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Are We There … Yet?

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA


NOTE: This article was first written in May 2013, but it is still as relevant today as it was then.


In early May 2015 I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Value Investing Congress in Las Vegas. The last time I had spoken there, it was May 2008 and the market was just coming off its top.  The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was trading at 18 times trailing earnings. Profit margins were at a modern-day high. They subsequently collapsed but came back to set an even higher high. If you normalize profits for high margins and look at ten-year trailing earnings, in 2008 stocks were trading 66 percent above their average. They were at 30 times ten-year trailing earnings.

The Market Repeats

In all honesty, I could do the same presentation today that I did five years ago, since market valuation is not dramatically different from what it was then. A cyclical bear and a cyclical bull market later, the S&P 500 is at (the same) 18 times trailing earnings and 26 times ten-year trailing earnings. Investors who were on the sidelines the past few years and who are now pouring money into stocks, expecting that we are in the midst of a secular bull market, will likely be disappointed. The previous sideways market, of 1966–82, included four cyclical bull markets and five cyclical bear markets. From 1970 to 1973 the Dow went from 700 to 1,000, just to drop again, to 600.

Lost Hope

Sideways markets are there to destroy hope. It is when nobody wants to own stocks ever again, when valuations are below their historical average, that a secular sideways market finally dies (actually, more like goes into hibernation), and the next secular bull market is born. But even that is not enough: Stocks need to spend time at below-average valuations. In the 1966–82 market they spent half of their time at below-average valuations. During the recent crisis we tiptoed into below-average valuations, but we danced right back out.

A present day secular bull market?

To believe we are in the midst of a secular bull market, you have to be very comfortable with three things, starting with profit margins.

  1. Today corporate profit margins are hitting all-time highs. Historically, profit margins have been mean-reverting — high margins were never sustained by corporations over a prolonged period of time because, as legendary value investor Jeremy Grantham puts it, “capitalism works.”  When a company — Apple, for example — starts earning very high margins, its competitors (like Samsung) come in with lower prices. In response, Apple must lower its margins. If margins decline even as the economy grows, earnings growth will be very benign or negative.
  2. Second, even if you are comfortable with high profit margins, you have to make an assumption that economic (revenue) growth will be robust going forward. Given how many headwinds we are facing from Europe, China and Japan, it is hard to develop a high comfort level there.
  3. And finally, you have to believe that price-earnings ratios can expand from their current level. I have news for you: In the past, sideways markets started (bull markets ended) when valuations were at current levels.

Stock returns are driven by two variables, earnings growth and changes in P/Es. Earnings growth for the next five to ten years is unlikely to be exciting and may not even be positive, and P/Es are likely to change for the worse, not the better.


silhouettes chart


Interest rates

Interest rates were much higher in the ’70s and early ’80s than they are today, and thus stocks may deserve higher valuations than they did then. This applies to all assets. But, the Federal Reserve’s policy may inflate stocks’ valuations for a while. If the Fed succeeds and real growth resumes, then interest rates will rise and (expensive) stocks that were discounting all-time-low rates will get crushed. After all, they — like long-duration bonds — do great when interest rates decline and bite the dust when interest rates rise.

Of course, on many levels things are better now than they were in 2008. The financial crisis and real estate bubble are behind us; we are probably not going to see those again for a while. But their resolution came at a big price: much higher government debt and a command-control interest-rate policy that would have made the Soviets proud.


We’re now living in a Lance Armstrong economy. We’ve consumed so many performance enhancement drugs through endless quantitative easing that it is hard to know how well the economy is really doing. Unfortunately, as Armstrong at some point did, we’ll have an Oprah Winfrey moment when the economy will have to fess up for all the QEs.

We are living through one of the most grandiose and untested lab experiments ever conducted by a central bank: QE Infinity. At the recent Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett said, “Watching the economy today is like watching a good movie — you don’t know the ending.” His sidekick Charlie Munger added, “If you are not confused about the economy, you don’t understand it very well.”


The Fed’s unprecedented intervention in the economy has increased the possible range and severity of negative outcomes, from runaway inflation to deflation or a freaky combination of the two (freakflation). Deflation (or freakflation) is not good for stocks or their valuations. Just look at Japan. Over the past 20 years, stock valuations declined despite interest rates being at incredibly low levels. Expensive stocks (as I’ve mentioned, stocks in general are very expensive) discount earnings growth. If growth fails to materialize, these P/Es will decline. Unknowns are simply unknown.


