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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Liquidation is Vital

Many Keynesians really hate the concept of liquidationism. I’m trying to grasp why.

Paul Krugman wrote:

One discouraging feature of the current economic crisis is the way many economists and economic commentators — apparently ignorant of what went on over the last 75 years or so of macroeconomic debate — have been reinventing old fallacies, imagining that they were coming up with profound insights.

The Bank for International Settlements has decided to throw everything we’ve learned from 80 years of hard thought about macroeconomics out the window, and to embrace full-frontal liquidationism. The BIS is now advocating a position indistinguishable from that of Schumpeter in the 1930s, opposing any monetary expansion because that would leave “the work of depressions undone”.

Andrew Mellon summed up liquidationism as so:

The government must keep its hands off and let the slump liquidate itself. Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmes, liquidate real estate. When the people get an inflation brainstorm, the only way to get it out of their blood is to let it collapse. A panic is not altogether a bad thing. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.

In light of the zombification that now exists in Japan and also America (and coming soon to every single QE and bailout-heavy Western economy) — zombie companies, poorly managed, making all the same mistakes as before, rudderless, and yet still in business thanks to government intervention  — it is clear that the liquidationists grasped something that Keynesians are still missing. Markets are largely no longer trading fundamentals; they are just trading state intervention and money printing. Why debate earnings when instead you can debate the prospects of QE3? Why invest in profitable companies and ventures when instead you can pay yourself a fat bonus cheque out of monetary stimulus? Why exercise caution and consideration when you can just gamble and get a bailout?

Unfortunately, Mellon and his counterparts at the 30s Fed were the wrong kind of liquidationists — they could not heed their own advice and leave the market be. Ironically, the 30s Fed in raising interest rates and failing to act as lender-of-last resort drove the market into a deeper depression than was necessary (and certainly a deeper one than happened in 1907) and crushed any incipient recovery.

Liquidation is not merely some abstract policy directive, or government function. It is an organic function of the market. As the stunning bounce-back from the Panic of 1907 shows — especially when contrasted against the 1930s — a  market liquidation on the back of a panic avoids a depression. Prices fall as far as the market deems necessary, before market participants quickly come back in into the frame, setting the market on a new trail toward growth. For without a central bank, asset-holders who want to maintain a strong economy and growth (in 2008, that probably would have meant sovereigns like China and Arabia) have to come in and pick up falling masonry as lenders of last resort.

Under a central banking regime (especially a Bernankean or Krugmanite one committed to Rooseveltian Resolve) all expectations fall onto the central bank.

My own view is not just that liquidation is vital. It is that the market mechanism is vital. Without their own capital as skin in the game, central bankers are playing blind. The pace of the liquidation and the pace of the recovery should be dictated by market participants — in other words, by society at large — not by the whims of distant technocrats. Society has more skin in the game. The Great Depression was not a crisis of too little intervention — it was a crisis of too much well-intentioned intervention.

As we are learning in our own zombie depression, a central bank doing the opposite of the 1930s Fed and reinflating may solve the problem of debt-deflation, but it causes many of its own problems — zombie banks, zombie corporations, zombie markets, corporate welfarism, and the destruction of the market mechanism.

Zombie Economics

Occupy Wall Street seem to oppose banker bailouts because bailouts are unfair. Bankers — by and large the most privileged class in society — got at the last count over $14 trillion of interest free money from central banks and governments to keep on doing the same thing — getting rich from speculation, on the backs of workers and the productive economy. The rest of society — teachers, nurses, factory workers, entrepreneurs, the unemployed, etc — have to “share the pain” of unemployment, austerity and a depressed economy.

This is particularly unfair, because it is the bankers and speculators who caused the crisis in the first place. But there is a much deeper economic reason to oppose bailouts than simple unfairness. Bailing out failed and failing financial institutions creates a zombie economy. Why?

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

These bailouts have tried to turn nature on its head — bailed out bankers have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure.

So it should be no surprise that financial institutions have continued making exactly the same mistakes that created the crisis in 2008. That crisis was caused by excessive financial debt. Wall Street banks do not just play with their own equity — they borrow huge sums of money, too. This debt is known as leverage — and many Wall Street banks in 2008 had forty or fifty times as much leverage as they had equity. The problem with leverage is that while successful bets can very quickly lead to massive profits, bad bets can very quickly lead to insolvency — a bank that leverages itself 50:1 only has to incur a 2% loss on its portfolio to have lost every penny they started with. Lehman Brothers was leveraged 30:1.

Following 2008, many on Wall Street promised they had learned their lesson, and that the days of excessive leverage and risk-taking with borrowed money were over. But, in October 2011, another Wall Street bank was taken down by bad bets financed by excessive leverage: MF Global. Their leverage ratio? 40:1.

So why was the banking system bailed out in the first place? Defenders of the bailouts have correctly pointed out that not bailing out certain banks would have caused the entire system to collapse. This is because the global financial system is an interconnected web of debt. Institutions owe huge sums of money to one another. If a particularly interconnected bank disappears from the system, and cannot repay its creditors, the creditors themselves become threatened with insolvency. If a bank is leveraged 10:1 on assets of $10 billion, then its creditors may incur losses of up to $90 billion. Without state intervention, a single massive bankruptcy can quickly snowball into systemic destruction.

Ultimately, the system is extremely fragile, and prone to collapse. Government life-support has given Wall Street failures the resources to continue their dangerous and risky business practices which caused the last crisis. Effectively, Wall Street and the international financial system has become a government-funded zombie — unable to sustain itself in times of crisis through its own means, and dependent on suckling the taxpayer’s teat.

The darkest side to this zombification is that it takes resources from the productive, the young, the creative, and the needy and channels them to the zombies. Vast sums spent on rescue packages to keep the zombie system alive might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the youth, or to support basic research and development, or to build better physical infrastructure, or to create new and innovative companies and products.

Zombification kills competition, too: when companies fail, it leaves a gap in the market that has to be filled, either by an expanding competitor, or by a new business. With failures now being kept on life-support, gaps in the market are fewer.

The system needs to change.

As Professor George Selgin of the University of Georgia put it:

Our governments chose to keep bad banks going and that is why quantitative easing has proven a failure. Quantitative easing failed because almost all the new money the government created has gone to shore up the balance sheets of irresponsible bankers. Now those banks sit on piles of idle cash while other businesses starve or cannot get started for want of credit.

It’s the same scenario that Japan has experienced for twenty years. They experienced a housing and stock market crash in 1990, bailed out their banking system, and growth never really recovered:

Ever since then, unemployment has been elevated:

That is the fate that Britain, Europe and America face by going down the Japanese zombification route: weak growth and elevated unemployment over a prolonged period of time. They face having the life sucked out of them by the zombie banks and corporations, and the burden of an every-growing public debt to finance more and more bailouts:


Instead of bailouts, we need to allow failed banks and corporations to fail and liquidate so that new businesses can take their place. Nature works best through experimentation. Saving zombie banks and zombie corporations kills experimentation, by rewarding failure, and preventing bad ideas from failing. If bad ideas and schemes cannot fail, it is impossible for good ideas and schemes to truly succeed.

The role of the government should be to provide a level playing field for experimentalism (and enough of a safety net for when experiments go wrong) — not pick winners. If experiments go badly, that is no bad thing: it just means that another idea, or system, or structure needs to be tested. People should be free to go bankrupt and start all over again with a different mindset and a different idea.