There’s no doubt some stocks are in a bubble. When the bubble will pop is another matter. But pop it will. It’s why I want you to take inventory of what stocks you own, and why you own them. What are they worth?
Are you sticking your neck out too far? Has there ever been a better time to be with an advisor who’s got your back? I’d love to talk with you. Jeremy Grantham of GMO fame wrote in “Waiting for the Last Dance” on Monday:
Another more measurable feature of a late-stage bull, from the South Sea bubble to the Tech bubble of 1999, has been an acceleration3 of the final leg, which in recent cases has been over 60% in the last 21 months to the peak, a rate well over twice the normal rate of bull market ascents. This time, the U.S. indices have advanced from +69% for the S&P 500 to +100% for the Russell 2000 in just 9 months. Not bad! And there may still be more climbing to come. But it has already met this necessary test of a late-stage bubble.
It is a privilege as a market historian to experience a major stock bubble once again. Japan in 1989, the 2000 Tech bubble, the 2008 housing and mortgage crisis, and now the current bubble – these are the four most significant and gripping investment events of my life. Most of the time in more normal markets you show up for work and do your job. Ho hum. And then, once in a long while, the market spirals away from fair value and reality. Fortunes are made and lost in a hurry and investment advisors have a rare chance to really justify their existence. But, as usual, there is no free lunch. These opportunities to be useful come loaded with career risk.
So, here we are again. I expect once again for my bubble call to meet my modest definition of success: at some future date, whenever that may be, it will have paid for you to have ducked from midsummer of 2020. But few professional or individual investors will have been able to have ducked. The combination of timing uncertainty and rapidly accelerating regret on the part of clients means that the career and business risk of fighting the bubble is too great for large commercial enterprises. They can never put their full weight behind bearish advice even if the P/E goes to 65x as it did in Japan. The nearest any of these giant institutions have ever come to offering fully bearish advice in a bubble was UBS in 1999, whose position was nearly identical to ours at GMO. That is to say, somewhere between brave and foolhardy. Luckily for us though, they changed their tack and converted to a fully invested growth stock recommendation at UBS Brinson and its subsidiary, Phillips & Drew, in February 2000, just before the market peak. This took out the 800-pound gorilla that would otherwise have taken most of the rewards for stubborn contrariness. So, don’t wait for the Goldmans and Morgan Stanleys to become bearish: it can never happen. For them it is a horribly non-commercial bet. Perhaps it is for anyone. Profitable and risk-reducing for the clients, yes, but commercially impractical for advisors. Their best policy is clear and simple: always be extremely bullish. It is good for business and intellectually undemanding. It is appealing to most investors who much prefer optimism to realistic appraisal, as witnessed so vividly with COVID. And when it all ends, you will as a persistent bull have overwhelming company. This is why you have always had bullish advice in a bubble and always will.
However, for any manager willing to take on that career risk – or more likely for the individual investor – requiring that you get the timing right is overreach. If the hurdle for calling a bubble is set too high, so that you must call the top precisely, you will never try. And that condemns you to ride over the cliff every cycle, along with the great majority of investors and managers.
Action Line: Are you being told everything’s OK and it’s “business as usual” as opposed to taking a full inventory of your holdings? Don’t let an easy market get the better of your hard-earned money.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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