At a time when the market is making all-time highs, it is easy to become complacent and let your guard down. Don’t. • •


Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  


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7 Responses

  1. Evidence based on quantitative metrics

    Those who have seen me on various financial media such as CNBC, attended my presentations nationwide, or read my articles on Marketwatch are likely familiar with the way I approach the future. Using the weight of the evidence based on quantitative metrics, I come up with a near-term thesis in the context of what unemotional indicators suggest is likely, and give voice to math. I’ve learned over the years that most people’s eyes glaze over when you give them numbers, but people love a good story.

    What people hate though is uncertainty. People want to know what our latest “call” on markets is as if with 100% certainty what we say now will play out in the future. Somehow, all the may, might, and could wording is ignored. So too is the objective of the analysis, the reality of probabilities, and what we are trying to accomplish through our approach. There is no holy grail when it comes to investing. There is no foolproof system or strategy which works 100% of the time, yet human beings want to believe that there is. History is littered with the graves of soothsayers the world gravitated towards who seemingly could tell what comes next with incredible conviction.

    Yet, if we exert effort using what Daniel Kahneman would refer to as the “System 2” part of our brains, we would know that having conviction about what happens in the future is wildly dangerous. Say you believed at the start of 2015 that Oil (USO) was going to have a blockbuster year, and energy (XLE) was going to be the best performing sector of the S&P 500 (SPY). You “know” you’re going to make a killing on this trade, so you go all in. You start spending on more expensive clothing, and order older and older Scotch in anticipation of the windfall that’s coming. Suddenly, that becomes an investment (the old joke is that a losing trade simply becomes a long-term investment) and now you’re sitting on huge losses. All of that conviction conned you.

    What was forgotten in the initial analysis and investment thesis?

    May, might, and could. The very purpose of diversification in a portfolio isn’t to make a killing, but to not get killed. Diversification is the ultimate admission that one can be wrong about what comes next. Diversification is the hedge against ourselves in being wrong about our favorite investments. Why diversify otherwise? If you believed US equities were the only place to invest, then why not just leverage up and go all in for the next 5 years today? Because you could be wrong. It is precisely for this reason one should consider multiple investment, even those that one does NOT like. At the end of the day, diversification is the portfolio manifestation of admitting we can’t see the future, and need multiple investments to protect against underestimated scenarios.

    There’s a problem with that though. I’ve met with thousands of financial advisors and investors about our award winning papers on predicting stock corrections and volatility (click here to download). Somehow, diversification to many is mixing investments which move off of the same underlying factors. “I’ve diversified my portfolios with a 60% stock, 40% bond mix.” Sounds diversified, except that the bond mix tends to have a large portion of high yielding junk debt, which as that breaks makes the 60% stock allocation highly vulnerable. Diversification increasingly doesn’t come from asset classes, but rather from strategy. Unfortunately, in a world increasingly in love with passive investing and robo-advisors, this is rarely considered. To many, if every single part of a diversified portfolio isn’t “working” then that part of the portfolio needs to be changed. Yet, it is precisely because certain parts of a portfolio aren’t making money in the moment that makes a portfolio more robust against the uncertain future.

    You want a lot of may, might, and coulds. It’s the only way to protect yourself from yourself being wrong.

    Michael A. Gayed CFA
    [Portfolio Manager]


  2. Oil rally drives rebound in US Stocks…‏

    Investors breathed a sigh of relief last, and the first two days of this week, as U.S. stock markets recovered from a tumble toward bear market territory with the grace of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Many stock markets around the world finished the week with gains, although national indices in Europe and the United States fared better, generally, than those in Asia.

    BloombergBusiness reported global stocks experienced their biggest gains in more than three years, while safe haven markets, including Treasuries, retreated*. Stocks moved higher on speculation the European Central Bank (ECB) will expand stimulus measures, the U.S. Federal Reserve may revise its rate hike intentions, and Japan and Asia also may take steps to support their markets. According to the Financial Times:

    “Sentiment turned in part because of dovish comments on Thursday from Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, which many in the market viewed as signaling that further stimulus measures could be unveiled in March…The slide in U.S. equity markets and strengthening of the U.S. dollar have rapidly unraveled investor expectations that the Fed will be able to lift rates four times this year, as the central bank seeks to normalize policy. Instead, traders put the odds on just one rate rise this year.”

    A late-week rally in oil prices also helped push stock markets higher. The Financial Times reported crude oil hit a 12-year low midweek and then bounced more than 18 percent. While improving oil prices proved heartening to investors, Barron’s pointed out prices have dropped because supply expanded ahead of demand. With growth in China slowing, it may take some time for supply and demand to balance.

    Arthur Chalekian GEPC
    [Financial Consultant]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How low can you go?

