Tag Archives: unemployment rates

Peak Uncertainty

As we face the peak weeks of the COVID19 virus in the major developed economies, one thing the current COVID19 outbreak should teach us is humility. As humans, we have become far too arrogant about our ability to shape the future. A new book by the economists John Kay and Mervyn King (a former Bank of England governor during the financial crisis) called “ Radical Uncertainty” argues that economists have forgotten the distinction between risk and uncertainty with an over-reliance on using numerical probabilities attached to possible outcomes as a substitute for admitting there are uncertainties we cannot know. How many one in a century events seem to be happening on a regular basis now? Their solution is to build more resilient systems and strategies to confront unpredictable events. Such an approach would have a profound impact on how we organise our societies and economies.

Currently, planning for events with a large impact multiplied by a small probability allows us to effectively continue as we have been after assigning the minimal amount of contingency. Imagine if sectors and industries were run based on been prepared for tail events. That would be a radical change. Very different from our just in time supply chains which minimise capital allocation and maximise return on investment. Our approach to climate change is an obvious case in point and how we have heretofore ignored the environmental externalities of our societies and economies. Given the financial costs this crisis is going to place on future generations, I would suspect that the needs of this cohort of our society will become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.

As many people grapple with the current uncertainties presented by this pandemic, we are currently at peak uncertainty in Europe and the US. We are only now getting a sense of how the outbreak is peaking in Europe given the lock down measures in place. How the virus reactions to the relaxation of current measures, how the outbreak will peak across the US and other continents, the economic impact of the outbreak, or the societal impact amongst many other issues are as yet unknown. We do know however that with time over the coming weeks some of these answers will become clearer. For example, as the graph below from the FT shows, we known the approximate path of the outbreak given the policies being pursued today.

A positive narrative could be that existing medications pass rushed COVID19 trials and prove they can blunt the impact of the virus thereby altering the shape of the curve. We can also speculate that once the first wave is contained, we will develop strategies on a combination of mitigation measures (e.g. reduced isolation methods, antibody and other testing to return sections of the population to work, immunity passports, etc) to slowly transition to the new normal. The logistics of such a phased return to normal will be complex and a nightmare to enforce, particularly if self-isolation measures are in force for lengthy periods and people believe any second wave can be well contained by battle hardened health systems. We can be confident that a vaccine will be developed, hopefully by early 2021, but it will take time to get the vaccine distributed and administered in bulk. Mid 2021 is likely the best we can realistically hope for.

At this stage, my rough guess at a base case scenario on the timing for European and US lockdown is 3 to 5 weeks with another 6 to 10 weeks to transition to a semi-new normal. That’s somewhere between mid-June and early August with Europe leading the way followed by the US. A more pessimistic case could be that discipline amongst the population gets more lax as the weeks drag on and a second wave gathers momentum with a second lockdown required over the summer followed by a more timid and gradual transition afterwards lasting until the end of the year. Obviously, these timings are pure guesses at this time and may, and hopefully will, prove way off base.

The economic impacts are highly uncertain but will become clearer as the weeks pass. For example, with just the first fiscal stimulus package passed in the US, the politicians are already listing their priorities for the second (and likely not to be the last either), Morgan Stanley expect the cyclically adjusted primary fiscal deficit to rise to 14% of GDP and the headline fiscal deficit at 18% of GDP in 2020, as per their graphic below. Given the unknown impact of the crisis on GDP numbers, these percentages could approach 15% to 20% with total debt of 110% to 120%. It’s depressing to note that prior to this crisis the IMF said the U.S. debt-to-GDP was already on an unsustainable path.

Although the euro zone comes into the crisis with less debt, last year it was 86% of GDP, Jefferies said in a ‘worse case’ outcome where nominal GDP falls 15% this year, the bloc’s budget gap would balloon to 17% of GDP from just 0.8% last year. They estimate in this scenario that the euro zone debt-GDP ratio could rise above 100% in 2021. As a percentage of GDP, Morgan Stanley estimated the G4+China cyclically adjusted primary deficit could rise to 8.5% of GDP in 2020, significantly higher than the 6.5% in 2009 immediately after the global financial crisis. Unemployment rates in the short term are projected to be mind boggling horrible at 20%+ in some countries. It seems to me that the austerity policies pursued after the financial crisis will not be as obvious an answer to repayment of this debt, not if we want western societies to survive. Addressing generational and structural income inequalities will have to be part of the solution. Hopefully, an acceleration of nationalism wouldn’t.

On the monetary side, the Fed’s balance sheet is now estimated to be an unprecedented $6 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion since the start of the Fed’s unprecedented bailout on the 13th of March. Bank of America estimates it could reach $9 trillion or 40% of GDP, as per the graphs below.

As to corporates and the stock market, dividends will undoubtably be under pressure as corporate delevering takes hold and without the crack cocaine of the bull market, share buybacks as the graph below shows, I fear there will be more pressure on valuations. The Q1 results season and forward guidance (or lack thereof), although it may have some surprises from certain firms in the communication, technology and consumer staples space, will likely only compound the negativity and uncertainty.

Using unscientific guesses on my part, I have estimated base and pessimistic operating EPS figures for the S&P500 as below. Based upon a forward PE (on a GAAP EPS) of 15 (approx. 12.75 on operating EPS basis), which is the level reached after the dot com bubble and the financial crisis, the resulting level for the S&P500 is 2,000 and 1,600 in the base and pessimistic scenarios respectively. That’s a further 20% and 35% drop from today’s levels respectively.

