US stocks were overpriced in January. Late April feels like a bubble.

The stock market tracks GDP in the long run. To show this, I have plotted real GDP and the S&P500 index(both from since 1930 below.


Two things are apparent from the chart above:

  1. The two lines run roughly parallel on a log-scale over this 90-year period. Their ratio is therefore a mean-reverting quantity. If you think about it, it would be strange for the lines to diverge permanently.
  2. The stock market line is a lot more volatile than the GDP line. This means that stock price can fall far below what GDP would suggest (generally in a crisis) and rise far above towards the end of a bull market. The higher volatility of stocks is well-studied, e.g. under the heading of  excess volatility.

The ratio of stock market value to GDP serves as a useful valuation metric. The market is cheap when this ratio is low, and expensive when it is high. According to Warren Buffett, the percentage of total market capitalization relative to GNP is “probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.” You can track its value on this link from GuruFocus. I have reproduced today’s chart below:Ratio_TotalMktCap_GDP

The above ratio falls as stocks crash. As you can see from the chart above, it stood near 70% at the stock bottom following the dot-com crash, and just over 50% at the bottom following the 2008-09 crash. The ratio was under 75% through much of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

By contrast, the ratio “fell” from over 150% to under 120% in March and stands at 133% as I write this. Such high valuation is surprising because we are in a lockdown caused by a pandemic that will bankrupt a lot of businesses unless they are bailed out. The stock market, after falling precipitously in March, made a rapid recovery in April. It is widely speculated that the recovery is due to purchases of securities by the Federal Reserve. Quantitative Easing (or QE, as such purchases are called) is quite possibly a contributing factor. Tom McClellan has a compelling chart (reproduced below) showing that periods after the start of QE in large doses saw stocks rise rapidly. The chart also suggests that the slowdown or ending of QE coincides with weak stock market performance.


The following article describes this behavior in more detail. As for whether we are undergoing QE “in large doses”, see the following chart. Notice the spike on the right? That’s the latest round of QE.


If the Fed had not resorted to QE, the S&P500, which trades near 2860 today would probably trade closer to 2000. This is a rough guess based on earnings-per-share (EPS) projections and price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios in crises. Ed Yardeni expects 2021 earnings for the S&P500 to be 150, and applying a multiple of 13-14 gives us an index level of around 2000. An alternative explanation for the stock market’s April rise is that the market is pricing in a quick recovery and return to pre-crisis levels of profitability. This hypothesis seems less plausible because projections of GDP growth for 2020 and 2021 suggest that GDP growth will not be back to 2019 levels until 2022. I am using projections from the IMF, which can be found here. The path to recovery is uncertain with potential negative outcomes such as multiple waves of infections (which are likely, see this paper), and positive surprises such as cures and vaccines.

Another observation is narrow leadership in stocks. Even as companies at risk of bankruptcy continue to trade well below pre-crisis lows, the five largest stocks in the S&P500 have held their ground. The combined weight of the top five stocks has not been this high since 1980s. Urban Carmel posted a chart from Bianco Research showing how such concentration tends to coincide with market peaks. Caveat: the chart does not show “peak” concentration today. It shows rising concentration in the top five stocks, but the peak may be ahead of us.

Some of these observations, such as the scale of QE and the narrow market leadership, suggest a bubble. However, a bubble does not mean imminent collapse. The Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and all branches of US government have been taking unprecedented steps to prevent economic collapse. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fed resorts to purchasing stocks, or to widespread debt forgiveness. A lot of critics will complain that such actions introduce moral hazard (encouraging bad behavior in layman’s terms), but 1. it is hard to stop the government, and 2. the government could argue that a business that saw its revenues collapse leading to crushing losses in a pandemic did not necessarily engage in bad behavior. The public stock of many businesses (such as retailers) is either worthless or worth something meaningful depending on how government chooses to act.

The focus of this article had been on the US economy and stock market. The US may succeed in propping up its economy/market, but some other countries may not be so fortunate. I suspect that we will see more businesses collapse worldwide as with each additional week of lockdown or decreased business, cash runs out. In times like this, having a high level of liquidity can be a boon for investors.

One final word. I am grateful for what I have today. Being able to work from home is a privilege. COVID-19 and the policy response to it is inflicting excruciating pain on millions worldwide. The critically under-resourced have very little say in policies that dictate their survival. I made a small donation here yesterday. Give what you can wherever your heart desires.