    The Bank of Japan (BOJ) dove into the negative interest rate rabbit hole last week when it dropped its benchmark interest rate to minus 0.1 percent. If you’ve been following Japan’s story, then you know the country has been struggling with deflation for almost two decades. The BOJ’s goal is to push inflation up to 2 percent. MarketWatch explained the idea behind negative interest rates:

    “Central banks use their deposit to influence how banks handle their reserves. In the case of negative rates, central banks want to dissuade lenders from parking cash with them. The hope is that they will use that money to lend to individuals and businesses which, in turn, will spend the money and boost the economy and contribute to inflation.”

    If the idea of negative interest rates sounds familiar, it’s probably because Europe has been delving into negative interest rate territory for a while. Several European central banks have adopted negative interest rate strategies, and about one-third of the bonds issued by governments in the eurozone offered negative yields at the end of 2015. It’s an unusual state of affairs – offering investors bonds that pay less than nothing. If investors hold to maturity, they get back less than their investment amount.

    While negative rates may not be pleasing to bond buyers, U.S. stock markets were thrilled by the BOJ’s surprise rate cut. Major indices rose by about 2 percent on Friday.

    Market performance was also boosted by a bad-news-is-good-news interpretation of weak fourth quarter U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) growth estimates. According to Reuters, slower growth in the U.S. economy raised investors’ hopes the Federal Reserve would hold back on future rate hikes.

    Arthur Chalekian GEPC
    [Financial Consultant]


  4. Crash, Correction, and Collapse for Stocks?‏

    Hailed as the great equalizer, the Internet has become nothing more than a place for people to fall prey to the confirmation bias. Go to any social media platform like Twitter, and inevitably the things which get shared and retweeted the most are either those which are vastly negative and have a tone of sarcasm/anger, or those messages which confirm a certain line of thinking regardless of the veracity of the information. And nothing brings out the confirmation bias more than fear of losing money as bears come out roaring in down periods, hailing to be right all along into an advance which with hindsight should never have occurred to begin with. Everybody is right, and everybody is wrong, depending on where you end the calendar.

    Allowing confirmation bias to feedback back to our fears is not a rational way of looking at markets. One cannot create a forecast by seeking out information which confirms an existing viewpoint because the best forecasts are made when lots of different kind of information and viewpoints are synthesized into one. That confirmation bias, heightened by fear, makes the bear case always sound more right, more reasonable, and guaranteed. Yet, the one thing both bears and bulls alike share is the inability to predict the future with any degree of certainty. All we can do is make probabilistic forecasts and ensure that those probabilities are not skewed by emotional biases.

    Charlie Bilello did a great piece recently which looks at what can cause the current bear case to reverse and actually result in a period of significant advance for reflation trades (click here to read). The piece, despite how well written, has noticeably less page views than the more bearish ones we’ve been writing for the past several months. Why? Because fear sells. Without fail, whenever a writing of mine on Marketwatch has in its title either the word “crash,” “correction,” “collapse,” or anything else which elicits fear (independent of whether the actual content of the writing is negative or not), pageviews quintuple. Why? Because people want to read about things which make them feel they are right that the world is coming to an end. Every correction, and every bear market results in the same feeling. Every correction, and every bear market of course eventually ends.

    Current intermarket trends suggest that if another wave down does not occur in the next two weeks, a reflationary period becomes far more likely. Despite extraordinary volatility, commodities do appear to be having a hard time pushing down more. Since the middle of January, emerging markets have been outperforming US large-caps and sentiment has resulted in extreme confirmation bias which bull contrarians want to see. That does not mean that we are on the verge of a secular bull market. Rather that we are nearing a point where the risk/reward for reflation bets is more favorable. Looking at the indicators we reference in our three award winning papers (click here to download), Gold is outperforming Lumber and still looks early, Utilities have significantly outperformed, and long duration Treasuries have held extremely strong. Should momentum in these areas begin to reverse next week, even into further declines it makes sense to consider that the environment could become more conducive to lower volatility short-term.

    Speaking of quantitative research, we have an exciting announcement to make in the coming weeks related to new research Charlie and I put together. Selfishly of course I hope that it gets shared aggressively and confirmation bias helps us get page views. However, I have a feeling unless we add in that research’s title the word crash, only the very thoughtful who have true intellectual curiosity when it comes to market anomalies will benefit.

    That I can confirm with certainty.

    Michael A. Gayed CFA
    [Portfolio Manager]


  5. March First – 2016

    It wasn’t as entertaining as the Fantastic Four, The Magnificent Seven, or Ocean’s 11 but, last week, we had an opportunity to watch the Group of 20 (G20).

