In light of the 30-year anniversary of the Black Monday Crash in 1987 (when the Dow lost more than 20% in "one day", we should be reminded that investor anxiety usually increases when markets get to extremes. If stock prices fall steeply, people fret about money lost, and if they move too high too fast, they worry about sudden reversals. As greed is supposed to be counterbalanced by fear, this relationship should not be surprising. But sometimes the formula breaks down and stocks become very expensive even while investors become increasingly complacent. History has shown that such periods of untethered optimism have often presaged major market corrections. Current data suggests that we are in such a period, and in the words of our current President, we may be "in the calm before the storm."
Many market analysts consider the Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio to be the best measure of stock valuation. Also known as the “Shiller Ratio” (after Yale professor Robert Shiller), the number is derived by dividing the current price of a stock by its average inflation-adjusted earnings over the last 10 years. Since 1990, the CAPE ratio of the S&P 500 has averaged 25.6. The ratio got particularly bubbly, 44.2, during the 1999 crescendo of the “earnings don’t matter” dotcom era of the late 1990’s. But after the tech crash of 2000, the ratio was cut in half, drifting down to 21.3 by March of 2003. For the next five years, the CAPE hung around historic averages before collapsing to 13.3 in the market crash of 2008-2009. Since then, the ratio has moved steadily upward, returning to the upper 20s by 2015. But in July of this year, the CAPE breached 30 for the first time since March 2002. It has been there ever since (which is high when compared to most developed markets around the world). (data from Irrational Exuberance, Princeton University Press 2000, 2005, 2015, updated Robert J. Shiller)
But unlike earlier periods of stock market gains, the extraordinary run-up in CAPE over the past eight years has not been built on top of strong economic growth. The gains of 1996-1999 came when quarterly GDP growth averaged 4.6%, and the gains of 2003-2007 came when quarterly GDP averaged 2.96%. In contrast Between 2010 and 2017, GDP growth had averaged only 2.1% (data from Bureau of Economic Analysis). It is clear to some that the Fed has substituted itself for growth as the primary driver for stocks.
Investors typically measure market anxiety by looking at the VIX index, also known as “the fear index”. This data point, calculated by the Chicago Board Options Exchange, looks at the amount of put vs. call contracts to determine sentiment about how much the markets may fluctuate over the coming 30 days. A number greater than 30 indicates high anxiety while a number less than 20 suggests that investors see little reason to lose sleep.
Since 1990, the VIX has averaged 19.5 and has generally tended to move up and down with CAPE valuations. Spikes to the upside also tended to occur during periods of economic uncertainty like recessions. (The economic crisis of 2008 sent the VIX into orbit, hitting an all-time high of 59.9 in October 2008.) However, the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing bond-buying program, which came online in March of 2009, may have short-circuited this fundamental relationship.
Before the crisis, there was still a strong belief that stock investing entailed real risk. The period of stock stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s was still well remembered, as were the crashes of 1987, 2000, and 2008. But the existence of the Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen “Put” (the idea that the Fed would back stop market losses), came to ease many of the anxieties on Wall Street. Over the past few years, the Fed has consistently demonstrated that it is willing to use its new tool kit in extraordinary ways.
While many economists had expected the Fed to roll back its QE purchases as soon as the immediate economic crisis had passed, the program steamed at full speed through 2015, long past the point where the economy had apparently recovered. Time and again, the Fed cited fragile financial conditions as the reason it persisted, even while unemployment dropped and the stock market soared.
The Fed further showcased its maternal instinct in early 2016 when a surprise 8% drop in stocks in the first two weeks of January (the worst ever start of a calendar year on Wall Street) led it to abandon its carefully laid groundwork for multiple rate hikes in 2016. As investors seem to have interpreted this as the Fed leaving the safety net firmly in place, the VIX has dropped steadily from that time. In September of this year, the VIX fell below 10.
Untethered optimism can be seen most clearly by looking at the relationship between the VIX and the CAPE ratio. Over the past 27 years, this figure has averaged 1.43. But just this month, the ratio approached 3 for the first time on record, increasing 100% in just a year and a half. This means that the gap between how expensive stocks have become and how little this increase concerns investors has never been wider. But history has shown that bad things can happen after periods in which fear takes a back seat.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from econ.yale.edu & Bloomberg.
On September 1 of 2000, the S&P 500 hit 1520, very close to its (up to then) all-time peak. The 167% increase in prices over the prior five years should have raised alarm bells. It didn't. At that point, the VIX/CAPE ratio hit 1.97…a high number. In the two years after September 2000, the S&P 500 retreated 46%. Ouch.
Unfortunately, the lesson wasn’t well learned. The next time the VIX/CAPE hit a high watermark was in January 2007 when it reached 2.39. At that point, the S&P 500 had hit 1438 a 71% increase from February of 2003. As they had seven years earlier, the investing public was not overly concerned. In just over two years after the VIX/CAPE had peaked the S&P 500 declined 43%. Double Ouch.
