Archive for the ‘stock market’ Category

Greenspan Sees No Bubble in Dow 16,000

28 November 2013


Well, that settles it.

Heavy sarcasm aside, we do have the major stock indexes hitting record highs in a still-lousy economy. And thanks to that lousy economy and the Fed’s expansionary monetary policies in response to it, we have interest rates near record lows, which by itself does a lot to raise stock prices. (You can explain this either as borrowing costs to buy stock being cheaper than ever, as the returns on a major stock substitute [bonds] being at record lows, or as the low interest rates raising the intrinsic, or present discounted, value of future stock earnings. These explanations are not mutually exclusive.) But does that make the current stock market an out-of-control bubble? The Fed has cut interest rates many time over the decades without creating stock bubbles. Let’s take a closer look.

Since there is normally some inflation in the economy, a better way to look at stock prices is to adjust them for inflation. J.C. Parets has done this. His index was last updated for Sept 2013, at which time the real (inflation-adjusted) S&P 500 index was 1729.86 (these numbers seem to be in 2011 dollars). Parets emphasized that this amount was 20% below the real peak value of the S&P, from March 2000. But March 2000 was no ordinary peak but the height of the dot-com bubble. The market could still be grossly overvalued yet be 20% below that amount. And the market has continued to soar in the two months beyond Sept 2013; the S&P is up another 8%, so now it’s about 12% below its all-time bubblicious peak. Two lessons I draw: (1) stocks have been a lousy investment over the past 13.5 years, averaging about -1% per year in real terms, with a ton of volatility; (2) stocks could well be a bubble right now, but how large a bubble?

A still-better way to look at the stock market is the price-earnings (P/E) ratio. The measure here compares the current prices of the 500 stocks in the S&P index to their companies’ profits over the past 12 months. This chart is updated every trading day, but right now the P/E ratio is 19.87, compared with the historical averages of 14.5 (median) and 15.5 (mean). The all-time high was 123.8 in May 2009, and the all-time low was 5.3 during WWI. One could compare the current P/E of 19.87 to the historical averages and conclude that the market is about 28% overpriced (19.87 / 15.5 = 128%).

But we’re still not done. The appropriate P/E is not the same at all times. When interest rates on corporate bonds (the leading alternative to stocks) are very low and expected to stay that way for a long while, the P/E should be higher. Right now the interest rate on A-rated 20-year corporate bonds is 4.71%. An economist-approved way to compare stocks and bonds is to compare the P/E on stocks to 1/i, or 1 divided by the long-term interest rate. If investors were indifferent between bonds and stocks and cared only about their expected return, P/E and 1/i should be equal. (The 1/e ratio gives you the present-day value of a fixed-income investment that pays you $1 per year forever when the interest rate is i forever.) Right now, 1/i = 1/.0471 = 21.23, which would suggest that stocks are a bit under-priced relative to bonds. Except (if you can stand yet another about-face) there is no good reason why investors should be indifferent between bonds and stocks. Most people are risk-averse and would therefore prefer a guaranteed real return of, say 2% on bonds than an expected 2% return on stocks that could wildly fluctuate. So with normal, risk-averse investors, P/E should be somewhat less than 1/i. And with interest rates expected to rise someday, even if not any day soon, we should probably plug in a somewhat larger value of i than 4.71%. If we plug in 5% instead, then 1/i = 1/.05 = 20, just a tad higher than the current P/E of 19.87, which now looks too high. Not necessarily scary-bubble high, but overvalued just the same.

So when you think the market is a little overvalued but not necessarily a lot, should you dump your stocks? I guess that I just don’t know.

Companies love misery

22 October 2013

“Dow up on optimism tepid jobs report keeps Fed stimulus going”
headline, CNBC, today

In other words, a lousy labor market is good QE-bait.

Like I said before.

The top 1% are different. Yes, they own more financial assets.

25 June 2013

Lawrence Mishel’s recent piece on inequality includes a very telling graph:


We see that the second half of the 1990s  is the first prolonged period when the top 1%’s income soared above that of the college educated in general; it coincided with the dot-com boom/bubble. We see a similar takeoff during the mid-2000s housing bubble and stock boom. In the market corrections/crashes that began in 2000 and 2007, we see the top 1%’s advantage mostly, but not completely, disappear. 

A combination of stock options, stock-market-based bonuses, and “Takes money to make money” seems to be at work here. The graph seems to be at odds with the common argument (Greg Mankiw’s?) that the top 1% deserve all they get because they are so much more productive, as it seems doubtful that their superior productivity deserts them in bad times.

The big banks are still socializing the losses; or, Sympathy for the stockholder

20 October 2011

The original bank bailout may have been repaid in full, but the big banks are still socializing the losses. This time, it’s among their shareholders. Brad DeLong offers some specifics:

‘Investors in Goldman Sachs have lost more than half their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Morgan Stanley have lost more than three-quarters of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Citigroup have lost 93% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bank of America have lost 85% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch lost more than 90% if their investments as well . . .’

DeLong’s charts (click above link to see them) show that even after bank stocks started to rebound in fall 2009, the losses have still been huge.

One might think this is just a case of the rich getting poorer, but it’s not that simple. In fact, the distributional consequences seem to run the other way. The stockholders, most of whom are middle-class and upper-middle-class folks, are getting hammered. About half of the population owns stock (granted, the wealthy own most of it), so about half of The Other 99% own stock and are seeing their retirement portfolios shrink along with the rest of their savings. (If you own stock at all, you probably own a lot of big bank stock, because they are weighted heavily in index funds, other mutual funds, and pension funds.)

