John Authers

Russell Napier’s Anatomy of the Bear seems to be quite a cult classic among investors.Anatomy of the Bear I regularly see it on portfolio managers’ desks. Meanwhile, his video interviews with the FT in the years since the crisis also seem to have created quite a cult following. This week he completed his fourth interview with us since 1999, and he is sticking to his claim, based on historical experience, that the S&P 500 will need to slide down below 500 once more before this bear market is over (he did say 400 in the book).

How much has his story changed, and how seriously should we take him? This obviously divides opinion. So here are his previous interviews with us, in chronological order. Read more

James Mackintosh

With the US government missing in action, the statisticians who usually draw up Friday’s non-farm payrolls numbers are kicking their heels at home. In their absence, the market is likely to turn to today’s estimates from payrolls processor ADP – which has direct access to data on about a fifth of total pay packets.

This should make ADP’s numbers more reliable than those from the government. But because investors focus on the government survey, rather than ADP, what really matters is how close the ADP estimates are to the official figures. At first glance they look pretty good:

ADP v non-farm payrolls Read more

John Authers

Just what depths of political stupidity are markets discounting? The partial shutdown of the US government passed with little or no impact on the markets that stood to be most affected, even though there was uncertainty about it to the end.

Almost all European stock markets opened higher, despite the news from the US. The dollar index dropped 0.35 per cent in the minutes following the realisation that the shutdown would happen, and then recovered somewhat. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond gained 5 basis points to 2.66 per cent – still far below the 3 per cent it briefly touched a few weeks ago. So what has happened so far – the failure to agree on a budget and an initial shutdown of the US government – has evidently been priced in. Read more

James Mackintosh

Here’s the market reaction to the shutdown of (some of) the US government:

  • Benchmark US 10-year Treasury yields rose 0.05 percentage points immediately
  • The dollar index fell 0.4 per cent immediately
  • US equities dropped 0.6 per cent in the build-up yesterday, but the fall was still less than the 0.73 per cent fall in developed world equities.
  • The e-mini S&P 500 futures contract is up 0.4 per cent since the shutdown took effect at midnight in Washington

All of which suggests that investors really aren’t that bothered. Here is conventional wisdom on why: Read more

James Mackintosh

A rally of 150 per cent – the rise in the S&P 500 since its intraday low of 666 in March 2009 – looks like the very essence of a bull market.

Adjust for inflation and it is possible to see as merely a bear market rally – perhaps the biggest dead cat bounce of all time. The real capital value of an investment in the S&P 500 is still below where it was in 2007 or 2000. After both of those peaks and subsequent crashes, shares were pumped up by central banks keeping interest rates much too low. Read more

James Mackintosh

The Bank of England has finally snapped. It is fed up with being constantly criticised for messing up its forward guidance on interest rates, and this week began what looks like a co-ordinated campaign to hit back.

Three of its policymakers have made speeches so far defending the policy, and their key points are simple. Here’s what they said, then some charts. Read more

James Mackintosh

Economists often seem to be living in a different world, not least when their forecasts of future recessions – or more precisely the lack of them – are examined.

Now two economists have confirmed that economists are on a quite different plane to the rest of the population, by exploring their views on policy issues facing America. Two Chicago-based finance professors, Paola Sapienza of Northwestern and Luigi Zingales of Chicago Booth, tried to identify issues on which economists generally agreed.

Only two issues garnered complete agreement: every single economist questioned (as part of a regular survey) said it was hard to predict share prices, and not one thought US healthcare was sustainable.

By contrast only a small majority of Americans (55 per cent) agree that share prices are tough to forecast, and two-thirds think US healthcare is financially sustainable.

This might just suggest that the average American hasn’t paid enough attention, since shares are patently hard to forecast (not necessarily impossible, as the efficient market theory beloved of so many economists posits, but certainly very difficult). Equally, even America’s politicians agree that healthcare spending at the current level is unsustainable; part of the original justification of Obamacare was to reduce costs, after all.

But the general pattern is continued on many other topics: the views of economists are furthest from the general public on those issues where the economists agree the most. Read more

John Authers

We all now know that the Federal Reserve opted not to “taper” last week. In other words, it kept its monthly purchases of bonds at $85bn without reduction, in a move that was a surprise to many, even if the FT had made clear for a while that a taper was no foregone conclusion.