    The G20 stars finance ministers and central bankers from 19 countries and the European Union as well as representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The group meets periodically to discuss the global economy.

    At their most recent meeting, the G20 made a commitment to continue to pursue global growth through monetary policy. They also emphasized governments around the world need to do more. The IMF’s report stated:

    “In advanced economies, securing higher and sustainable growth requires a mix of mutually-reinforcing demand and supply policies. On the demand side, accommodative monetary policy remains essential where inflation is still well below central banks’ targets. However, a comprehensive approach is needed to reduce over-reliance on monetary policy. In particular, near-term fiscal policy should be more supportive…”

    In other words, the world has been depending on monetary policies, which are determined by central banks, to encourage growth. Now it’s time for fiscal policies, which are measures implemented by governments (e.g., tax cuts, government spending), to strengthen economies.

    BloombergBusiness reported the event might have disappointed investors who were hoping for a finale featuring a coordinated stimulus plan for the global economy. If so, it didn’t reflect in the performance of U.S. stock markets. ABC News reported an oil price rally helped push stock prices higher last week and so did some positive economic data. Fourth quarter’s U.S. gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in the United States, was revised upward from 0.7 percent to 1.0 percent.

    All major U.S. indices finished in positive territory for the second consecutive week.

    Arthur Chalekian GEPC
    [Financial Consultant]



    The Bank of Japan recently announced it would be lowering a key interest rate below zero for the first time. It had been paying banks 0.1% interest on their overnight deposits, but is now charging them that rate to hold their money.

    Japan joined a growing list of countries that have introduced negative interest rates, which includes Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and the 18 members of the euro zone. The Federal Reserve’s Chair, Janet Yellen, has said using negative rates wouldn’t be “off the table” if the U.S. economy were to deteriorate significantly.

    Many developed economies have been struggling to ward off deflation in the wake of the Great Recession, and the drop in the price of oil since 2014 has only made their job harder.

    One unconventional step taken by the Fed, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan to ease deflationary pressures was to buy government bonds and other financial assets. That tends to drive down borrowing costs, which should then drive up the prices of goods and services—a process known as quantitative easing.

    Negative interest rates are another unconventional monetary policy intended to do much the same thing. Charging banks interest on the money they park with central banks should incentivize them to lend that money out to consumers and businesses that will spend it. Again, more consumption should help lift prices of goods and services.

    As negative interest rates are a relatively new tool being deployed by central banks, there is still some debate as to whether they will work as hoped. They might not succeed in spurring banks to lend more, and they could have unintended negative consequences.

    And these negative interest rates are being utilized in an environment where the Federal Reserve is actually in the process of rolling back some of their extraordinarily easy monetary policy. As is often the case when investing, it’s hard to call how things will play out. That’s why it makes sense to stay broadly diversified across international markets, which reduces your exposure to downturns in individual countries while providing an opportunity to benefit from those that perform well.

    Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA


  7. Are corporations in the United States struggling?

    In its cover article last week, The Economist (a British publication), suggested there is not enough competition among American companies. It pointed out:

    “Aggregate domestic profits are at near-record levels relative to GDP…High profits might be a sign of brilliant innovations or wise long-term investments were it not for the fact that they are also suspiciously persistent. A very profitable American firm has an 80 percent chance of being that way 10 years later. In the 1990s the odds were only about 50 percent.”

    At the end of last week, U.S. headlines indicated concern about declining corporate profits:

    • Consumers prop up U.S. economy, but profits under pressure
    • U.S. Fourth-Quarter GDP Revised Up to 1.4% Growth but Corporate Profits Fall
    • Corporate profits fall in 2015 for first time since Great Recession
    • U.S. Corporate Profits Fall 8.1% in 4th Quarter

    So, are U.S. companies experiencing record profits or are they in trouble?

    Last week’s press release from the Bureau of Economic Analysis indicated corporate profits (after inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments) declined from the third quarter of 2015 to the fourth quarter of 2015; hence, the headlines.

    However, a one-quarter decline doesn’t provide a complete picture of the health of corporate America. As CFO.com pointed out, over the full year, corporate profits were up 3.3 percent year-to-year.

    Trading Economics offered additional context. From 1950 through 2015, U.S. corporate profits averaged about $395 billion annually. Profits hit a record low for that period, $14 billion, during the first quarter of 1951. Profits rose to an all-time high of about $1.64 trillion during the third quarter of 2014.

    Fourth quarter’s profits of $1.38 trillion remain well above that average.

    Arthur Chalekian GEPC
    [Financial Consultant]


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