mean that potential students would have to think harder about the decision to study, and be able to justify to themselves and to a lender why they are choosing to study (or why they are choosing to study a particular subject), instead of choosing to work, or choosing to start a business.

Assange or Corzine?

Priorities are a bitch.

The United States won’t prosecute Corzine for raiding segregated customer accounts, but will happily convene a Grand Jury in preparation for prosecuting Julian Assange for exposing the truth about war crimes.

From the New York Times:

A criminal investigation into the collapse of the brokerage firm MF Global and the disappearance of about $1 billion in customer money is now heading into its final stage without charges expected against any top executives. After 10 months of stitching together evidence on the firm’s demise, criminal investigators are concluding that chaos and porous risk controls at the firm, rather than fraud, allowed the money to disappear, according to people involved in the case.

Corzine is considering opening a new hedge fund, though the notion that anyone — even a slack-jawed muppet happy to buy whatever Goldman ‘s prop traders want to sell — would seed Corzine money so he can trade or steal it away seems absurd — rather like putting a child molester in charge of a day-care.

But nobody knows how much dirt Corzine has on other Wall Street crooks. Not only may Corzine get away with corzining MF Global’s clients’ funds, he may well end up with a whole raft of seed money to play with from those former colleagues and associates who might prefer he remain silent regarding other indiscretions he may be aware of.

But the issue at hand is the sense that we have entered a phase of exponential criminality and corruption. A slavering crook like Corzine who stole $200 million of clients’ funds can walk free. Meanwhile, a man who exposed evidence of serious war crimes is for that act so keenly wanted by US authorities that Britain has threatened to throw hundreds of years of diplomatic protocol and treaties into the trash and raid the embassy of another sovereign state to deliver him to a power that seems intent not only to criminalise him, but perhaps even to summarily execute him. The Obama administration, of course, has made a habit of summary extrajudicial executions of those that it suspects of terrorism, and the detention and prosecution of whistleblowers. And the ooze of large-scale financial corruption, rate-rigging, theft and fraud goes on unpunished.

Fiat Money Kills Productivity?

I have long suspected that a money supply based on nothing other than faith in government could be a productivity killer.

Last November I wrote:

During 1947-73 (for all but two of those years America had a gold standard where the unit of exchange was tied to gold at a fixed rate) average family income increased at a greater rate than that of the top 1%. From 1979-2007 (years without a gold standard) the top 1% did much, much better than the average family.

As we have seen with the quantitative easing program, the newly-printed money is directed to the rich. The Keynesian response to that might be that income growth inequality can be solved (or at least remedied) by making sure that helicopter drops of new money are done over the entire economy rather than directed solely to Wall Street megabanks.

But I think there is a deeper problem here. My hypothesis is that leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.

And now I have empirical evidence that my hypothesis may possibly have been true — total factor productivity.

In 2009 the Economist explained TFP as follows:

Productivity growth is perhaps the single most important gauge of an economy’s health. Nothing matters more for long-term living standards than improvements in the efficiency with which an economy combines capital and labour. Unfortunately, productivity growth is itself often inefficiently measured. Most analysts focus on labour productivity, which is usually calculated by dividing total output by the number of workers, or the number of hours worked.

A better gauge of an economy’s use of resources is “total factor productivity” (TFP), which tries to assess the efficiency with which both capital and labour are used.

Total factor productivity is calculated as the percentage increase in output that is not accounted for by changes in the volume of inputs of capital and labour. So if the capital stock and the workforce both rise by 2% and output rises by 3%, TFP goes up by 1%.

Here’s US total factor productivity:

As soon as the USA left the gold exchange standard,  total factor productivity began to dramatically stagnate. 

Random coincidence? I don’t think so — a fundamental change in the nature of the money supply coincided almost exactly with a fundamental change to the shape of the nation’s economy. Is the simultaneous outgrowth in income inequality a coincidence too?

Doubters may respond that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and though we do not know the exact causation, there are a couple of strong possibilities that may have strangled productivity:

  1. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for policymakers: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.
  2. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for businesses: revenue growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency.
And it’s not just total factor productivity that has been lower than in the years when America was on the gold exchange standard — as a Bank of England report recently found, GDP growth has averaged lower in the pure fiat money era (2.8% vs 1.8%), and financial crises have been more frequent in the non-gold-standard years.

The authors of the report noted:

Overall the gold standard appeared to perform reasonably well against its financial stability and allocative efficiency objectives.

Still think it’s a barbarous relic?

Facebook & the Bubble Mentality

So Facebook keeps falling, and is now floating around the $27 mark.  We’re a third of the way down to my IPO valuation of FB as worth roughly $2-4 a share (or 5-10 times earnings), although I wouldn’t be surprised for the market to stabilise at a higher price (at least until the next earnings figures come out and reveal — shock horror — that Facebook is terrible at making money).

The really stunning thing is that even after all these falls, FB is still trading at 86 times earnings. What the hell did Morgan Stanley think they were doing valuing an IPO without any viable profit model at over 100 times earnings? The answer is that this was an exit strategy. This IPO was about the people who got in early passing on a stick of dynamite to a greater fool which incidentally is precisely the same bubble mentality business model as bond investors who are currently buying negative-real-yielding treasuries at 1.6% hoping to pass them onto a greater fool at 0.5% (good luck with that).

This was achieved by convincing investors to ignore actual earnings and instead focus on projected future earnings. From Bloomberg:

Facebook, with a market capitalization of $79.1 billion, is trading at 29.5 times the company’s projected 2014 profit of $2.69 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Or much more simply, counting chickens before they hatch.

There’s an interesting comparison to the development of AAPL. Steve Jobs — who went on to do great things — was never fully in charge of AAPL until much later on. AAPL externally recruited CEOs with business experience, and Jobs was eventually thrust out of the company he founded, to continue his journey on his own. Failure is a really valuable lesson. Jobs was lucky to experience it and learn from it early before he ever got a chance to destroy AAPL.

FB isn’t really a bad business, and prospects would look much rosier if it were priced more realistically. It’s generating a profit — just a much smaller one than suggested by the IPO pricing. And management are being swept along by everyone else’s irrational euphoria. Zuckerberg can freely throw away a whole year’s earnings buying Instagram — an App whose functionality FB actually duplicated in-house almost certainly for a tiny fraction of the cash thrown at Instagram. And Zuckerberg — who controls a majority of the voting rights — isn’t going to get thrust out into the cold by shareholders. He can keep wildly throwing cash around so long as it keeps flowing into FB. The problem is, given the steep price falls, it looks like the river is running dry.

As I wrote before FB started falling:

The big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

That’s life. Bubbles get burst; the Madoff bubble, the securitisation bubble, the NASDAQ bubble, the housing bubble, the Facebook bubble, the treasury bubble. The trick is not getting swept up by the irrational euphoria. Better to miss a blow-out top than to end up holding a stick of dynamite.