But have others been tapering already? The official Treasury Department data show that foreigners have this year started very gently selling down their positions of Treasuries. This is the chart:

The move is not great, but it is there. To be precise, foreign holdings of Treasuries reached $5.72tn in March, and by the end of July were at $5.59tn. This is no great change in itself, but it is changes at the margin that matter – and we already know that a “taper” or otherwise in the Fed’s bond purchases was able to generate a dramatic market reaction. So what is going on? Read more

John Authers

Lehman has, at last, been bankrupt for five years. I posted the last of the five-video series we put together for the anniversary here. This post is for those hardy few who have still not had enough of Lehman memorabilia. If you have the time and inclination, try looking through some of these videos, which I made at the time (when I was based in New York and still covered the Short View).

First, this video, which we produced for what we then considered to be the first anniversary of the crisis, in August 2008 a few weeks before Lehman, bears re-watching. The key message to be derived from it is that claims that nobody saw the Lehman bankruptcy coming, or the crisis that surrounded it, do not hold water. It features today’s interviewee, the former Olympic fencer James Melcher, and his comments are particularly prescient: Read more

James Mackintosh

Much to the frustration of journalists, all we know officially about the Twitter IPO is this:

 Read more

John Authers

The Lehman bankruptcy was five years ago, as you may have noticed. Five years on, it is surprising what aspects of the pre-Lehman landscape have survived, and which have vanished. This came out in today’s Note video with Larry McDonald, author of A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, and a Lehman alumnus:

Lehman Legacy

Note that while the recovery in the financial system has been in many ways remarkable, the securitisation market remains as dead as a dodo. These charts tell the story. First, here are the figures for asset-backed securities:

So there is a recovery in auto loans, but securitisation of home equity loans, by which Americans turned their homes into ATMs, seems to have ended. Next we can look at CDO issuance (not for the squeamish): Read more

John Authers

Maybe we should reinstate Glass-Steagall. Or maybe we should revisit the system of publicly quoted banks. That at least seems to be the implication of comments made to me by John Reed, who spent almost two decades as the CEO of the old Citicorp and then joint CEO of the newly formed Citigroup. You can find text from my interview with him here and here.

However, I think it is worth highlighting still another passage, as it cuts to the heart of how banks should be valued, and arguably even how they should be owned. He now believes that commercial banking and trading cultures should not be combined. When I pointed out that trading can boost returns, he made the following response:

I could understand that an institution might want to bridge both businesses. If someone like Deutsche Bank were to be only a commercial bank it would be a quite different entity. They’ve used that investment bank to change their earnings profile and their ROE [return on equity] targets. They have a 20 per cent target for ROE.* You could not achieve that in Europe with a commercial bank. You have to get heavily into the markets to imagine getting those kinds of returns.

I think the industry would be healthier if instead of looking at returns they look at p/e [price to earnings] ratios. The more you become a trading organistion, the less your p/e. You should aspire to be like Coca-Cola and have a 20 times p/e.

Obviously the numbers are approximate, and the figures for Deutsche need to be updated. To be more precise, Deutsche under its former CEO Josef Ackermann had a 25 per cent “pre-tax ROE”, which our banking editor Patrick Jenkins suggests would be more like 16 or 17 per cent under German taxes. At present, Deutsche’s ROE, which varies considerably from quarter to quarter, is more like 12 per cent. But the validity of Mr Reed’s point is unaffected, as is clear from this chart. Coke is the blue line here (note Citi’s price/earnings ratio went almost to infinity as it was seen returning from loss to low earnings in 2010). Aside from the rude interruption of the great financial crisis, the point stands that the market will pay a much higher multiple for the earnings of a consumer branded company that it will pay for the earnings of a universal bank.

Banks v Coke

Note: Citi high PE reflected negative and then v low earnings

There then comes the issue of whether Glass-Steagall or something like it should be reinstated, forcing commercial banks to divest their trading arms. Banks have lobbied fiercely against this. Mr Reed suggests that this is against the public interest: Read more

John Authers

This is a public service announcement on Tobin’s q. Following my On Monday column, there were several requests for charts. Here, then, is a chart produced by Andrew Smithers showing how Tobin’s q and the Robert Shiller cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio vary with respect to their own mean over time:

 Read more

James Mackintosh

1997 was not a great year for music lovers. True, Daft Punk burst on to the English speaking world (or at least the British top 10), and Texas, Blur and Jamiroquai were all going strong, but March alone saw Ant & Dec, Boyzone, Wet Wet Wet and the Spice Girls all near the top of the charts.

