Update on market views

FX

USD

On May 30th I wrote a post explaining why I was bearish the USD (Framework for FX valuation – where is the USD heading?). Value seemed to me to be the most important driver and so I had paired a short USD view against a basket of currencies which I considered the most undervalued i.e. CAD, AUD, EUR, NOK and SEK.

This has been working very well so far.

However currently I do not think the USD has moved enough to warrant a reduction in my conviction level, as the long-term potential for the move is still far greater.

GBP

I have been very bearish on sterling for a long time. I may write a post explaining the key reasons in more detail, but essentially I see GBP as highly vulnerable for many fundamental reasons and it is heading towards a large negative trade shock with Brexit. This results in a heightened potential for a calamitous drop.

My 5th May post (Who loses more from Brexit? The UK or EU?) is where I laid out why the UK has far more to lose then the EU from Brexit. Since then sterling has performed very poorly vs. my basket of undervalued currencies (AUD, EUR, CAD, NOK and SEK.)

I retain my bearish view of the currency but am aware that it is hard to justify looking solely at historic value. My view for continued weakness rests on my view that Brexit will happen and very bad economic consequences will follow.

If there is a political earthquake leading to a U-turn, or perhaps the UK ends up in some permanent transition limbo within the single market, then I would revisit my view.

Equities

In early June I laid out why I was bearish on US equities. Since then they have barely moved. My views have not really changed but I intend to update my analysis given some interesting data releases since then. Most importantly wage growth has continued to disappoint which means that there remains an opportunity for corporate earnings to keep rising, despite lacklustre GDP growth.

Fixed Income

I looked at the front end of US fixed income on May 16th and noted that the continued slow drift lower in rates had been a good trade and that it could be about to change.

There has been no sign of a change at all in the market i.e. a very slow move to lower rates continues. This is not a trade I have any appetite to hold either side of.

The story is similar in the long end with little movement in any direction.

With mediocre growth and no acceleration in wage growth, there is no catalyst but my concerns with overall valuation mean I have no desire to own any fixed income at these levels.

Desire – Why use a stop-loss?

Once you realise how central desire is to processing information and making decisions, you can appreciate how important it is to be able to deal with it. Just being aware of your desires as we discussed in the previous article sometimes is not enough. The process of investment has a direct impact on your emotions and desires – “Fear and Greed” are well known but that does not make them easy to deal with.

If you are not careful, this will be your process

  • Belief leads to investment
  • The investment leads to the desire it will succeed
  • Desire leads to reinforced belief in the trade
  • The belief leads to confirmation bias
  • The confirmation bias leads to even stronger belief.

By this stage, your emotional ties have now blended with your beliefs

  • The risk is that you cannot process new information correctly
  • You do not get out of the trade when you should and lose money


Introducing the stop-loss

The cycle above is often why books on trading make stop-losses a central element. In fact they are ubiquitous in trading culture, as a hedge fund manager investors would often ask where my stop-loss is on a given position. The theory is clear:

“If you have a rigid and clear stop-loss, which you decide before you enter a trade, and then remain disciplined in sticking to it, then you are protecting yourself from your own inability to objectively evaluate the position after you have put it on.”

This is great advice for most investors. Another great piece of advice would be:

“DON’T TRADE – you aren’t any good at it and will lose money”

The books tend not to mention that one.

IS there an alternative?

A problem with a stop-loss is the trade might still be a great trade. In fact, it could be better or worse that when you initially traded. New information will have become available, but by pre-committing to get out of the trade, you are not able to do anything about it.

There are other ways to manage positions aside from stop-losses. I borrowed a helpful way to think about this problem from George Soros – please read “The Alchemy of Finance” – a truly wonderful book with some very important ideas. One of Soros’ key ideas is the application of Popper’s scientific method to investing. The application of hypothesis testing.

  • Key is not to start with a “belief” that the trade will work, in fact the trade is a test of the hypothesis that the trade will do well.
  • Analysis is therefore considering what would falsify this hypothesis.
  • Hypotheses are falsified all the time and it is nothing to get very excited about.

Therefore, desire is not engaged or at least minimised.

  • This willing suspension of belief is critical to being able to remain objective later.

What can falsify a hypothesis. For example

  • Fundamental news invalidating the underlying idea
  • Price action that tells me what I thought matters in this market, is not what really matters
  • Price action that tells me there is something going on I do not understand.

In practice, this can look very similar to a stop-loss, but It leaves the door open to more discretion and flexibility. For example:

  • Fundamentals have worsened while the price action is fine
    EXIT i.e. do not wait for the stop-loss
  • Fundamentals have improved while price action is poor
    Do not automatically exit as some of the most profitable opportunities from these times of material mispricing. Do more investigation.
    Possibly INCREASE the position size rather than cut it

Conclusion

Working with Soros, I observed that this process allows him to be enormously flexible. He does not seem to fall into the standard pitfall of emotional attachment to his trades. Instead fluidly cutting, increasing or reversing them when he changes his mind. This level of control and discipline sets him apart from the vast majority of traders I have seen.

