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:
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):
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.
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:
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:
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).
Okay, not quite. But the current account tells you most of what you need to know. Since May, emerging countries which need to attract international capital – those with current account deficits – have seen their currencies and share prices slide and their bond yields jump. Those with a surplus have been hit much less hard.
John Authers has put up a nice chart from HSBC showing this for equities already. This chart from Keith Fray (usually on the FT Data blog) shows the close link between rising yields and a current account deficit (the outlier in the bottom left is Chile, running a current account deficit but a massive government surplus).
While the US Treasury bond sell-off goes on, the market’s sorting of emerging markets is brutal. One factor matters above all others: does the country have a current account surplus or deficit? In other words, does it need to attract foreign capital or not?
The following chart was produced by John Lomax, emerging market equity strategist at HSBC. Since tapering talk began in May, it shows that emerging markets have been bifurcated. Those with a surplus prosper, those with a deficit sell off. This is how shares in the two classes of countries have performed this year, relative to the MSCI emerging markets index:
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.
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.
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.
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.