The Long View

James Mackintosh

As the market rally falters (perhaps), John Authers and I have a new home on FT Alphaville.

This blog will no longer be updated, but our occasional thoughts and more frequent output will appear at ftalphaville.ft.com. Bookmark it and check back! 

John Authers

We all know that reported earnings are manipulated. But are they manipulated any more than they used to be, and are they manipulated so as to overstate profits, or understate them? And is the manipulation now so extreme that it is no longer relevant to compare profits over long periods of time? That is where the debate over CAPE (the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio) has reached. Even if it sounds technical, it is of vital importance when trying to work out whether the market is undervalued – as much of the stock broker community likes to argue – or in fact overvalue.

For those who missed them, the FT recently published my latest Long View column, defending the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio as calculated by Robert Shiller of Yale University and its relevance, quickly followed by a Market Insight column from Jeremy Siegel of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and author of Stocks for the Long Run, arguing that Cape’s “overly pessimistic predictions are based on biased earnings data”. An academic conference on the subject is coming up in September.

Some navigation might be helpful. This is not just an arid academic dispute but a matter of critical interest to practising investors. As discussed last week, CAPE has been an impressive metric of value for over a century, and it sticks out from other metrics at present by signalling that stocks are badly overvalued (by 63 per cent for non-financials according to Andrew Smithers, a firm advocate of CAPEs as defined by Prof Shiller). Various different exchange-traded funds are now available that attempt to time switches between sectors based on their CAPE ratios.

However, the fact that CAPE is so bearish makes it unpopular. So does the undeniable fact that CAPE has been too bearish to be of great use to the average asset allocators over the last decade, failing to signal that stocks were cheap before two separate rallies, both of which saw stocks double over a period of four years. (You can see charts of CAPE over time in earlier LongShort posts here and here). Proponents of CAPE would counter that the measure is not for tactical asset allocation and that valuations cannot be used for timing the market.

So bulls are now trying to show either that Shiller’s CAPE was always flawed, or something has happened in the last decade or so to make the measure less useful. The academic participants know a lot of money is riding on this. Much more after the break. 

John Authers

Ben Bernanke can move markets, and sometimes his words are too strong for his own good. That may have been true of his press conference last month, when he announced that he planned to start tapering off QE bond purchases later this year, and end them altogether by next summer. That drove a dramatic rise in Treasury yields, and in the dollar.

For a further classic example, look at the speed with which currency markets responded late on Wednesday and early on Thursday to a speech he made in Massachusetts, and to the minutes from last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, published on Wednesday. The euro gained 4.5 cents against the dollar in a matter of minutes, while the pound gained almost 4 cents (or about 2.6 per cent). 

John Authers

Was Keynes a Keynesian? I had to answer this essay question at university and managed to answer No. The issue was whether John Maynard Keynes’ 1930s ideas really entailed the interventionist policies that bore his name, and which rightly took much blame for 1970s stagflation.

Since then, an era of distinctly non-Keynesian economics by any definition has culminated in a global crash, leaving the world in what looks like what Keynes called a “liquidity trap” – where lower interest rates have little or no effect. In a week when the European Central Bank, the People’s Bank of China and the Bank of England have all eased monetary policy, the debate about Keynes’ legacy rages. It is barely a debate at all – a sterile recitation by each side of a preconceived position.