Framework for valuing equities Part V – Relationships between Components

In Framework for Equity Valuation Part II I laid out this approach.


Breakdown of the Equity Price

Using some very simple algebra, I split the equity price into components:

Price = (Price/ Earnings) * Earnings

Price = (Price/ Earnings) * ( Earnings / Nominal GDP) * Nominal GDP

In this work, there was an assumption that the components are independent. I will now examine if this is sensible.

Are P/E and E/GDP independent?

I can find no consistent relationship between the two.
There appears to be a mild negative correlation overall, but at times there can be extended periods of both components falling, such as 1967-74 and 2000-2003, or both rising such as 1994-2000.

An intuitive relationship occurs when there is an expectation of a large rise or fall in earnings and the equity price rises or falls in anticipation. This means the PE ratio would rise in anticipation of earnings rising, and then fall back down as earnings expectations are realised. In this situation, I see earnings as the driver and the PE ratio as a passive variable.

A situation where PE was the independent driver was in the 1980s, when a broad fall in yields meant the PE ratio rose without any need for an expectation of a change in earnings. This supports the approach that we can look at the two factors as independent drivers.


Are Growth and PE ratio related?

This is a relationship that is often assumed to exist as we think periods of low growth or recession are associated with low confidence and high awareness of risk. This high “risk premium” means low PE ratio.

But the evidence to support this idea is not so clear. Of the past 9 recessions, the PE ratio only fell twice. There is some evidence to support the idea that the PE ratio falls in the year before the recession in anticipation of an earnings drop, then recovers quickly as those expectations are realised. This happened in 5 of the last 9 recessions so it is still a fairly mild effect.

Are Growth and earnings related?

I find the chart below intuitive and compelling. The reason that recessions drive equity markets down is because recessions drive corporate earnings down. If we look at earnings as a share of GDP from 1 year before the recession to the low during the recession they fell each time. The average fall was 21% with the smallest still a 9% fall and the largest (2008) down a massive 42%.

The rationale for this comes from thinking about the breakdown of national income in the NIPA data (Framework for Equity Valuation Part III Earnings Outlook). If there is downward pressure on nominal GDP whilst wages remain sticky, then the impact is felt in a magnified way in corporate earnings.

The magnitude of changes in earnings are very large during recessions and early recovery, so it is during these periods we should be especially alert when forming an equity outlook. The impact of whether growth is 2.5% or 2.8% is imperceptible by comparison. Lots of work by economists, strategists and asset managers is done to fine tune these types of economic forecast but a) it is not possible for them to be that accurate b) even if you could, the relationship to market prices is so loose as to make it useless information.

Conclusion

There is one important interrelationship we need to be very aware of. In previous recessions, earnings as a share of GDP have fallen rapidly and normally bottomed at around 7%. If that were repeated in the next recession, earnings would need to fall by 40% from current levels.

 

Framework for valuing equities Part IV – PE Outlook

In previous post (Framework for Equity Valuation Part II – Equity Drivers), we have seen that the PE ratio can be an important medium term driver of equity prices. Given the debatable outlook for aggregate corporate earnings, this makes the outlook for the PE ratio a critical factor in forming a view on equities.

Simple PE ratio

It should be very clear from the normalised chart below that the powerful driver of the equity market performance since 2012 has been an expansion of the PE ratio. The S+P has risen by 72% over that period, and the majority of that is explained by PE ratio which has risen from 14 to over 21, an increase of almost 50%.

Can PE ratios go higher from here?

If we look over the long run, it is very rare for the PE ratio to move higher from where we currently are. In fact, it has only happened 3 times; 1991, 1999 and 2009.

In 2 of these 3 examples, high PE ratios were observed during a recession and ensuing bear market with earnings falling even more than prices . For example, in 2009, the high PE ratio was driven by the collapse in earnings not the soaring of equity prices to record highs. These are not helpful precedents for equity bulls right now.

The only previous period where the PE ratio drove the market higher from this level was the dot com bubble. The name given to this period gives a big clue as to what we now think of what happened. If that were to be repeated, then there would be another 40% left in this rally due to PE expansion. This is not impossible but relying on a repeat of the biggest valuation bubble in a century is not reassuring to me.

“Fed Model”

The post I wrote about the Fed model implied that equities represent good value compared with bonds. This generates a counter-argument to my scepticism of a repeat of the dot-com bubble. We have never seen bond yields this low before, so why should we not also see unprecedented low yields in equities (high PE ratio)?

