US equities

We are currently inundated with bad information. It is one of the reasons why the economy has been doing poorly. Our future depends on our decisions and bad information leads to bad ones being made.

Claims made about the cost of corporate equity and the returns that companies should therefore seek to make for their shareholders are prominent examples of misinformation. For example, according to KPMG, Britain’s five largest banking groups must “urgently tackle” low returns for shareholders. I am quoting from an article by Emma Dunkley in the Financial Times April 8 2015: “Big banks should become more profitable, says the report. It is claimed that value for shareholders is still being eroded six years after the crisis. None of the banks achieved a return on equity above 8 per cent last year, compared with an average of 11.6 per cent in 2009.” Read more

Hedge funds’ portfolios are often leveraged and they can be big winners or losers if this pays off. In this sense the US is also a hedge fund. In terms of its international assets, the US is long equities and short debt. This has been hugely to its advantage because equities have given much better returns, but this benefit carries large risks for the future.

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Asset prices fall if investors’ liquidity preference rises or if their liquidity falls (ie, if investors need the money or want to have more cash in their portfolios). Liquidity depends on central banks; they can create it or soak it up. The US Federal Reserve seems unlikely to reduce liquidity unless inflation picks up, but is likely to stop creating it in October. Therefore, one way in which asset prices will fall is a rise in inflation or pre-emptive action by the Fed to stop it.

When the Fed creates liquidity, it takes a larger rise in liquidity preference than before to hit asset prices. The Fed is thus in the process of increasing the market’s sensitivity to rises in liquidity preference and, as small changes are the normal response of investors to new information, the volatility of the market is therefore likely to rise. In the absence of increased interest rates, large changes in liquidity preference, however, are likely to depend on falling profits. Read more

A few weeks ago, I promised to write about claims that the stock market could be valued by comparing earnings yields to bond yields. This approach is sometimes called the “Fed model”. This was fashionable in the 1990s and seems to have some followers even today. It is not only nonsense but is the most egregious piece of “data mining” that I have encountered in the 60-plus years I have been studying financial marketsRead more

The US seems expensive relative to other major stock markets. As it is probable that cheaper markets will give better returns, this implies that investors should underweight US equities. This conclusion applies, however, only over the longer term. Timing matters and this involves other considerations.

Chart one illustrates that G5 stock markets are strongly correlated with the US and so, to a large extent, markets go up and down together. The chart also shows that this tendency has been strengthening over time. Read more

I wrote in an earlier blog that I would become more cautious about US equities if profit margins came down. We have just had the figures for the first quarter of 2014 and profit margins have narrowed. I should therefore keep readers up to date and explain why I do not think the latest data are signalling the top of the market.

As I pointed out in “US corporate debt and cash flow”, US companies have been the key buyers of the stock market and the rate at which they have been buying shares is unsustainable, because debt cannot continue to grow at the pace needed to finance the purchases. The difficulty with things that cannot go on is deciding when they will stop and I will try to explain why I think this point has not yet arrived, despite the uncertainty that anyone must have about such things.

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If investors wish to buy more than others wish to sell, share prices will tend to rise. It is therefore sensible to look at who buys and who sells and if any changes seem likely.

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US equities are dangerously overvalued, being around 70 per cent above fair value (see chart).

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