It was a far worse year for emerging markets investors, and one which is now being resurrected for comparisons like a bad best-of album. Back then, EM investors lost their shirts, and now some are losing them again, as the US Federal Reserve talks about “tapering” its bond purchases.

First, a chart for those who doubt the impact of the taper: this shows shares for each Asian emerging market, with the grey bars showing the weekly rise or fall in Treasury yields (treat this as indicative: I left off the bond yield axis as it was already looking pretty confusing).

Asian EMs v US bond yields Read more

John Authers

Can CAPE guide us around the world? One reasonable complaint during the last week’s debate on cyclically adjusted price/earnings multiples is that the discussion is too US-centric. There are reasons for this. The US is still by far the world’s biggest stock market, the data are more reliable and go back further, and most of the academic players in the debate are based in the US. But it is still a reasonable complaint.

Here then are the results of the exercise in using multiples of 10-year rolling average earnings to value a range of world markets, as carried out by Mebane Faber of Cambria Investment Management, who kindly gave me his data. One huge caveat is that the data do not go as far back as for the US (although this at least means that we do not need to have arguments about whether it is possible to make comparisons with earnings from the late 19th century). The Faber data for the UK go back to 1927; none of the others go back further than 1969; and for some of the emerging markets the data only go back to the 1990s. The full details can be found on this post, and Mr Faber provided me with updated results to the end of July this year. Read more

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. Read more

John Authers

One of the biggest areas of controversy over CAPEs or cyclically adjusted price/earnings multiples (see this earlier post and the huge correspondence it provoked) concerns exactly how earnings are measured, and how they can be compared over time. Neither is a unique problem for CAPE compared with other valuation metrics, but they can still change conclusions over the vital topic of whether the US stock market is now overpriced.

There is action on this front in the academic world, with Jeremy Siegel of the Wharton School proposing that an alternative measure of earnings should be used. This might change conclusions, and there will be more on that next week. For now, I would like to introduce another fascinating attempt to alter the methodology of Yale’s Robert Shiller, who has been central to popularising the CAPE over the last two decades.

Back in 2009, Alain Bokobza of Societe General released the results of his own new normalised CAPE, and his colleagues have kindly updated his data. The essential new insight was that corporate taxation has not been constant over the years. Rather, it was introduced in 1911 at only 1.5 per cent. After the First World War it rose to 15 per cent, and then, as the apparatus of the welfare state rolled out over the ensuing decades, it rose to 40 per cent. Mr Bokobza contends that this affects the multiple that investors will pay. So he recalculated the CAPE for the years before 1950, assuming a 40 per cent tax rate.

To give a quick example; If you pay $100 for $10 of earnings untaxed, you have paid a p/e of 10. If it is taxed at 40 per cent, you have paid a multiple a little above 16 on post-tax earnings. This comparison may more accurately, according to Mr Bokobza, help build a norm for what investors are prepared to pay for the earnings they buy. Without making such an adjustment, Mr Bokobza contends, we are effectively comparing post-tax earnings post-war with what can almost be called pre-tax earnings pre-war. This is a contentious point of view; throughout the period, taxation was a given for investors. Many other factors were also changing. But it makes a case that pre-war multiples may not be directly comparable to post-war ones, and suggests an intuitive fix. (And indeed the comparability of earnings is the subject of growing academic debate, and is very relevant when trying to get a handle on long-run valuations). A look at how this changes the historical picture comes after the break. Read more

James Mackintosh

Christmas has come early for US traders – Christmas trading levels, that is. Volumes in the benchmark S&P 500 index are down to levels only seen in the last five years in Christmas week. Perhaps investors are just determined to enjoy their time at the beach after having to deal with a crisis every summer for the past three years.

Whatever the cause, the volumes are miserable. The thick line here shows the five-day moving average, smoothing out the daily swings in the thin line. The five-day average has just dropped below the low point of last August and is now the lowest apart from Christmases since Bloomberg’s data series started in 2008. Read more