As I explained in my previous post (Framework for valuing equities Part 1- Compared to bonds), I do not think that bonds are good value and so simply beating their performance may not be a high enough benchmark. Most importantly, if QE-driven low yields are pushing up PE ratios, then the termination of QE and rising bond yields should be very harmful for equities.

The other problem is that, even if it is true that holding equities for the next 10 years may work out, the volatility and drawdown you experience may be hard to handle.

For example,
In May 2007 from my equity model (Framework for valuing equities Part 1- Compared to bonds), the expected 10 year return for equities was 8.1% (annualised)

It actually turned out to be 7.1% annualised – which resulted in a total return of almost 100% over 10 years.

That sounds pretty good.
But I bet it would not have felt so good less than 2 years later in March 2009 after a 53% drawdown.

With hindsight waiting for a better moment to enter the long equity trade would have been phenomenally better. If you had waited to buy in March 2009 instead (I know, ludicrous cherry picking, but just about any time around then was great) then your returns would have been a total of over 300%.


Conclusion

The outlook for equities from the perspective of high nominal GDP or high earnings growth look rather limited. Earnings is near record highs as a share of GDP and we are at the stage of the cycle where wages are rising instead.

If we rely on a PE expansion to make us optimistic, we need to be comfortable buying at levels which previously have been associated with a “bubble”.

We can perhaps consider equities being good value compared to bonds, but we must then remember that yields are too low given fundamentals and the termination of QE.

If you are happy to hold them for a decade and do not worry too much about drawdowns, then I come up with an expected annual return of 6.5%. This is higher than bonds right now but perhaps waiting for a better entry level will turn out to be a better strategy.

Framework for Equity Valuation Part III Earnings Outlook

We explored in the last post (Framework for Equity Valuation Part II – Equity Drivers) how earnings as a share of GDP can be an important driver of medium term equity returns.


What is the market expecting earnings to be?

The chart below shows the difference between what the PE ratio is today and what it is expected to be in a year’s time (i.e. a measure of what analysts expect total earnings growth to be). Currently it shows that equity analysts are predicting a 20% increase in corporate profits. This implies that although the current PE ratio may be high, it will be brought down by rapidly rising earnings.

I find this chart is the best explanation of the Trump rally. Analyst earnings expectations rose immediately and this is temporarily reflected in a higher PE ratio. Once the earnings come through we will see that the rise in equities was driven by earnings not by animal spirits. Assuming the analysts’ earnings optimism is correct of course.

What does this mean for earnings over GDP?

I will leave aside for now views on how effective Trump will be at increasing growth and just look at the confidence level implied in market prices. It is all too easy with controversial political figures and issues for analysis to become infected with partisan assumptions and desires which lead to worse decisions.

The first point to note is that taking analysts expectations of a 20% earnings increase, this would imply earnings as a share of GDP will immediately rebound to all-time highs (dotted red line in the chart we used previously). We have seen drops in E/GDP of that magnitude before during recessions but never an increase and this seems an odd stage of the cycle to expect it.

Is this forecast consistent with other data?

Another useful way to use national income data is split the economy into just 2 parts – Wages and Profits.

The National Income Accounts (NIPA) data is used a lot more by economists than it is by market participants. To give some context, it was particularly useful to use during the late stages of the dot com bubble, as it showed that reported earnings were far in excess of the profits seen in the national accounts. This implied some form of earnings inflation and potentially even fraud, which actually did come to light later in 2002. The chart below shows how the reported earnings diverged for 4 years before coming back in line very sharply. Checking reported data and forecasts for simple internal consistency can be surprisingly rewarding. It is best not to assume that analysts have done this for you.

Using the National Income Accounts data, we can construct a chart of the respective shares of national income for wages and profits. As you can see, there is a clear and logical inverse relationship between wages and profits as a share of GDP.

We know that wages have finally been rising again recently and all forecasts are that this will continue. So how can we have nominal GDP of 4%, wages rising at least 2.5% and profits rising 20%.

Quick answer – we can’t.

Long answer – it requires some heroic assumptions in other parts of the national accounts which I won’t go into here.

Scenario – if we assume corporate earnings will rise by 20% over the next 12 months and allow the other components of GDP (including proprietors’ income) to grow at 4%, we can solve for wages and we get an increase of just 0.7%. Rather different from the 2.5% current seen in average hourly earnings.

Summary

There is a great deal of optimism among analysts for the outlook of corporate earnings. It is hard to reconcile that with some basic arithmetic from the national accounts. When nominal GDP growth is moderate and wages are accelerating, it is hard to also get record increases in corporate profits. If earnings do not rise as rapidly as anticipated then to be optimistic on the S+P you need to be positive on the prospects for PE expansion. I will look at that next.

