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Beware of Sideways Markets

Investors piling into U.S. equities to take advantage of the recent runup in prices may be in for an ugly surprise. In the past, sideways markets have started when valuations were at levels much like today’s.

In early May I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Value Investing Congress in Las Vegas. The last time I had spoken there, it was May 2008 and the market was just coming off its top.  The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was trading at 18 times trailing earnings. Profit margins were at a modern-day high. They subsequently collapsed but came back to set an even higher high. If you normalize profits for high margins and look at ten-year trailing earnings, in 2008 stocks were trading 66 percent above their average. They were at 30 times ten-year trailing earnings.

In all honesty, I could do the same presentation today that I did five years ago, since market valuation is not dramatically different from what it was then. A cyclical bear and a cyclical bull market later, the S&P 500 is at (the same) 18 times trailing earnings and 26 times ten-year trailing earnings. Investors who were on the sidelines the past few years and who are now pouring money into stocks, expecting that we are in the midst of a secular bull market, will likely be disappointed. The previous sideways market, of 1966–82, included four cyclical bull markets and five cyclical bear markets. From 1970 to 1973 the Dow went from 700 to 1,000, just to drop again, to 600.

Sideways markets are there to destroy hope. It is when nobody wants to own stocks ever again, when valuations are below their historical average, that a secular sideways market finally dies (actually, more like goes into hibernation), and the next secular bull market is born. But even that is not enough: Stocks need to spend time at below-average valuations. In the 1966–82 market they spent half of their time at below-average valuations. During the recent crisis we tiptoed into below-average valuations, but we danced right back out.

To believe we are in the midst of a secular bull market, you have to be very comfortable with three things, starting with profit margins. Today corporate profit margins are hitting all-time highs. Historically, profit margins have been mean-reverting — high margins were never sustained by corporations over a prolonged period of time because, as legendary value investor Jeremy Grantham puts it, “capitalism works.”  When a company — Apple, for example — starts earning very high margins, its competitors (like Samsung) come in with lower prices. In response, Apple must lower its margins. If margins decline even as the economy grows, earnings growth will be very benign or negative.

Second, even if you are comfortable with high profit margins, you have to make an assumption that economic (revenue) growth will be robust going forward. Given how many headwinds we are facing from Europe, China and Japan, it is hard to develop a high comfort level there.

And finally, you have to believe that price-earnings ratios can expand from their current level. I have news for you: In the past, sideways markets started (bull markets ended) when valuations were at current levels.

Stock returns are driven by two variables, earnings growth and changes in P/Es. Earnings growth for the next five to ten years is unlikely to be exciting and may not even be positive, and P/Es are likely to change for the worse, not the better.

Interest rates were much higher in the ’70s and early ’80s than they are today, and thus stocks may deserve higher valuations than they did then. This applies to all assets. But the Federal Reserve’s policy may inflate stocks’ valuations for a while. If the Fed succeeds and real growth resumes, then interest rates will rise and (expensive) stocks that were discounting all-time-low rates will get crushed. After all, they — like long-duration bonds — do great when interest rates decline and bite the dust when interest rates rise.

Of course, on many levels things are better now than they were in 2008. The financial crisis and real estate bubble are behind us; we are probably not going to see those again for a while. But their resolution came at a big price: much higher government debt and a command-control interest-rate policy that would have made the Soviets proud. We’re now living in a Lance Armstrong economy. We’ve consumed so many performance enhancement drugs through endless quantitative easing that it is hard to know how well the economy is really doing. Unfortunately, as Armstrong at some point did, we’ll have an Oprah Winfrey moment when the economy will have to fess up for all the QEs.

We are living through one of the most grandiose and untested lab experiments ever conducted by a central bank: QE Infinity. At the recent Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett said, “Watching the economy today is like watching a good movie — you don’t know the ending.” His sidekick Charlie Munger added, “If you are not confused about the economy, you don’t understand it very well.”

The Fed’s unprecedented intervention in the economy has increased the possible range and severity of negative outcomes, from runaway inflation to deflation or a freaky combination of the two (freakflation). Deflation (or freakflation) is not good for stocks or their valuations. Just look at Japan. Over the past 20 years, stock valuations declined despite interest rates being at incredibly low levels. Expensive stocks (as I’ve mentioned, stocks in general are very expensive) discount earnings growth. If growth fails to materialize, these P/Es will decline. Unknowns are simply unknown.

At a time when the market is making all-time highs, it is easy to become complacent and let your guard down. Don’t. • •

Vitaliy Katsenelson ( is CIO at Investment ­Management Associates in Denver and author of    The Little Book of Sideways Markets.

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