Investing for the long run

Investors must understand the dynamics of range-bound markets and the best ways of investing in such an environment.

By V.N. Katsenelson Jan 6, 2010 1:36PM

I did a Q&A with FT readers in November. Because of its length, I’ve abbreviated it and broken it into three parts. Here is Part 1:

 

In the bull market that preceded the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis, equity valuations reached some very frothy levels.

 

The correction that followed lasted only until March, and since then the S&P 500 index and the FTSE Eurofirst 3000 have risen more than 60%.  Even in spite of the post-Lehman correction, equity markets have been in a secular range-bound phase since 2000.

 

Investors must understand the dynamics of range-bound markets and the best ways of investing in such an environment.

 

Secular market cycles

Let me lay out my thesis for secular market cycles (longer than five years).

 

Ask an investor what the stock market will do over the next decade, and he’ll tell you his expectations for the economy and earnings growth, and that will turn into his projection for the market. However, this kind of thinking looks at the half of the equation that explains stock market (and individual stock) returns, while completely ignoring a very important variable that is responsible for a significant part of stock returns: valuation.


Mathematically, stock prices in the long run (not minutes or days but years) are driven by two factors: earnings growth and (it’s a very important and) changes in valuation (P/E ratios). Once you add a return from dividends, you’ve captured all the variables responsible for total return from stocks.

 

During the last two centuries, every time we had a long-lasting bull market the market what followed was not a bear but a range-bound, sideways market. (The only notable exception was the decline during the Great Depression.) This happened not because of some hidden, embedded magical pattern. No, there is no practical joke being played on gullible humans; it happens because our emotions get the best of us. Yes, emotions! Secular bull markets start at low, below-average P/Es. A combination of earnings growth and P/E expansion (which is a simple reversion towards the mean) bring spectacular returns to now jubilant investors.

 

Then the investors get overexcited about stocks and drive valuations (P/Es) to above-average levels.

 

P/E expansion is a powerful tailwind and a significant source of the returns during secular bull markets, but high P/Es can create a headwinds.  When they start to fall, they curtail returns during secular range-bound markets. As P/Es stop expanding at the very late stages of a secular bull market, investors who were accustomed to above-average returns grow less than thrilled with lower rates of return. The higher the P/Es, the more difficult it is for stocks to continue to climb, as earnings growth alone cannot keep the secular bull market going. Returns from stocks decelerate to below the levels investors have learned to expect, and investors gradually migrate from stocks to other asset classes.

Welcome to a range-bound market!

Emotions now shift into reverse. P/E compression is like gravity pulling stocks down, where earnings growth is the force that counteracts its effects. All the benefits from earnings growth are gradually offset by constant P/E compression (the staple of range-bound markets). P/Es mean-revert from above to average to below-average levels. Stocks go nowhere for a long, long time in the process.

 

I discuss this topic in great detail with plenty of charts and tables on my Contrarian Edge website.

 

US equity markets remain locked in a range-bound state

In the US, economic performance has not been significantly different during range-bound and bull markets. That is, as long economic performance was not far from its average state we had either range-bound or bull markets. However, when you coupled high (above-average) valuations with long-term economic contraction, you had a secular bear market. This is exactly what took place during the Great Depression (and has taken place in Japan from the late 1980s until today).

 

In secular bear markets, economic growth does not offset a price/earnings (P/E) mean reversion; declining earnings add fuel to the fire and supersize the decline in P/E, thus causing stock prices to decline over a protracted period of time.

 

In the last (1982-2000) secular bull market P/Es reached their highest level ever. Today, nine years into a range-bound market, US stocks are still at above-average valuations. If over the next few years the US economy doesn’t achieve positive nominal earnings growth, we may slide into a secular bear market.

 

The Fed is throwing an enormous amount of liquidity into the economy, yet it has very few tools to deal with deflation (you can make borrowing virtually costless, but borrowers may still choose not to borrow or to spend). The Fed is much better equipped to fight inflation: it can make money very expensive, and expensive money curbs spending. Thus, historically the Fed was willing to err on the side on inflation – be it in consumer prices, housing, commodities, or the stock market (“Bubbles-R-Us”). (In part we are paying today for the Fed’s handling of the 2001 recession: Alan Greenspan took interest rates to a very low level and kept them there for too long, starting a bubble in real estate.)

 

Current Fed actions may have the unintended consequence of promoting another bubble in stocks. I believe it will be harder to achieve a broad market bubble, since the more you stimulate the less effective stimulus becomes, over time; but I can see how a few sectors may (and already have) bubbled up.

 

The Fed and politicians will likely err on the side of overstimulating the economy, as the career risk for taking the economy back into recession through constrictive monetary policy is too great.

 

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA, is a portfolio manager/director of research at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo.  He is the author of “Active Value Investing: Making Money in Range-Bound Markets” (Wiley 2007).  To receive Vitaliy’s future articles my email, click here.

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