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Hussman Warns Beware ZIRP "Hot Potatoes": Examine All Risk Exposures

Excerpted from John Hussman's Weekly Market Comment,

Present conditions create an urgency to examine all risk exposures. Once overvalued, overbought, overbullish extremes are joined by deterioration in market internals and trend-uniformity, one finds a narrow set comprising less than 5% of history that contains little but abrupt air-pockets, free-falls, and crashes.

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"Abrupt market weakness is generally the result of low risk premiums being pressed higher. There need not be any collapse in earnings for a deep market decline to occur. The stock market dropped by half in 1973-74 even while S&P 500 earnings grew  by over 50%. The 1987 crash was associated with no loss in earnings. Fundamentals don't have to change overnight. There is in fact zero correlation between year-over-year changes in earnings and year-over-year changes in the S&P 500. Rather, low and expanding risk premiums are at the root of nearly every abrupt market loss.

 

“One of the best indications of the speculative willingness of investors is the ‘uniformity’ of positive market action across a broad range of internals… I've noted over the years that substantial market declines are often preceded by a combination of internal dispersion, where the market simultaneously registers a relatively large number of new highs and new lows among individual stocks, and a leadership reversal, where the statistics shift from a majority of new highs to a majority of new lows within a small number of trading sessions.

 

This is much like what happens when a substance goes through a ‘phase transition,’ for example, from a gas to a liquid or vice versa. Portions of the material begin to act distinctly, as if the particles are choosing between the two phases, and as the transition approaches its ‘critical point,’ you start to observe larger clusters as one phase takes precedence and the particles that have ‘made a choice’ affect their neighbors. You also observe fast oscillations between order and disorder in the remaining particles. So a phase transition features internal dispersion followed by leadership reversal. My impression is that this analogy also extends to the market's tendency to experience increasing volatility at 5-10 minute intervals prior to major declines.”

 

Market Internals Go Negative, Hussman Weekly Market Comment, July 30, 2007

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We've started to see the pattern of abrupt jumps and declines at 10-minute intervals that is often a hallmark of nervous markets. My continued concern is that numerous market plunges have been indifferent to both interest rate trends and even valuations, with the main warning flag being deterioration in the quality of market internals, as we observe at present. Both in the U.S. and internationally, ‘singular events’ tend to occur well after internal market action has turned unfavorable, and prices are well off their highs.

 

“Though I don't want to put too much emphasis on intra-day behavior, if you examine tick data or daily ranges before major declines both in the U.S. and elsewhere, you'll generally see price movements become chaotic at increasingly short intervals even before the event itself. One way to describe it without mathematics is to spin a quarter on the table and watch (and listen to it) closely - you'll observe a similar dynamic at the abrupt point that the coin moves from an even spin to an irregular one, and again just before it stops. If you imagine a pen drawing out its movements, you would see it tracing out faster and faster circles as it moves from stability to instability.”

 

Broadening Instability, Hussman Weekly Market Comment, January 28, 2008

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In recent weeks, the market has transitioned to the most hostile return/risk profile we identify: the pairing of overvalued, overbought, overbullish conditions with deterioration in market internals and price cointegration – what we call “trend uniformity” – across a wide range of stocks, sectors, and security types (see my September 29, 2014 comment Ingredients of a Market Crash). As in 2007 and 2000, we’re observing characteristic features of that shift. One of those features is that early selling from overvalued bull market peaks tends to be indiscriminate, as deterioration in market internals and the “average stock” often precedes substantial losses in the major indices. As of Friday, only 28% of NYSE stocks are above their respective 200-day moving averages.

In the current cycle, both the Russell 2000 small-cap index, and the capitalization-weighted NYSE Composite set their recent highs on July 3, 2014, failing to confirm the later high in the S&P 500 on September 18, 2014. Through Friday, the NYSE Composite is down -7.3% from its July 3rd peak, and the Russell 2000 is down -12.8%, while the S&P 500 is down only -4.0% over the same period. What’s happening here is that selling is being partitioned in secondary stocks, and more recently high-beta stocks (those with greatest sensitivity to market fluctuations). Market action is narrowing in a classic pattern that reflects the effort of investors to reduce risk around the edges of their portfolios, in what typically proves an ill-founded belief that a falling tide will not lower all ships.

Abrupt market losses are typically not responses to obvious “catalysts” but instead reflect a shift in investor preferences toward risk aversion, at a point where risk premiums are quite thin and prone to an upward spike to normalize them. That’s essentially what’s captured by the combination of overvalued, overbought, overbullish coupled with deteriorating internals. Another characteristic of these shifts is increasing volatility at short intervals – what I described at the 2007 peak and in early-2008 by analogy to “phase transitions” in particle physics. The extreme daily and intra-day market volatility in recent sessions is typical of that dynamic.

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No doubt – this pile of zero-interest hot potatoes has helped to compress risk premiums across the entire range of risky assets toward zero (and we estimate, in some cases, below zero). But understand that the bulk of the advance in financial assets in recent years has not been a reasonable response to the level of interest rates, but instead reflects a dangerous compression of risk premiums.

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In short, every 3-month period of additional zero-interest rate policy promised by the Fed is worth about a 1% premium over historical valuation norms. Another year would be worth a premium about 4% over historical norms. But with the market more than double historical norms on reliable measures, the Fed would have to promise a quarter of a century of zero interest rate policy before current stock valuations would reflect a “reasonable” response to interest rates. No – stocks are not elevated because low interest rates “justify” these prices. They are elevated because the risk premium for holding stocks has been driven to zero. We presently estimate negative total returns for the S&P 500 on every horizon shorter than 8 years.

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Though we should allow for a potential improvement in market conditions, I do believe that now is a particularly bad time to rely on the idea that “this time is different” with money you cannot afford to lose. This does not require forecasts about market direction – only proper consideration of market risk. Make sure that the portfolio of risks you do hold is the portfolio that you want to hold over the completion of the market cycle, understand the risk profile and actual losses that various asset classes have experienced over prior market cycles, take account of the prospective returns that are embedded into current valuations, and insist on historically reliable measures of valuation that demonstrate a strong association with actual subsequent returns over numerous market cycles across history.

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Investors should understand that “prices and valuations are high” is another way of saying “future returns have already been realized, leaving little to be gained for quite some time.”