Share prices staged a breathtaking rally today, though the move was not entirely unexpected given how bombed out the stock market was.
As I noted to contacts on Friday -- my thoughts were picked up by David Gaffen at the Wall Street Journal's MarketBeat blog -- the speed and extent of the recent selloff had pushed prices to an oversold extreme that has only been seen on a handful of occasions during the past century (including during the Great Depression). That meant the market was well set up for one of those periodic bursts of buying that give people hope "the bottom" is in.
In reality, as I noted in a Financial Armageddon post last Wednesday,"Bear Market Rallies," prices rarely move in a straight line (for too long, at least) in a bear (or bull) market. Indeed, a quick read of history suggests violent squeezes and double-digit percentage-point bull moves are, paradoxical as it sounds, a hallmark of secular share-price declines.
With that in mind, I stand by the view -- set forth in my 2007 book and in myriad posts at this blog -- that share prices have plenty more room to run on the downside in the years ahead. Once enough people start to believe otherwise, it will be time to hit the bid -- that's trading lingo for "sell" -- once again.
On another note, I noticed that Barron's had an interview with one of my favorite market mavens, whose insightful and interesting views I have highlighted on a number of occasions. Reporter Lawrence C. Strauss asks the questions in "Still Holding Back: Jeremy Grantham, Chairman, GMO":
AN INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY GRANTHAM: His warnings against risk-taking fell on deaf ears. Now he says the biggest mistake might be buying too soon.
FOR THREE YEARS, HE'S CAUTIONED INVESTORS TO AVOID RISK. Jeremy Grantham, chairman of institutional money manager GMO in Boston, was early, but eventually right.
Grantham told Barron's in February of 2006 that "housing is a classic bubble" and that "this feels like the end of a cycle." Known for his insights on global investing, Grantham, 70, co-founded GMO, which has a value framework combining quantitative and fundamental analysis. It oversees assets of about $120 billion.
For Grantham's latest views on the fallout from the financial crisis and what investment opportunities he sees, please read on.
Barron's: How much will the recent $700 billion bailout plan approved by Congress help stabilize the economy and the financial markets?
Grantham: It certainly doesn't hurt. It is an amazingly complicated situation. But I do believe we have passed the point where we have to worry about moral hazard. When Bear Stearns was in trouble, I used to worry about moral hazard.
What is your sense of how this crisis has been handled by those in charge?
It's been a haphazard response, and the next time something happens, you can't be sure what will happen. In one deal they protect the bonds, while in the next deal the bonds go. Then in the next deal they protect the foreign bonds but not the domestic bonds. My guess is that people will be nervous that they will be at the bad end of one of the tough deals, rather than one of the more gentle deals.
Everyone is shaking in their boots. The awareness of risk has come back with a terrifying surge, and it is not going to go away too quickly.
With the Fed and other central banks lowering rates last week, are you worried about inflation?
My view is, "Forget inflation, guys." This is serious, the real McCoy, and you don't have to worry about little things like inflation. Global growth will slow down, commodities will be weaker for a while, and inflation is a thing of the past. Now we are talking about getting the financial machinery to work and just keeping [gross domestic product] grinding along.
What was at the core of what got the financial system into this crisis?
It was the belief by a lot of people who counted that financial bubbles did not have to addressed. The thinking was that...you could step in and, by scattering a bit of money around, ease the downside consequences. Therefore, you could let the tech bubble run amok and wait for it to burst and step in. And you could let the housing bubble run amok and step in.
At the center of this crisis was a bubble in risk-taking. The risk premiums dropped off the cosmic scale, the lowest ever recorded. On our seven-year forecast data, we reckoned that between June of '06 and June of '07, people were actually paying for the privilege of taking risk. Our constant theme for the last three years was avoid risk, avoid risk, avoid risk.
How much further do we have to go to get through this downturn?
Great bubbles like the one in 2000 take a long time to wash through the system, and you shouldn't really expect a low much before 2010. The fair value on the [Standard & Poor's 500 index] is about 1025 [versus 910 late last week].
