Sunday, September 11, 2016

“If you are shopping for common stocks, choose them the way you would buy groceries, not the way you would buy perfume.” --Benjamin Graham

STEP RIGHT UP TO THE THREE-RING CIRCUS (September 11, 2016): The global financial markets in 2016 have become a three-ring circus. The most popular sideshow by far has been high-dividend and low-volatility shares which had enjoyed all-time record inflows and overvaluations earlier this summer, and have since become the worst-performing sectors of the past several weeks. On the opposite side of the ring are commodity producers and emerging markets, which everyone hated at the start of the year and have been by far the biggest winners in powerful bull markets. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, in the center ring we have the U.S. dollar itself, beloved by everyone and believed to be rising, but which has actually been in an important bear market since December 2, 2015.

As is true for every bubble throughout history, high-dividend and low-volatility sectors have begun what will become crushing bear markets.

Whenever I argued in late 1999 and early 2000 that internet shares would become huge losers, as I often did, people were convinced that I had some serious mental instabilities. Today, if you tell someone that they are taking dangerous risks by purchasing high-dividend or low-volatility shares, most will insist that these shares have consistently behaved more steadily than the broader equity market for decades, and they have no choice anyway because they need income to pay their expenses. The inflows into these sectors during the past year are astonishing, far outpacing nearly all other all-time record one-year inflows for any asset at any time in history. Since banks were no longer paying anything close to the 3% or 3.5% yields that investors "needed" on their money, with other safe choices including U.S. Treasuries not providing sufficiently high returns, investors have wildly crowded into utility shares (XLU, FXU); real estate investment trusts (IYR, VNQ, REM, RWX); telecommunications companies (IYZ); tobacco producers; consumer staples (XLP, FXG, VDC); and similar sectors. As a result, many of these shares reached all-time record overvaluations and their lowest overall yields in history.

What is the difference between participating in the internet bubble of 2000 and the high-dividend, low-volatility bubble of 2016? Other than the passage of sixteen years and somewhat smarter smartphones, not much has changed. In both cases, investors perceive that there is little risk in doing whatever everyone else is doing, as long as they have some rationalization for their actions. However, the financial markets have always punished those who invested the same way as most other investors, particularly when valuations reached all-time record overpricings. Not surprisingly, since they had completed all-time tops in July or early August, high-dividend and low-volatility securities have been among the biggest losers in percentage terms. While everyone seems to love owning these, whether for their yields or for any other reason, they can be comfortably sold short perhaps for as long as three years while providing annualized double-digit gains even after paying the dividends.

Just because something is perceived to be safe doesn't make it so. If anything is trading near twice fair value, it runs a risk of dropping by more than half.

Nearly everyone is underestimating the potential downside risk for high-dividend and low-volatility assets. Many of the above funds had gained 300% or 400% from their previous recession bottoms. They aren't likely to surrender all of their gains, but they could easily fall by more than half and still remain far above their previous bear-market nadirs. Usually, the most popular sectors become the most detested, which had happened with internet shares when they plummeted nearly 90% overall from March 2000 through October 2002, and with the overloved Nifty Fifty from January 1973 through December 1974 when they slid by roughly 75%. Just because investors perceive stocks with higher dividends and lower long-term volatilities to be "safe" doesn't mean that they are.

Real estate is really another high-dividend, low-volatility asset which has begun a major bear market in most global cities.

Real estate near all bubble peaks has been popularly perceived to be solid, but anything which reaches roughly double or especially triple fair value is always at risk of a dramatic subsequent decline. Many people have become aware of incredible, unsustainable gains for housing prices in cities including San Francisco, London, Tel Aviv, Vancouver, and New York, but very few people are aware that the total number of apartments available for rent has reached multi-decade or all-time highs in many of the above and similar well-known cities. Whenever prices are at double or triple fair value, regardless of the reasons (think of all the phony talk about "Chinese buying" and "unique local circumstances"), prices will inevitably regress toward the mean and beyond sooner or later.

Previous bear markets are still perceived to be intact, even though commodity producers and emerging markets are by far the biggest winners of 2016.

If you were to look at a list of the top-performing exchange-traded, open-end, and closed-end funds of 2016, very few investors would correctly guess which securities are to be found there. The strongest-performing sector of 2016 by far has been silver mining shares, followed closely by gold mining shares. In spite of their powerful bull markets, whenever these experience sharp corrections as both have done during the past several weeks, they mostly experience net outflows and gloomy media commentary along with negative sentiment. According to Daily Sentiment Index, only 23% of traders are currently bullish toward gold and only 22% are bullish on copper. The two previous best buying opportunities during the past several months had occurred on the mornings after the bullish sentiment for gold had slumped to 15% on May 30 and 18% on August 31. The best time to buy any asset is when it is in a powerful uptrend but most traders are staunchly bearish.

A drop exceeding 20% is not necessarily a bear market. A bear market can exist with a decline of much less than 20%.

Since many funds of gold mining shares had recently retreated more than 20% from their three-year highs, some commentators and technical analysts concluded that they were in bear markets. A bear market has nothing to do with the percentage drop from the previous high; it is defined by a sequence of lower highs from a multi-year top. Instead, most gold and silver mining shares had plunged to multi-decade bottoms on January 20, 2016, and have since formed several or more higher lows. Thus, they are in energetic bull markets when many think they are in bear markets. In addition, the previous bear markets for most commodity producers and emerging markets had become both severe and extended from April 2011 through January 20, 2016. Following such a sustained downtrend, it is emotionally difficult for most investors to accept that there has been a reversal. The longer that investors remain skeptical toward any new trend, the longer it will persist and intensify.