For much of the next decade investors seemed to have been twice bitten and once shy. The VIX/CAPE stayed below 2 for most of that time. But after the election of 2016, the caution waned and the ratio breached 2. In the past few months, the metric has risen to record territory, hitting 2.57 in June, and 2.93 in October. These levels suggest that a record low percentage of investors are concerned by valuations that are as high as they have ever been outside of the four-year “dotcom” period.
Investors may be trying to convince themselves that the outcome will be different this time around. But the only thing that is likely to be different is the Fed's ability to limit the damage. In 2000-2002, the Fed was able to cut interest rates 500 basis points (from 6% to 1%) in order to counter the effects of the imploding tech stock bubble. Seven years later, it cut rates 500 basis points (from 5% to 0) in response to the deflating housing bubble. Stocks still fell anyway, but they probably would have fallen further if the Fed hadn't been able to deliver these massive stimuli. In hindsight, investors would have been wise to move some funds out of U.S. stocks when the CAPE/VIX ratio moved into record territory. While stocks fell following those peaks, gold rose nicely.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from Bloomberg.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from Bloomberg.
But interest rates are now at just 1.25%. If the stock market were again to drop in such a manner, the Fed has far less fire power to bring to bear. It could cut rates to zero and then re-launch another round of QE bond buying to flood the financial sector with liquidity. But that may not be nearly as effective as it was in 2008. Given that the big problem at that point was bad mortgage debt, the QE program’s purchase of mortgage bonds was a fairly effective solution (although we believe a misguided one). But propping up overvalued stocks, many of which have nothing to do with the financial sector, is a far more difficult challenge. The Fed may have to buy stocks on the open market, a tactic that has been used by the Bank of Japan.
It should be clear to anyone that since the 1990s the Fed has inflated three stock market bubbles. As each of the prior two popped, the Fed inflated larger ones to mitigate the damage. The tendency to cushion the downside and to then provide enough extra liquidity to send stock prices back to new highs seems to have emboldened investors to downplay the risks and focus on the potential gains. This has been particularly true given that the Fed’s low interest rate policies have caused traditionally conservative bond investors to seek higher returns in stocks. Without the Fed’s safety net, many of these investors perhaps would not be willing to walk this high wire.
But investors may be over-estimating the Fed's ability to blow up another bubble if the current one pops. Since this one is so large, the amount of stimulus required to inflate a larger one may produce the monetary equivalent of an overdose. It may be impossible to revive the markets without killing the dollar in the process. The currency crisis the Fed might unleash might prove more destructive to the economy than the repeat financial crisis it's hoping to avoid.
We believe the writing is clearly on the wall and all investors need do is read it. It’s not written in Sanskrit or Hieroglyphics, but about as plainly as the gods of finance can make it. Should the current mother-of-all bubbles pop, for investors and the Fed it won’t be third time’s the charm, but three strikes and you’re out.
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Those who claim that the Senate Republican proposal to replace Obamacare will kick millions of people out from health insurance coverage are dead wrong. Yes, it will cause the number of insured people to decline, but that will happen because millions of healthy individuals will be incentivized to voluntarily opt-out of traditional health insurance. For those people, the law will make traditional insurance a sucker bet. Instead of buying comprehensive health insurance policies, as they are currently known, they will either go without insurance for as long as possible or purchase a new type of low-cost insurance that the new proposals will likely create if they become law.
Let’s be clear. No one really wants to buy health insurance. When you do, you are effectively making a bet with your insurance company that you will get sick while they are betting you don’t. If you do get sick, you get a potential payoff. If you don’t, the insurance company keeps your premium. The same is true with all insurance. No one wants to buy auto or fire insurance, but we do in case we get into a car accident or our house burns down. But if the laws were changed so that fire insurance claims could be made after the fact, then consumer behavior would change significantly. People would simply opt-out, and then put in claims when and if they have a fire. But the only reason insurance companies can afford to rebuild houses is because so many of their customers pay premiums but never file claims. So if fire insurance companies could not discriminate against people with pre-existing fire conditions, they would cease to exist as businesses.
The architects of Obamacare saw this problem in advance and attempted to solve it by imposing financial penalties on those who made the rational decision not to buy. The Law’s fatal flaw was that the penalties were not stiff enough to stop people from opting-out. (If they were that high the law would have likely been declared unconstitutional). When the healthy individuals left the system, many insurance companies experienced huge losses, forcing them to either exit markets completely or to raise premiums steeply on those who remained.
Amazingly, despite the many clear warning signs that too many people were dropping out, the original version of the Senate bill did even less than Obamacare to encourage healthy people to stay. That version allowed such individuals to forgo insurance when they didn’t need it, but guaranteed that they could buy, without penalty, when they did. This would have exacerbated the huge losses that insurance companies are already seeing under Obamacare and would have forced the government to step in and transfer those losses to taxpayers. But, on Monday, the Senate belatedly recognized what they should have realized from the start, and came up with what purports to be a solution to prevent people from gaming the system. But like the veiled attempt made by the House, the Senate version falls well short of the mark.
