This post first appeared on August 24, 2007
This credit contraction is still young, yet we already have the spectacle of a full blown seize up in the money markets which has central bankers flummoxed. Normally, you expect this sort of panic after a few major financial train wrecks and weakness in the real economy.
One can cheerily assume that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. that in our tightly-coupled, information suffused, low trading cost environment, things happen faster in the past,. What we are seeing is simply a compression of events that might otherwise take longer to play out. Sharp spike down, fast recovery, and if you aren’t a subprime victim, back to life more or less as before.
Albert Edwards, Dresdner Kleinwort strategist (and the man who coined the phrase, “The Great Unwind”) has the opposite view: that the fast trajectory down (at least in the credit markets; equity investors haven’t given up their faith) is due to the fact that the cognoscenti know that more is yet to come.
FT Alphaville gives us the key bits from Edwards’ latest report:
The strategist’s latest weekly missive, sub-titled Which domino will fall next in ‘The Great Unwind’?, should cause DK clients to pause and think…. We should cut to the chase:
Who knows whether this ends in global recession? But what is very clear is that the market is still attaching a minimal probability to the recession outcome. Our own economists’ probability of a US recession is 40%… In a recession we see large falls in profits of about 35% (especially financials) — an environment in which equity markets might half, Fed Funds and bond yields fall below they previous cyclical lows of 1% and 3.1% respectively and general carnage in leveraged risk investments. The risks to investors are so, so very asymmetric.
In an unusually long (and, we note, badly-edited) edition of his Global Strategy Weekly, Edwards meanders through the carnage already wrought, finding evidence at every turn for much more to come.
The real carnage has been in the money markets that have been hit by the extreme levels of risk aversion by market participants – as evidenced by short dated Treasury Bill yields plunging due to their safe haven status. I think that things are much worse than most believe…
Despite flooding the market with liquidity and cutting the Discount Rate to calm things down, there is absolutely no reason that extreme risk aversion should dissipate. The levels of losses in hedge funds etc are the result of massive levels of leverage invested in risk assets which, in the main, have moved only moderately downwards. It is leverage and extreme levels of risk appetite that are the problem…
Are inverters now de-levered? If they were I would suspect that asset prices would be a lot lower than they currently are. There are lots of bodies still floating to the surface. I believe investor/lender risk aversion is highly appropriate given the way funds have been able to cover up losses with mark to model practices and the inability of rating agencies to see simulate the losses seen on assets in the even of a housing crash (which was wholly predictable)…
With banks one moment claiming they have no exposure to US subprime only to be found to be virtually bankrupt a week later, what confidence can investors as the stench of incompetence and cover-up now emanates from the financial industry.
And there’s more:
Most equity investors still have a touching belief that equities are cheap and hence will relatively safe during “The Great Unwind”..
This relative cheapness of equities has been cited as the reason for the crazy levels of corporate finance activity recently…(But) companies are now simply not in a position to borrow at the rate they were to fund these activities. The single biggest buyer for the US equity market is now been effectively slide tackled into touch…
If long-term earnings decline, as they did post-Nasdaq bubble, PEs will contract sharply even despite sharply lower bond yields. Equities are therefore not really cheap. It is an illusion.
Hence we have always forecast continued Ice Age multiple contraction in the event of a US economic downturn, whereas most commentators will forecast that there will be multiple expansion because equities are cheap and bond yields will decline. Hence in the next recession (which could be coming soon) a 35% decline in profits (say) could be accompanied by multiple contraction from the current 15.5X trailing earnings to say 12x. This would generate a portfolio wrecking 50% decline in equity indices…
This sort of forecast usually meets much hilarity, even with those few clients who are sympathetic to our arguments. But the assumption that the de-bubbling of valuations is over is that – just an assumption.
All of which leads Edwards to a bone-rattling conclusion:
What commentators totally miss is how incredibly fragile consumption really is. With mortgage lenders going bust by the day and the household sector hit by a barrage of depressing headlines it is entirely possible that further retrenchment in the obscenely high borrowing requirement will yet generate a economic slump which no-one will predict…This is the big domino that is yet to fall.
In case you see Edwards’ view that PE multiples could fall as a sign of a hopelessly depressive outlook, keep in mind that more even-keel types have also argued that equities are richly priced.
Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ lead economics editor, pointed out in March that equities were considerably overvalued by historical standards. More recently, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, using analytic methods advocated in the original bible of investing, Benjaim Graham & David Dodd’s “Security Analysis” also found stocks to be expensive.
One of the reasons for the divergent views as to what a “normal” PE multiple is that the 1990s market featured high multiples for sustained periods, even though nominal interest rates were higher than, say, in the 1960s. That period was sufficiently protracted so as to bring up long term averages.
If the 1990s multiple expansion was due to greater global stability (the end of the Cold War, better information management that kept inventory swings from worsening slowdowns, deregulation) then it is likely to be more representative of current values than, say, the 1970s. But if you see the 1990s boom as fueled by overly accommodative monetary policies, we are due for a reversion to the mean, or even a correction beyond that.