Catching bottoms

I recently came across an article titled “Ten Rules For Catching A Bottom“.

Market timing is hard enough that no one can do it consistently but the rewards of success are high enough that it piques interest. Besides, the question “when should I buy?” is on the mind of every investor/trader simply because it affects outcomes.

Of the rules themselves:

  • My experience agrees with rules 3 (wait for a higher low) and 4 (wait for a longer term moving average to stabilize).
  • Rule 7 (keep your trades small) is vital, and I wrote about this in a recent post.
  • Rule 10 (step in slowly) is dangerous if one doesn’t understand how it affects rule 7. If you keep investing 1% of your portfolio repeatedly into a stock that keeps dropping and eventually goes to zero, you could lose 5-10% of your portfolio.
  • Rule 6 about using stop losses is not very useful if one follows rule 7 to keep trades small. In my experience, Rule 6 (use stop losses) can hurt outcomes. I would sell only if new information says that the stock isn’t worth holding; otherwise, I would hold. I’ll explain this with an example. Here are three stocks that were in the news last year, and the gurus who owned them:
  1. Valeant (VRX): Ackman
  2. Sun Edison (SUNE): Einhorn
  3. Horsehead (ZINC): Pabrai

Of these, VRX bottomed and then nearly doubled, but Ackman sold near the bottom. The other two (SUNE and ZINC) went to zero. If these hedge fund managers, with their extensive resources, could not predict survival, it is fair to say that most individuals cannot accurately predict outcomes either. A stop loss gives up a potentially large gain from a rebound for a small but certain avoidance of loss. If an investor wishes to avoid losses, bottom fishing isn’t the place to be to begin with, but once in the game with a tiny bet (e.g. 1%, all trades inclusive), getting out of the game with 0.2% remaining may not be a good idea.

DISCLAIMER: I own VRX stock. In the past, I have owned SUNE and ZINC stocks. The information on this forum is provided without any express or implied warranty of any kind. This information does NOT constitute financial or investment advice. The information is general in nature, and is not specific to the reader. YOU SHOULD NOT MAKE ANY DECISION, FINANCIAL, INVESTMENTS, TRADING OR OTHERWISE, BASED ON ANY OF THE INFORMATION PRESENTED ON THIS FORUM WITHOUT UNDERTAKING INDEPENDENT DUE DILIGENCE AND CONSULTATION WITH A PROFESSIONAL BROKER OR COMPETENT FINANCIAL ADVISOR.

Warren Buffett vs. the bond king

I came across two news items today. In one, Warren Buffett said that US stocks are not expensive. In the other, Jeff Gundlach trashed the S&P500 (deprecating passive investing in  general) and suggested buying emerging markets instead. On the surface the opinions seem to be at odds, but the two gurus are providing pieces of a jigsaw that makes sense if we find and put together the missing pieces.

Buffett was responding to a question on the overvaluation of US stocks as measured by the “Market Cap to GDP ratio” and the “Cyclically Adjusted PE ratio”. His answer was that ratios are informative without being absolute. Further to Buffett’s point, early signs of a recession are conspicuously absent. Buffett no doubt sees this through the reports Berkshire Hathaway receives. Granted this could change quickly, but for now the economy is doing well. Buffett prefers stocks because their expected return is much higher than that of treasuries. Two points struck me as essential to complete the picture, yet not clearly stated:

  1. Buffett is a stock picker. I’m not surprised he is finding good value in US stocks, because there are enough companies whose stocks are cheap in relation to their future cash generation potential. However, the US stock market also has plenty of companies that will do far worse (many will go bankrupt) than treasuries. Investing in a stock market index may not be a good idea because one ends up buying the good and the bad.
  2. Which is what Gundlach (google “bond king”) was saying at the SOHN conference: Investing in a stock market index (such as the S&P500) is a bad idea. His point is that stock pickers (like Warren Buffett) will do much better than a market index. But he is also implicitly saying something else: that we are not constrained to invest inside the US alone. It’s not “do we invest in US stocks or US treasuries?”. There’s an entire universe of securities that we have access to. Gundlach sees good returns – even without stock picking – in emerging markets.

It would be fair to say that those with the talent for picking stocks globally will do quite well.

Buffett’s journey – a case study

My previous blog post was on the importance of saving in the early part of life. Saving early gives investments the time they need to grow. Now, I use the example of a well-known billionaire – Warren Buffett – to emphasize a few key points.