How has the reduced market value of these firms affected the executives and highest-paid employees at the big banks? Not much, apparently. While I don’t have precise data handy, there have been reports all through this Lesser Depression of huge payouts to bankers, including yesterday’s news of Morgan Stanley. It’s happening in England, too.

DeLong’s post includes some excellent comments about how the banks’ poor performance has affected their shareholders and their high-level employees so differently. There’s a technical term for it: looting.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal reports that bank losses have been huge of late. Goldman Sachs lost money in the second quarter of this year, and has had six straight year-over-year quarterly losses. Goldman’s stock is down 39% for the year, and Bank of America’s is down 50%. No mention of how (or whether) bonuses will be affected.

Did S&P’s downgrade actually help the Treasury bond market?

8 August 2011

Yes, I think it did. As of 2:53 pm, the yield on ten-year Treasuries has plunged 20 basis points to an ultra-low 2.36%, their lowest level of the year. It’s the stock markets that are a bloodbath today, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq down about 6%. Prices for the safe havens of gold and Treasury bonds are both way up. Inasmuch as the S&P downgrade has upped the fear factor, it’s hurt stocks and helped T-bonds.

To qualify this: The S&P’s role here has likely been vastly overstated by the media. (Krugman has already lost his lunch over this one, so I don’t have to.) For starters, when U.S. markets opened this morning, the T-bond market didn’t show much of a reaction either way (down just 2 basis points in the late morning, i.e., basically unchanged) and the stock markets’ initial tumble was not out of line with what they’d been doing the past two weeks (the S&P 500 fell almost 11%), going into the weekend. The snowballing of money out of the stock market and into the T-bond market is something that happened later in the day, not a plausible initial reaction to the downgrade. But plausibly the downgrade added to the general climate of fear, which got a lot more heated by the afternoon, so  . . . it still seems that agent 6373 has accomplished her mission.

Many commentators have said that the unfolding crises in Italy, Spain, and the European Central Bank are both more dire and more unpredictable than the revelation that Washington is so dysfunctional that even a disgraced ratings agency thinks so. The weekend’s bigger announcement may have been that of ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet that the ECB would try to alleviate Italy’s and Spain’s debt crises by buying up huge chunks of their debt. Otherwise known as monetizing the debt, the modern-day equivalent of printing money to pay the bills.* The announcement seems to have helped Italy’s and Spain’s sovereign debt markets a bit, as interest rates on those bonds fell slightly, but it casts doubts on the ECB’s credibility as a tough-minded central bank that doesn’t go around picking up the tab for member countries’ large debts.

* You might ask: Doesn’t the Federal Reserve do the same thing when it buys U.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds as part of its open market operations and “quantitative easing”? Not quite, though it does count as monetizing the debt. The big difference is that the Fed, with a few distant exceptions like during the world wars, does not try to buy up U.S. government debt just to help out the government. (Will they still be so above the fray if and when hardly anybody wants to buy U.S. Treasuries? I’ll leave that one for my libertarian commenters.)

The beatings will continue until morale improves

4 August 2011

The stock markets are looking pretty Keynesian today. A 512-point (4.3%) drop in the Dow Jones average today, and drops of 4.8% and 5.1% in the S&P 500 and Nasdsaq; overall a drop of more than 10% (a.k.a. a “market correction”) in the past 10 days. Might it have something to do with the fact that Washington is obsessed with deficit-cutting while the rest of the world is obsessed with jobs and economic growth, or the lack thereof?

Jeff Macke of Yahoo! Finance’s Breakout blog puts it this way:

‘There’s a growing realization among even the most optimistic investors that the United States is entering a new recession — a dreaded “double-dip.” Adding to the pain is the sense that the government and Federal Reserve are out of both ideas and ways to stimulate the economy. Corporate America is sitting on record amounts of cash but is refusing to make new investments with so little end demand for its products. Consumers and corporations are hoarding cash, and the economy appears to be seizing. The debt ceiling debate was a fiasco, snuffing any remaining confidence traders had for help from Washington, D.C.’

Yes, Mr. President (and happy birthday, by the way), the time-suck that was the debt-ceiling negotiations was a “self-inflicted wound,” as you said last night. Now why couldn’t you have said the same about the debt ceiling itself? Worldwide investor confidence could not possibly have been inspired by this fight over a redundant institution that no other democratic country (besides Denmark) has and which serves no purpose besides political grandstanding. You may have looked like the only grownup in the room during that whole travesty, but I think the world would like to see a grownup with a clue. You’re talking about focusing on jobs now, but how on earth are you going to do that having just committed yourself to cutting government spending? If you were a Republican, the (specious) answer would be deregulate the hell out of everything, but traditionally Democrats have looked to fiscal stimuli, be they spending programs (Roosevelt), tax cuts (Kennedy-Johnson), or both (you in 2009). It looks to me like you’ve let the Republicans box you into a corner, and you’ve boxed yourself in even further by parroting their rhetoric about the primacy of deficit reduction and how government, like a family, has to spend less in hard times.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 took another hit today when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Pentagon could not absorb any more cuts beyond the $350 billion over 10 years in the first round of cuts. The second round calls for across-the-board cuts of $1.5 trillion, including $600 billion from the defense budget, if Congress can’t agree on specific cuts. Panetta said that would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.” I’ll pass on whether or not he’s right, but I’m pretty sure his objection and the military-industrial complex will carry the day. Which makes it more likely that (a) the budget ax falls even harder on ordinary families who would spend the money they’d receive from the government, or (b) the spending cuts just don’t happen, which is better for the economy but bad for the government’s credibility. The battle over that second round of cuts looks to be nasty, brutish, and horrifying.