Framework for Equity Valuation Part II – Equity Drivers

In previous posts, I have written up ideas on primary drivers and first approximations for fixed income and foreign exchange markets, and I now want to continue with equity markets (Click here for Framework for valuing equities Part 1). This is a little more complex to explain so will take a few posts to go through the steps.

Most equity analysis I read starts from the bottom up. The analyst knows a lot about individual companies or sectors and will extrapolate from there to the broader index. Or if some macro analysis is performed, it assumes some form of “conventional wisdom” such as high growth means higher equities.

I want to start with a top-down equity valuation and so I find a useful way to begin is to break the equity price into components. Then I can compare equities to GDP and the economy, things that I am familiar with already.

This framework can be applied to all equity markets but will start here with the US and the S+P 500.

Breakdown of the Equity Price

Using some very simple algebra:

Price = (Price / Earnings) * Earnings

Price = (Price / Earnings) * (Earnings / Nominal GDP) * Nominal GDP


Focus on the Components

Eventually, I will I look at how these variables relate to each other, but first let’s start examining each in turn:

  1. Nominal GDP Long Term Diver
  2. Earnings Medium Term Driver
  3. PE Ratio Medium and Short Term Driver
  1. Nominal GDP 

In the long-run, Nominal GDP is the only thing that matters for equity prices.
Nominal GDP is 35 times bigger than it was in 1961 and the S+P Index price is 37 times higher. Fundamentally, if you are a long-term investor and just stay long equities, then the rising tide of growth will lift you to large compounded returns over the decades.

However, if your horizon is less than decades, nominal GDP is not such a clear driver of equity returns. In the very short run and even in the medium term of say 2 years, nominal GDP moves far less than equity prices do.

Follow-up Question “Does outlook for nominal GDP matter now for investment decisions?”

See later post

  1. Earnings as a share of GDP

Below is the chart from 1967 to now. Over a given 2-year horizon, we have seen material movements in S&P trailing EPS over GDP. Many are interesting, but the recent financial crisis moves stand out the most. Earnings were clearly volatile but amid the talk of bubbles, panic, and recovery of confidence, how important were they versus other drivers?


Example – Financial Crisis and recovery

During financial crisis earnings dominated.
For all the talk of animal spirits and how equity markets were highly erratic and emotional, the “boring” fundamentals of corporate earnings explained practically all price movements.

Follow-up Question “Outlook for earnings?”

See later post

  1. PE Ratio – Medium and Short term driver

Short term

In the short-run by definition PE ratio is the only thing that matters.
GDP data and earnings releases are only quarterly and so, for most days, the only thing that could have changed is the PE ratio.

You may argue that these daily changes in PE ratio are explainable and even predictable as they are driven by

i) Change in expectations of earnings

ii) Change in expectations of nominal GDP

iii) Change in yields in other substitutable markets

iv) Change in yield demanded from equities due to change in risk preferences or change in perception of risk

Radio and TV programmes are filled with a succession of strategists and pundits all required to “explain” yesterday’s market movement and these factors are therefore reached for repeatedly.

Unfortunately, these short-term changes are all too easy to explain away, given the limited range of explanations that are permitted. But you can tell that these “explanations” are also very hard to predict. The driver that is sometimes assumed is that the PE ratio change is due to rational updating of forecasts of GDP growth and corporate earnings. But markets are too volatile and erratic for that explanation to be compelling and talking about animal spirits is more natural.

Medium term

From the chart below you can see that the PE ratio is broadly unchanged over the past 50 years i.e. it is not at all a long-term driver of equities. But it is also clear that with a range of 7 to 30 it can have a huge impact on medium term price movements.


Example – 1980s

In the 1980s, for all the talk of the transformation of the US economy through the Reagan/Volker years combined with the “Greed is Good” era unlocking corporate value through increased efficiency, it was neither high GDP growth nor rising earnings that dominated the dramatic rise in equity prices. In fact, earnings as a share of GDP fell during this period and it was the rise in the PE ratio that drove prices higher.

One can think of this as a yield effect from the fall in inflation and the subsequent drop in bond yields. Lower bond yields drove yields lower in all asset classes, including property and equities. Lower yields mean higher prices and so we saw a huge bull market, commonly mis-explained by deregulation and improved business management.

Example – 2013 to now

 

Over the past 4 years, the dominant driver has again been the PE ratio. Despite more confidence in the recovering economy, earnings as a share of GDP has not risen.

Again there has been a the yield effect with QE reducing yields in the bond market (https://appliedmacro.com/2017/05/23/framework-for-valuing-fixed-income-long-end/) and this has slowly filtered into other asset classes, such as equities, reducing yields and increasing prices.


Follow-up Question “Outlook for PE ratio?”

See later post

Conclusion

The framework of separating nominal GDP, earnings and PE ratio is helpful in describing what have been the historic drivers of equity markets. What we can do next is look at the current outlook for each of these drivers and from that the outlook for US equity markets.