As we’re all getting ready for the Independence Day weekend, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on how the first half of the year has been going. Many developments have arrived and passed in the news which have caused various actions and reactions. One day it seems nagging, complex issues are about to be resolved just when other more vexing problems take their place. The only constant, as the cliché goes, is the constant of change.
That is except in the stock market. It’s less than 1% above where it opened the year and has been moving basically sideways in that time. From speculation about the Fed raising rates to languidly growing economy to Greek debt dramas, the market seems to be carelessly bobbing along, flotsam-like, awaiting some direction.
Asking, ‘how did we get here’, is easy. When you shoot for mediocrity as a country and society, sometimes that’s what you get (or worse). Now might be a good time to ask, where do we go from here?
Today’s jobs report doesn’t give us much of a clue. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3%, close to a level which in the past used to be described as full employment. On the other hand, labor force participation is the lowest it’s been since the 1970s, a time before women were fully entering the workforce and life expectancy for men was below 70 years of age.
Those that dropped out of the labor force aren’t counted in the unemployment rate, and they aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. However, they haven’t just disappeared off the face of the earth. Many have passed from a temporary welfare program to the more permanent one of social security disability. Well, more permanent until the program runs out of funds as soon as next year.
But that’s old news. The complacent collective market sees what it wants to see and has chosen to see the government’s version of economic reality.
We can look at ways of fundamentally gauging the valuation of the stock market such as price to earnings ratio or the so-called Warren Buffet Indicator of total market cap to GDP ratio. I like to look at the Q ratio which is a simple comparison of the total price of the stock market to the replacement costs of all companies listed. This is the favored metric of billionaire black swan investor Mark Spitznagel, who by the way wrote a most excellent book, The Dao of Capital, about Boydian investment strategies.
Q ratio – Pricey but is it dicey?
By this measure, the market looks to be at a pricey level compared to other points in time. 1907, 1929, 1937, and 1968 were all years when the stock market peaked and saw a significant decline. The problem is it’s also at the same level as 1997, which had a small pause before marking the half way point in a multi-year rally. We generally have seen regression to the mean in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest it has to ever happen again. We could be waiting a long time for a sanity check to take hold, especially if the definition of sanity has changed.
A shorter term answer possibly comes from the world’s best econometrics blog Political Calculations. They believe, convincingly in my opinion, that expectations for future dividends drive stock prices in the near future, absent any surprising shocks to upset the apple cart. Those of us who used to watch Larry Kudlow on CNBC (since his show was cancelled there hasn’t been any reason to watch that silly network anymore) remember he used to say ‘earnings are the mother’s milk of stocks’. Well if that’s true than dividends are your father’s pemmican.
What they do is take values of dividend futures traded on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and apply a multiple (and some other math) to convert them to expected stock prices. Their calculations show a possible slide in prices for the next few weeks to few months. It has worked reasonably well in the past with a few caveats.
There are different instruments traded for different times in the future. Prices can and do take leaps from one trajectory to the other. It usually happens when someone from the FED talks about raising rates, and then the financial press speculates what specific month or quarter it can happen. In this way, stock prices behave similar to quantum particles bouncing from one energy level to another. It’s not a good way to pin down exactly where stocks are going but just gives a range.
The other caveat is this measurement only works when the market is in a state of relative order, and not buoyed or rattled by some overly cheery or dreary news. While at a smaller level the market seems to obey quantum mechanics, at the macro level it acts like a natural system, following mathematical probabilities such as those observed in predators hunting or even groups of people foraging. The market moves from more easily observable and predictable periods until the forageables (earnings and dividends) run out, in which case it moves into chaos and unpredictability until new expectations are established.
What will trigger rapid moves in either direction and out of the current financial horse latitudes is anybody’s guess. There’s a big vote in Greece this weekend, but how many times has that situation reached a cliffhanger? Perhaps too many to matter anymore. As unsatisfactory as it sounds, what usually occurs is something we weren’t expecting, not an event that seems to replay itself over and over again. The best we can really predict is that we won’t be drifting forever, and the time will come when the stock market will move far away from this level. The key is to stay ready for it when it finally does.
[Jonathan adds: If the right side of the included graphic is hidden on your screen — the date scale should go to 2020 — try right-clicking on the graphic and opening it in a new tab.]