Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart." --e e cummings

FAIR VALUE, LIKE A RELIABLE BUT TARDY GUEST, IS ALWAYS LATE AND ALWAYS ARRIVES (January 6, 2016): Many investors like to repeat John Maynard Keynes' overquoted quip about how the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. There are numerous problems with this saying, especially when taken out of context, since as long as you don't use margin you should always remain solvent. Those who go overboard with investing, as with anything else in life, will sometimes be rewarded in the short run but will inevitably fail in the long run. Those who bet on extremes becoming more extreme will similarly often prosper for some unknown period of time, but will eventually lose in the end because all assets eventually revisit fair value. After doing so, whatever had been previously wildly trendy and overvalued usually ends up becoming roughly equally despised and underpriced. Thus, if you can consistently buy gradually into whatever has become the greatest percentage below its fair value, and sell whatever has become the most stretched above its fair value, you will have a method which will be highly successful in the long run. It will also be consistently unpopular for others to follow, because you will be buying near the end of an extended bear market when everyone is gloomy and you will be selling anything when its recent outperformance encourages almost everyone to anticipate indefinite additional future gains.

If we look at U.S. equity indices through the decades, there is a pattern in which nearly all bear markets and especially the most severe ones often begin with underperformance by thousands of small-cap shares. IWM tracks the Russell 2000 which represents U.S. companies 1001 through 3000 by market capitalization. IWM moved above 120 in early March 2014, having enjoyed a powerful bull market for just about exactly five years. Since then, it has fluctuated in both directions and briefly set a new peak in June 2015, but is now trading below 120. Most investors are unaware of this development, but ignorance is certainly not bliss as this persistent underperformance by small-cap U.S. equities relative to their large-cap counterparts is classically how bull markets transition to bear markets. Until nearly the end of 2015, investors responded to this divergence by crowding increasingly intensely into fewer and fewer advancing securities--much as they had previously done in years including 1929, 1972, and other periods when buying U.S. stocks was especially popular and ultimately disastrous. Even in 2007, small-cap U.S. indices peaked in the spring and early summer while many of the most popular names continued to climb until almost the end of that year.

If investors believe they can remain ahead of the game by shifting from small caps to large caps, it is similar to switching into a first-class cabin on the Titanic instead of heading for a lifeboat. You will enjoy fine luxury for awhile, but in the end you won't survive. Those who have been buying the "fang" stocks (FB, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG) did wonderfully in recent months, but will end up in the poorhouse because wildly overvalued and trendy names in each generation end up just like the "Nifty Fifty" did during 1973-1974, collapsing far worse than the broader market during a sustained downturn. Already in 2016 we are getting a taste of what is in store for the next two years or so for what had been the most popular securities of 2015. This is appropriate, since the high-dividend favorites of 2014 including utilities (XLU), REITs (IYR), and U.S. Treasuries (TLT) slumped throughout most of 2015 after having briefly climbed to even more overvalued peaks in January 2015.

If money is coming out of nearly all of these former investor favorites, where is it going to go? Real estate has also become irrationally overvalued and will eventually suffer the same fate as Netflix and Amazon. Even the relatively steady S&P 500 Index has been repeatedly unable to set new all-time highs since it had topped out on May 20, 2015. Investors have been continuing to abandon the least popular sectors of recent years, making all-time record outflows from nearly all assets involved with commodity production and emerging markets. However, even the worst bear markets end eventually, and since they represent a high percentage of the bargains which are currently available, they will ultimately rebound enough to attract the attention of momentum players and many others who don't like to buy into the cheapest prices but wait until they observe that a recovery has been "confirmed." Of course there is no such thing as true confirmation, since anything can rise or fall at any time. However, whenever any asset has become so cheap that it could double or triple and still be below fair value, then it will often behave in a subsequent bull market by being among the top performers and eventually becoming as irrationally overvalued as it had been previously undervalued. It works the other way too, so that the most popular assets often become the least popular a few years later.

The U.S. dollar is a classic example of a wildly loved currency that climbed to its highest point in 2015 since April 2003, but has been unable to remain above its highs from March 2015. The U.S. dollar index has repeatedly climbed toward or above 100 and has failed to hold above that level. Investors have flooded into bets on a higher greenback while sentiment has rarely been more bullish, but market behavior hasn't responded by staging an appropriate rally extension. Instead, resistance keeps reappearing and investors keep getting more optimistic. This is how major tops are formed. Instead of rising further to 110 or 120 as most observers currently expect, an equal move the opposite way to 90 and then 80 is a far more likely scenario for the U.S. dollar index in 2016 and perhaps the early months of 2017. Even mentioning to someone that you are anticipating a significantly lower U.S. dollar will get people seriously questioning your sanity, which thereby makes it far more likely to occur.

Ultimately, whatever is last shall be first and vice versa. Expect to see the least popular assets of recent years finally enjoying a year or more in the sunshine of strong bull markets, while the most sought-after assets of recent years will severely disappoint holders with losses generally exceeding half. Probably most investors can't imagine their Nasdaq favorites or San Francisco/Vancouver/Tel Aviv real estate losing more than half their current valuations, but that is what is going to happen. Fair value seems elusive and unachievable, until it is inevitably achieved and usually far surpassed in the opposite direction.

Disclosure: Whenever they have appeared to be especially depressed, I have been buying the shares of funds which invest either in emerging-market assets or in the shares of commodity producers, since I believe these are among the two most undervalued sectors in a world where real estate and U.S. equity indices remain dangerously overvalued. As the extremely popular U.S. dollar stuns investors by suffering a bear market instead of continued gains as almost everyone is expecting, this will lead to a major upward revision in global inflationary expectations. From my largest to my smallest position, I currently own GDXJ, KOL, SIL, XME, HDGE, COPX, GDX, EWZ, RSX, REMX, GLDX, URA, FCG, IDX, GXG, VGPMX, ECH, VNM, BGEIX, NGE, RSXJ, PLTM, EPU, TUR, SILJ, SOIL, EPHE, and THD. I expect the S&P 500 to eventually lose roughly two thirds of its May 20, 2015 peak valuation of 2134.72, with its next bear-market bottom perhaps occurring in late 2017 or early 2018. The Russell 2000 Index and its funds including IWM are trading below their levels from the first week of March 2014; small-cap U.S. equities typically lead the entire U.S. equity market lower as they have done in past decades including 1928-1929, 1972-1973, and 2007. Those who have "forgotten" or never learned the lessons of previous bear markets are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

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