The coming weeks will likely be horrible in terms of human suffering and death across the developed world (one cannot even comprehend the potential suffering in the developing world if this insidious virus takes hold there). There is always hope and uncertainty will reduce over time. Major decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead on the future of our societies. Learning from this pandemic to build more resilient societies and economies will be a task that lasts many years, possibility even generations. Major changes are coming after this health crisis subsides, hopefully they will be for the better.

Stay safe.

Broken Record II

As the S&P500 hit an intraday all-time high yesterday, it’s been nearly 9 months since I posted on the valuation of the S&P500 (here). Since then, I have touched on factors like the reversal of global QE flows by Central Banks (here) and the lax credit terms that may be exposed by tightening monetary conditions (here). Although the traditional pull back after labor day in the US hasn’t been a big feature in recent years, the market feels frothy and a pullback seems plausible. The TINA (There Is No Alternative) trade is looking distinctly tired as the bull market approaches the 3,500-day mark. So now is an opportune time to review some of the arguments on valuations.

Fortune magazine recently had an interesting summary piece on the mounting headwinds in the US which indicate that “the current economic expansion is much nearer its end than its beginning”. Higher interest rates and the uncertainty from the ongoing Trump trade squabble are obvious headwinds that have caused nervous investors to moderate slightly valuation multiples from late last year. The Fortune article points to factors like low unemployment rates and restrictions on immigration pushing up wage costs, rising oil prices, the fleeting nature of Trump’s tax cuts against the long-term impact on federal debt, high corporate debt levels (with debt to EBITDA levels at 15 years high) and the over-optimistic earnings growth estimated by analysts.

That last point may seem harsh given the 24% and 10% growth in reported quarterly EPS and revenue respectively in Q2 2018 over Q2 2017, according to Factset as at 10/08/2018. The graph below shows the quarterly reported growth projections by analysts, as per S&P Dow Jones Indices, with a fall off in quarterly growth in 2019 from the mid-20’s down to a 10-15% range, as items like the tax cuts wash out. Clearly 10-15% earnings growth in 2019 is still assuming strong earnings and has some commentators questioning whether analysts are being too optimistic given the potential headwinds outlined above.

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According to Factset as at 10/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE of 16.6 is around the 5-year average level and 15% above the 10-year average, as below. As at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, the 12-month forward PE is 16.8.

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In terms of the Shiller PE or the cyclically adjusted PE (PE10), the graph below shows that the current PE10 ratio of 32.65 as at the S&P500 high on 21/08/2018, which is 63% higher than 50-year average of 20. For the purists, the current PE10 is 89% above the 100-year average.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 as at 21082018 S&P500 high

According to this very interesting research paper called King of the Mountain, the PE10 metric varies across different macro-economic conditions, specifically the level of real interest rates and inflation. The authors further claim that PE10 becomes a statistically significant and economically meaningful predictor of shorter-term returns under the assumption that PE10 levels mean-revert toward the levels suggested by prevailing macroeconomic conditions rather than toward long-term averages. The graph below shows the results from the research for different real yield and inflation levels, the so-called valuation mountain.

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At a real yield around 1% and inflation around 2%, the research suggests a median PE around 20 is reasonable. Although I know that median is not the same as mean, the 20 figure is consistent with the 50-year PE10 average. The debates on CAPE/PE10 as a valuation metric have been extensively aired in this blog (here and here are examples) and range around the use of historically applicable earnings data, adjustments around changes in accounting methodology (such as FAS 142/144 on intangible write downs), relevant time periods to reflect structural changes in the economy, changes in dividend pay-out ratios, the increased contribution of foreign earnings in US firms, and the reduced contribution of labour costs (due to low real wage inflation).

One hotly debated issue around CAPE/PE10 is the impact of the changing profit margin levels. One conservative adjustment to PE10 for changes in profit margins is the John Hussman adjusted CAPE/PE10, as below, which attempts to normalise profit margins in the metric. This metric indicates that the current market is at an all time high, above the 1920s and internet bubbles (it sure doesn’t feel like that!!). In Hussman’s most recent market commentary, he states that “we project market losses over the completion of this cycle on the order of -64% for the S&P 500 Index”.

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Given the technological changes in business models and structures across economic systems, I believe that assuming current profit margins “normalise” to the average is too conservative, particularly given the potential for AI and digital transformation to cut costs across a range of business models over the medium term. Based upon my crude adjustment to the PE10 for 2010 and prior, as outlined in the previous Broken Record post (i.e. adjusted to 8.5%), using US corporate profits as a % of US GDP as a proxy for profit margins, the current PE10 of 32.65 is 21% above my profit margin adjusted 50-year average of 27, as shown below.

click to enlargeCAPE Shiller PE PE10 adjusted as at 21082018 S&P500 high

So, in summary, the different ranges of overvaluation for the S&P500 at its current high are from 15% to 60%. If the 2019 estimates of 10-15% quarterly EPS growth start to look optimistic, whether through deepening trade tensions or tighter monetary policy, I could see a 10% to 15% pullback. If economic headwinds, as above, start to get serious and the prospect of a recession gets real (although these things normally come quickly as a surprise), then something more serious could be possible.

On the flipside, I struggle to see where significant upside can come from in terms of getting earnings growth in 2019 past the 10-15% range. A breakthrough in trade tensions may be possible although unlikely before the mid-term elections. All in all, the best it looks like to me in the short term is the S&P500 going sideways from here, absent a post-labor day spurt of profit taking.

But hey, my record on calling the end to this bull market has been consistently broken….