The House attempts to keep healthy people in the system by imposing a 30% surcharge on insurance for one year after a person with lapsed coverage (of 63 days or more) came back into the system. In fact, it was this provision that prompted Present Trump to call the plan “mean.” But the 30% one year bump is a small price to pay for those who may go years, or even decades, paying nothing at all.
Once the Senate realized that they needed some kind of penalty, they devised something that is even “meaner” by Trump’s standards. They now propose a 6-month waiting period on people with a 63 day lapse in coverage. This means those hoping to get a free ride will risk exposing themselves to six months of bills if they get injured or sick. On paper at least, that could be a steep incentive to keep coverage current. But, already, Democrats have jumped on the proposal as unfair.
But like every far-reaching regulatory proposal, this plan does not anticipate the changes in the market that it may itself create. It is likely that insurance companies will respond to this provision by offering “waiting period insurance” that will pay medical bills only between the time a real health insurance policy is purchased and the waiting period for that policy ends. To submit a claim under such a policy, the insured would only need to provide proof that he had already purchased an actual health insurance policy. Only then would the "waiting period policy" actually kick in to pay claims during the interim.
Since these waiting period policies would only provide coverage for a short time period, the risk to insurance companies would be relatively low. That means that the costs to consumers would be considerably lower than long-term plans. Some consumers could maintain such policies for years, and save lots of money in the process. To further reduce costs, buyers could opt for waiting period policies with higher deductibles, or that exclude coverage for things like pregnancy. The Senate bill makes the cost even lower by providing that premiums on traditional policies do not kick in until the waiting period ends, meaning consumers will never be on the hook for paying both waiting period and longer term health insurance premiums at the same time. To guard against people waiting until they are sick to buy waiting period policies, those selling those policies can also impose a 6-month waiting period of their own on people with pre-existing conditions. This will ensure that only healthy people buy these policies, keeping premiums as low as possible for buyers, while maintaining profitability for sellers.
People would not opt to buy real health insurance policies until after they were sick enough to need one. But such policies would no longer constitute insurance at all in the traditional sense, as buyers would know the outcome in advance of placing their bets. Since they would only place winning bets, the insurance companies would be guaranteed to lose money on every policy sold. This will create a vicious cycle of rising premiums, more dropouts, and ever-greater government bailouts until taxpayers were responsible for everything.
While many Republicans originally and correctly opposed Obamacare, their concerns seem to have evaporated in the face of political gamesmanship. In order to achieve some kind of victory they are now promising the impossible. Trump is the leading figure on this bandwagon. He doesn’t seem to care in the slightest what is actually in the law or what it will do to health care. He just wants something to pass so that he can take credit for the victory. But another layer of regulation surely won’t help.
Over the past half-century, U.S. health care costs have risen sharply because of a raft of government policies and tax incentives that have shifted routine health care payments from individuals to insurance companies. Believe it or not, before the 1960s a very large percentage of Americans paid for medical care out of pocket, according to a 1963 study by the Social Security Administration called Survey of the Aged. At that point, health care as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product hovered around five per cent.(1) Today that figure is more than three times that at around seventeen per cent.(1) Despite the huge increase in costs, health outcomes are not radically different from what you would have expected in light of the medical breakthroughs, technological improvements and the decline of smoking.
As it turns out, insurance is a very inefficient way to pay for many of the health care services we use, the vast majority of which are actually highly predictable. Our current insurance system incentivizes consumers to over utilize health care without any regard for its cost and removes any market based restraints on prices charged by hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. As a result, health care costs have risen considerably faster than the rate of inflation.
The advocates of greater government involvement have always said that health care is too important to be left to the free markets. But you could make the same claims about food, clothing and shelter as well. The free market is perfectly capable of delivering those necessities at costs that fit all budgets. In fact, the relative costs of all three of those things have stayed the same, or come down, over the years. But health care, distorted by regulations, subsidies and tax incentives, has seen costs spiral out of control.
Republicans are now presented with a rare opportunity to make the radical departure that they promised when they did not control the White House. The best approach would be to seek to eliminate the entire insurance apparatus, reduce regulation, increase free market choice, legalize interstate and international competition, and clamp down on malpractice lawsuits. The money currently being over spent on health and malpractice insurance, excess paperwork and unnecessary defensive medicine, could then be used to fund the kind of charity hospitals that once served as the backbone of our health care system.
But since Republicans do not have the guts to stand up for the free market principles they pretend to stand for, they should not make the fatal political mistake of affixing their brand to a sinking ship. Better to let the S.S. Obamacare sink, and then come up with a free market system that will actually float.
1. SOURCE: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, National Health Statistics Group; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis; and U.S. Bureau of the Census.