Wednesday, July 15, 2009

David Rosenberg on the 18 Year Cycle.

David Rosenberg, the only one at Merrill Lynch that knew what he was doing recently left the firm to go work for a buy side firm in his native Canada.

These are just a few of his parting comments back in May 2009.

We are in year 9 of an 18-year secular bear market

The S&P 500 peaked in real terms back in August 2000. Adjusted for the CPI, it is down 58% since that time. So, we would say that we are in year 9 of what is likely to be an 18-year secular bear market, because if you look at long waves in the past, they tend to last about 18 years with near perfection.

What happened during the last secular bear market

As an example, go back to the last secular bear market, and you will see that the S&P 500 peaked, again in real terms, in January 1966 and bottomed in July 1982, 18 years later. But there were plenty of mini-cycles in between. In fact, there were four recessions and three expansions during that entire 18-year period and unless you were a completely passive investor, you definitely wanted to be in the game during the three expansions because the S&P 500 rallied an average of 50% during those phases. Again, it is important to note that these were rallies you could rent, not own, but they did last an average of 20 months. So, it’s not exactly as if they have an extremely short shelf life.

Playing a game of devil’s advocate

With all this in mind, we went through an exercise over the weekend and played a game of devil’s advocate. If Rosie had to face off against Rosie, what would we say if we were forced to take the other side of the debate, keeping in mind that in fact, we may be overly bearish at the present time. And believe it or not, we did manage to come up with some pretty compelling material.

Past the half-way point in the recession

First, our in-house model of predicting where we are in the cycle, for the first time, gave us a signal late last week that we are past the half-way point in the recession. Considering that the stock market bottoms 60% of the way through, this is an encouraging signpost.

We’ve worked through the effects of the Lehman collapse

Second, our propriety proxy for private sector interest rates has come down from 8.11% at the nearby peak to 7.18% now despite the backup in Treasury yields, to stand at their lowest since last September. The TED spread is back to where it was last September, as are most credit spreads. The VIX has finally broken to 35, back to where it was last September. 10-year TIPS breakeven levels, which were predicting deflation at the end of last year, are now forecasting 1.5% average inflation rates for the next decade. Again, we last saw this in September of last year. This is interesting because even though the economy and the markets were clearly in the doldrums back in September, the fact that so many market barometers are back to where they were then means that at the very least, we have worked through the ill-effects of the post-Lehman collapse.

Stock market has lagged relative to other asset classes

All an equity bull really has to do is point to the fact that the S&P 500 last September was trading around 1200. The only difference is back then we were looking at it from the perspective of being 20% off the highs whereas a move back to September levels, which, after all, would only mimic what many other market indicators have accomplished, would be viewed as an 80% surge off the lows not to mention another 35% potential upside from where we are today. Even the CRB raw industrials are now back to where they last October when the S&P 500 was hovering around the 950 level. So again, if we were equity bulls, and maybe we should be, we would simply point out that of all the asset classes that have bounced back to life, the stock market has actually been a laggard.

Three indicators that suggest cyclical bear market is over

Third, we found three indicators that have stood the test of time and strongly suggest that the cyclical bear market in equities and the economy have drawn to a close: the ISM, the Conference Board’s coincident-to-lagging indicator and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey. The ISM bottomed in December 2008 at 32.9 and is now 40.1. Going back to 1950, we found that recessions end within three months of the ISM hitting bottom, and never by more than six months. The coincident-to-lagging ratio just turned in successive lows of 89.6. The data go back to 1960 and we found that recessions ended within two months of this indicator, 100% of the time. And, the U of M consumer sentiment index bottomed at 55.3 last November. As we saw on Friday it had rebounded to 65.1 as of the end of April. The data show recessions end typically within six months of the bottom in this key leading indicator, and not once was the lag longer than eight months.

We could be on the precipice of a cyclical upturn

This is not to say that our secular views have changed. However, we could well be on the precipice of a cyclical upturn, and whether it is sustainable or not may have to be a story for another day. We don’t see as many green shoots as others do, but then again, we endured more than a year of jobless recoveries following the market lows of 1990 and 2002.

The most glaring example

The most glaring example of all is the fact that the S&P 500 bottomed in the summer of 1932 and yet by the end of the 1930s, seven years after ‘New Deal’ stimulus, the unemployment rate was still 15%, consumer prices were deflating at a 2% annual rate, and let’s face it, the Great Depression did not actually end until 1941. But for investors, the worst was over in the summer of 1932 in the immediate aftermath of the acute government intervention at the time. While there were recurring setbacks along the way, including the severe bear market of 1937-48, the fundamental lows had already been turned in long before.

Investors have been able to price out financial tail risks

Fast forward to March 2009, and the same mantra was heard - ‘nationalization’, ‘depression’ and ‘deflation’. As was the case with FDR’s early days as President, what the last half of Obama’s first ‘100 days’ managed to accomplish was to eliminate these words from the investment lexicon. The degree of intervention from the Treasury and the Fed has been so intense that investors have been able to price out financial ‘tail risks’ that had dominated the market landscape through much of the first quarter.

The market is gravitating to a new mean

So, the way to look at the situation is that by removing the ‘tail risks’ of an outright systemic financial collapse, the market has gravitated to a new ‘mean’ (in the sense that at any given point in time, market prices reflect some expected distribution of possible outcomes - a very bad potential outcome has been taken out of the probability distribution, at least according to Mr. Market). This is why if the bulls have a solid argument, it is the prospect that the S&P 500 can indeed approach those pre-Lehman levels, which back in September, seemed rather bearish, but is only bullish today benchmarked against where we are.

Still not sold on the bull case for equities

Despite all these powerful arguments, we are still not totally sold on the bull case for equities. Valuation is not compelling, in our view. Sentiment has completely swung towards a bullish consensus (which is a contrary negative). Home prices and employment are still in freefall, the former undermining the balance sheet and the latter exerting a drag on the income statement and suggestions that a mild improvement in the negative growth rate is something to be excited about seems off base.

Difficult to ascertain who the marginal buyer will be

It seems hard to believe that after being burned by two bubbles seven years apart that the baby boomer is going to line up at the trough one more time. So, it’s difficult to ascertain who the marginal buyer is going to be. Disposal of durable goods assets to pay off a record household debt burden seems like a multi-year deflation story as far as we are concerned. Since the boomer household is income constrained and underweight fixed-income securities on its balance sheet, we believe that demand for high-quality bonds is going to strengthen in coming years. Government policy will remain highly pro-cyclical but there is no match for the contractionary effects from a shrinking US household balance sheet.

Deflation will win out over inflation

We are concerned that deflation will win out over inflation this time around. While the data cited above are indeed impressive in terms of their track record, since this is not a manufacturing inventory recession but rather a downturn deeply rooted in asset deflation and credit contraction, we may find out that the economic releases that were tried, tested and true in the other post-war cycles may not be appropriate today given the overpowering secular trends of consumer deleveraging and frugality.