Notes to myself on record high Corporate Profits from John Hussman’s “Taking Distortion At Face Value” article

From John Mauldin’s recent post, presenting Dr. John Hussman’s musings on corporate profits and the market:

Despite the enormous weight of both accounting identity, historical data, and simple arithmetic, we continue to encounter persistent hostility to the idea that profit margins are the mirror image of extraordinary and unsustainable deficits in the government and household sector. The actual relationship was first detailed by the economist Michal Kalecki in the mid-1900’s. James Montier of GMO gives a nice derivation. The full relationship is:

Profits = Investment – Household Savings – Government Savings – Foreign Savings + Dividends

As I noted over a year ago, dividends exhibit very little volatility over time, and do not exert a material amount of volatility in the above relationship over the course of the economic cycle. It also happens that particularly in U.S. data, the difference between Investment and Foreign Savings (i.e. the inverse of the current account deficit) also fluctuates relatively little, because current account “improvement” is typically associated with deterioration in gross domestic investment, as shown … since the 1940’s.

As a result, the Kalecki equation reduces, for all practical purposes, to a statement that corporate profits move opposite to the sum of household and government saving. [Again, see Two Myths and A Legend.] More than a half-century of data that demonstrates the tightness of this relationship.

The upshot is very simple, the U.S. stock market presently reflects two unstable features. One is that extraordinary monetary policy – specifically quantitative easing – has created an ocean of zero-interest money that someone has to hold at each point in time, and that provokes a speculative reach for yield. The other is that extraordinary fiscal policy, coupled with household savings near record lows, have joined to elevate profit margins more than 70% above their historical norm, as the deficit of one sector has to emerge as the surplus of another. The result is that investors quite erroneously accept the distorted “earnings yield” of stocks (and the associated “forward price/earnings multiple” of the S&P 500) at face value, without any adjustment for elevated profit margins or the historical tendency for such elevations to be eliminated over the course of the business cycle.

Put simply, stocks are not cheap, but are instead strenuously overvalued. The speculative reach for yield, encouraged by the Federal Reserve, has created another bubble – which is not recognized as a bubble only because distorted profit margins create the illusion that stocks are reasonably valued. We presently estimate a prospective 10-year nominal total return for the S&P 500 of less than 3.5% annually. The likelihood of even this return being achieved smoothly, without severe intervening volatility and steep market losses, is roughly zero. This does not imply or ensure immediate market losses, but it doesn’t need to. On any horizon of less than about 6-7 years, we expect that any intervening returns achieved by the S&P 500 will be wiped out, and then some. Speculate if you believe that your exit strategy will dominate that of millions of other speculators, despite market conditions that are already overvalued, overbought, overbullish.

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