As of the end of 2015, Buffett’s wealth was estimated at somewhere between $60 and $70 billion. Is Buffett’s example a realistic one to use for the average person? It is. Not in the “everybody can be a billionaire” sense, which is obviously not true. Buffett however, was not born into exceptional wealth, nor did he become a billionaire overnight. He became focused on amassing wealth at an early age, did jobs and earned money for offering his investment skill as a service to others. He was uncommonly frugal, as described in his various biographies. As his earnings grew, so did his savings. At some point, the compounding of his wealth outgrew any salary or fees he would earn. My guess is that his investment return was already more than his salary/fees when he was in his 30s. Buffett is 85 now, and the wealth we see today is the result of over half-a-century of compounding at a rate faster than the US stock market’s. His is an extraordinarily executed example of the wealth growth trajectory I described in my earlier post. Persons who can emulate the things he did right even to a limited extent can find financial prosperity.

Here are a few data points on the growth of his wealth (quoted verbatim from the wikipedia page describing Warren Buffett):

  1. By 1950, at 20, Buffett had made and saved $9,800.
  2. In 1956, … Buffett’s personal savings were over $174,000.
  3. By age thirty-five, he was worth $7 million. – from “Buffett-The making of an American Capitalist” by Roger Lowenstein.
  4. Buffett became a paper billionaire when Berkshire Hathaway began selling class A shares on May 29, 1990.
  5. On August 14, 2014, the price of Berkshire Hathaway’s shares hit US$200,000 a share for the first time. While Buffett had given away much of his stock to charities by this time, he still held 321,000 shares worth US$64.2 billion.

Buffett’s net worth vs. his age is plotted below:

Buffett's net worth over time

And here’s the rate at which his net worth grew over different periods.

Age Rate of growth of net worth
20-26 62%
26-35 51%
35-60 22%
60-84 19%

It is easy to see that Buffett’s wealth grew much more rapidly in his early years. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. When he was young, his wealth was growing from two sources. One was the money he saved from the salary/fees he earned, and the other was his investments. Later on, his savings became insignificant, and the growth of his wealth was due to investments alone.
  2. A skilled investor like Buffett can achieve higher investment return when he is investing only a small amount of money. When investing tens of billions of dollars, one is forced to invest in a lot of different things. The business Buffett likes best might return 50%/yr but the size of such business opportunities is usually small – in the millions, not billions. Buffett commented in an interview: “If I was running $1 million today, or $10 million for that matter, I’d be fully invested. Anyone who says that size does not hurt investment performance is selling. The highest rates of return I’ve ever achieved were in the 1950s. I killed the Dow. You ought to see the numbers. But I was investing peanuts then. It’s a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money. I think I could make you 50% a year on $1 million. No, I know I could. I guarantee that.” Regardless of whether Buffett can actually achieve 50%, the inverse relationship between investment size and investment return is logical.

My main point here is that early life is a great time to multiply one’s net worth. Even without Buffett’s investment acumen, today a frugal person with a healthy salary can save five figures each year and quickly achieve a net worth of $100,000 in 5-10 years, at which point investment returns start to matter. Buffett went from $9,800 to $174,000 in the six years between age 20 and 26. That was a lot of money in 1956. Today, a person earning $60,000/yr, and saving $18,000 (which happens to be the annual contribution limit for a 401K) can go from $0 to $72,000 in six years by just saving. Saving $18,000 out of a $60,000 salary isn’t easy, but it’s doable. Investing like Buffett is a lot harder.

Now imagine that the saver, with $72,000 saved, decided to invest in the US stock market (S&P500) for the next fifty years, and achieved not Buffett-like returns, but merely stock market returns. Based on the data here, the index was priced at 44.15 in 1956 (when Buffett was 26) and priced at 1278.73 in 2006 fifty years later. If our saver achieved the same growth as the index has done in the past, then the $72,000 would grow into a little over 2 million. The saver wouldn’t be a billionaire – not even close – but I’ve assumed that the saver saved nothing past the first five years, and I’ve also not taken dividends paid by the S&P500 into account. This saver would be one very prosperous retiree by doing two simple things: saving early and staying invested.

Stories of people who earned little but saved, invested, and retired rich are numerous. But in all fairness, I make it sound easy. While the path outlined is real, it is hard to follow because of human nature. I will talk about pitfalls of investing another day.