This was not only a monetary event, but it coincided with the first truly global bubble in all assets. You had inflated housing in almost every country in the world, except for Japan and Germany. You had overpriced stocks in every country in the world. And you had too much money and too-low interest rates. I was confident about very little, but I was confident that this would be different from anything we had seen before, and potentially more dangerous. It should have been treated with more care.
Is this crisis playing out the way you thought it would?
No. I threw in the towel three months ago, and wrote a quarterly letter saying I thought I was the bear around this joint.
But this is much worse than I thought. All the fundamentals are turning out worse than I thought they would. All the competencies of the senior people at the Fed, Treasury and [firms like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers] have turned out to be much less than I had expected; that's very disappointing.
And, therefore, how could one's confidence that the senior people would get us through the storm be very high? Prior to three months ago, we were investing in emerging-market equities. Then we battened down the hatches, and I changed my view from avoid all risk except emerging markets to avoid all risk, period.
The terrible thing -- after all this pain -- is that the U.S. equity market is not even cheap. You would imagine that, given the amount of panic, that it would be. But it started from such a high level in 2000 that it still has not yet worked its way down to trend, although it is getting close. But the really bad news is that great bubbles in history always overcorrected. So although the fair value of the S&P today may be about 1025, typically bubbles overcorrect by quite a bit, possibly by 20%. That is very discouraging.
What about equities outside the U.S.?
Things are getting cheaper. We score the EAFE [the Europe, Australasia and Far East Index] as absolutely cheap, and it's offering a 7% real annual return over seven years. Emerging-market equities are a bit cheaper, and we see a 9.5% annual real return over the same period.
The problem, though, is that we have so much downside momentum, so many financial problems and so many interlocking relationships, that it is hard to imagine this crisis subsiding because stock prices are digging in their heels and approaching fair value.
What happens to hedge funds in the wake of this crisis?
A year ago, I said that half of all hedge funds would go out of business in five years, and I would certainly stand by that today. Unfortunately, like a lot of my dire projections, that may turn out to be conservative.
I also said that at least one major bank will fail. I got a lot of grief for that, and now it looks like I could have said at least a dozen major banks will fail.
As for the broad, typical opinion that we would muddle through this crisis, it just shows you what a dangerous optimistic bias the advisory business has built into it.
Do you think we will learn anything from all of this turmoil?
We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term and absolutely nothing in the long term. That would be the historical precedent.
Do you have any closing thoughts about how we got into this financial state?
I ask myself, "Why is it that several dozen people saw this crisis coming for years?" I described it as being like watching a train wreck in very slow motion. It seemed so inevitable and so merciless, and yet the bosses of Merrill Lynch and Citi and even [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke -- none of them seemed to see it coming.
I have a theory that people who find themselves running major-league companies are real organization-management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget. They are somewhat impatient, and focused on the present. Seeing these things requires more people with a historical perspective who are more thoughtful and more right-brained -- but we end up with an army of left-brained immediate doers.
So it's more or less guaranteed that every time we get an outlying, obscure event that has never happened before in history, they are always going to miss it. And the three or four-dozen-odd characters screaming about it are always going to be ignored.
If you look at the people who have been screaming about impending doom, and you added all of those several dozen people together, I don't suppose that collectively they could run a single firm without dragging it into bankruptcy in two weeks. They are just a different kind of person.
So we kept putting organization people -- people who can influence and persuade and cajole -- into top jobs that once-in-a-blue-moon take great creativity and historical insight. But they don't have those skills.
Where do you see all of this going?
I want to emphasize how little I understand all of the intricate workings of the global financial system. I hope that someone else gets it, because I don't. And I have no idea, really, how this will work out. I certainly wish it hadn't happened. It is just so intricate that all I can conclude, by instinct and by reading the history books, is that it will be longer, harder and more than we expect.
Sobering thoughts. Thanks, Jeremy.
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