So far in 2015, the bulls and bears have been in a tug of war on the direction of the stock market. The first quarter has fluctuated between the S&P 500 posting new record highs and turning in a negative return for the year. Both sides have compelling arguments for stocks heading lower or higher in the near term. The bears argue stocks should head lower, because most measures of economic performance have come in below expectations. The economy rather than taking off, as was widely anticipated, is ebbing closer to stall speed. Obviously a recession would be a huge negative for stocks. On the other hand, the bulls have several reasons for why disappointing economic data should not stand in the way of stocks making new highs.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.” — Kenny Rogers, country music singer
“Go on take the money and run.” — The Steve Miller Band, American rock band
Risks around stocks have risen considerably, and even long term investors should now substantially underweight equity exposure. Due to the unique characteristics of this stock market, my best advice is to now treat it as if in the onset of a bear market, regardless of near term price action. At this point in 2014 many warning signs are flashing red—the bond market is signaling weakening growth and greater risk of default, while stock market breadth has deteriorated with many stocks, including small cap and foreign indices, exhibiting extended weakness, while fewer, very large stocks were supporting the market until the recent sell off. The risk versus reward of stock exposure has become too high for an even normal stock allocation, let alone the aggressive allocation most currently posses. It’s time to under weight stocks by taking money out of the market or hedging equity exposure with relation to key technical levels.
The stock market is enjoying one of the strongest bull markets in its history, but the story is the opposite for the economy, where this recovery represents one of the weakest in U.S. history. And that spells bad news for investors. High-flying stock market valuations and corporate profits reverting back to more normal ranges, as covered in Part One and Part Two of “This Isn’t Going to End Well” aren’t the only reason for investors to fear an especially painful stock market decline. The particularly malignant and unsustainable nature of much of this cycle’s growth is another powerful reason to prepare for a big decline in stocks.
Investors are pouring money into the stock market. As the market makes new highs, they’re on track to allocate the most money into stocks since 2000, right before that market rolled into a bear market. The so-called dumb money is often late to the party, as most investors buy at highs and sell at lows. Dumb money rushing into stocks is just one more bearish sign in this almost five-year old stock market. But as many short sellers have found, as this market keeps making new highs, famous economist John Maynard Keynes was right when he proclaimed the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. Bears actively betting against this market are getting killed. No matter how negative the fundamentals, betting against a trend is a good way to go broke. So, now might be a good time to consider what signs will indicate the current bullish trend has reversed, and the time has arrived to head for the exits.
While market watchers fixated on the debt ceiling in the United States, as the clock for raising the ceiling was again reset by Congress, debt issues in China likely pose a more significant threat to the global economy. It’s a risk not lost on Chinese policymakers, who are adopting new practices in order to wean their economy off dept dependence before the worst happens. But with the current levels of debt, economic imbalances and perhaps most importantly high debt inefficiency that clock is ticking. And unlike the U.S. Congress’ debt clock, this Chinese one is not going to be reset by a simple vote of politicians to borrow more. It is imbalances such as these not so easily addressed that pose the real threat to the stock market.
In hindsight it’s ironic that the economy of the nineties was described as the Goldilocks economy—not too hot, not too cold, but just right for high employment and strong growth. Ironic, because the real moral of the story people should have heeded is that there is no free lunch. And, like in the Goldilocks’ fairy tale, three unfriendly bears emerged. If the nineties was the Goldilocks economy then the period we now find ourselves in of both weak growth and employment might best be described as the three bears economy. Since 2000 there was the baby bear of the dotcom bubble, the mamma bear of the residential real estate bubble and the daddy bear of the government debt bubble—corporate, consumer and now government-led bubbles of unproductive and hence unsustainable spending.