Following silver and gold mining shares, the biggest winners of 2016 have been a variety of other commodity-related and emerging-market selections: base metal mining companies; Brazilian equities; coal mining shares; master limited energy partnerships; and other South American and Russian equity funds. If you had polled ten thousand traders at the beginning of the year, how many would have forecast that mining, energy, and South American/Russian stocks would be by far the biggest winners of the year? Especially now that previously outperforming high-dividend and low-volatility sectors have been among the biggest losers and have probably begun three-year bear markets, investors will progressively switch some of those trillions of dollars into other kinds of assets including commodity-related securities.

Is the price of gasoline in a bear market? It had been in a multi-year downtrend since 2011, but it has increased substantially from its February 11, 2016 lows while notably retreating from highs set earlier in the year. Gasoline is still cheap, as the following photograph indicates, but it has been making several higher lows as is characteristic of a true bull market:

  • Cheap Sunset on September 11, 2016

  • Most people believe the greenback is still in a bull market, but after it achieved a 12-2/3-year top on December 2, 2015, the U.S. dollar index has made over a dozen lower highs.

    Unlike some of the mainstream financial media who foolishly believe that a 20% decline for an asset causes it to be in a bear market, very few investors realize that a sequence of a dozen or more lower highs following a multi-decade zenith means that an asset is suffering a true bear market. The U.S. dollar index has been doing exactly this for more than nine months, with very little media attention. The U.S. dollar is critical for all global investors, since it serves as the world's reserve currency and as the safe-haven asset of last resort. If people are piling into U.S. dollars, as they classically do during recessions or deflationary episodes, then it will discourage investing in most other currencies, in emerging markets, in commodity producers, and in assets including TIPs, I-Bonds, and other inflationary hedges.

    Be the first on your block to recognize that the greenback is in a bear market. Once you realize this, everything else fits into place. Other investors will eventually be forced to acknowledge this situation, but not until it is far too late to benefit from it. Before everyone else piles into assets which benefit from a slumping greenback, you can take advantage of prices which aren't as compelling as their multi-decade lows of January 20, 2016 but remain far below their historic averages and have mostly retreated moderately in recent weeks. Among the best choices are silver mining shares (SIL, SILJ, SLVP); gold mining shares (GDXJ, GLDX, RING); non-crude energy shares (URA, KOL, FCG, TAN); copper mining and other base metals shares (COPX, XME); and emerging-market equities (EWZ, RSX, GXG, NGE). It is no surprise that 1) all of the above are among the top-performing sectors of 2016; and 2) almost no one knows it.

    Here is a brilliant model of a three-ring circus on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont:

  • Three-Ring Circus Model, Shelburne Museum, Vermont

  • Disclosure of current holdings:

    Whenever they have appeared to be irrationally 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 wildly overvalued. As the greenback surprises most investors by accelerating its bear market, with the U.S. dollar index moving below 80 instead of climbing back above 100 as almost everyone is still expecting, this will lead to a major upward revision in global inflationary expectations. The latest pullback for many commodity producers has created some compelling buying opportunities, so be sure to seize them before they disappear. I was a very heavy buyer on June 27, 2016 when I made my largest total purchases since October 4, 2011 to capitalize upon the ridiculous post-Brexit panic. From my largest to my smallest position, I currently own GDXJ (some new), SIL (some new), KOL, GDX, XME, COPX, EWZ, RSX, GLDX, REMX, URA (some new), VGPMX, HDGE (some new), ELD, GXG, IDX, NGE, BGEIX, ECH, FCG, SEA, VNM, NORW, DXJ, BCS, PGAL, GREK, EPOL, EWW, RBS, TUR, RSXJ, RGLD, SLW, SAND, SILJ, EPU, FTAG, SOIL, EPHE, and THD. I have recently increased my short positions in IYR, XLU, and FXG, in that order, largest to smallest.

    I expect the S&P 500 to eventually lose two thirds of its August 23, 2016 peak valuation of 2193.81, with its next bear-market bottom perhaps occurring near the end of 2018. As with all bear markets, the biggest losses will likely occur in its final months, and won't even be acknowledged as a bear market until then. While the media have been quick to trumpet new all-time highs for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nasdaq, and the S&P 500 Index, hardly anyone has pointed out that the Russell 2000 Index and its funds including IWM had handily outperformed the S&P 500 from March 2009 through March 2014, and have subsequently dramatically underperformed, trading at their lowest levels during January 2016 in 2-1/2 years. The top for the Russell 2000 had occurred in June 2015 and so far has not been surpassed in this cycle. The failure of small-cap indices to reach new all-time highs as a group has frequently signaled major bear markets 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. The most overvalued sectors rely on the overhyped deflation trade and money which has been withdrawn from safe bank accounts by investors who begin with the premise that they want to generate income of 3%-4% and look for the most stable securities which can generate such yields. This popular and extraordinarily dangerous method of investing had created valuations in July 2016 at roughly double fair value for most consumer staples, real estate investment trusts, and utilities, all of which have already begun to slump by half or more within three years or less.