…and many more for lower valuations!
Surprised? No, I didn’t think so.
(this article has only 1275 words, so you’ll have to scroll down to the end for the executive summary)
Let’s put it this way, no matter what I promise you, never let me hitch a ride on your back over the water (The scorpion and the frog)
Okay, let’s get serious. I’m not a perma bear. Actually, back in the 1990s, I was accused of being a naive perma bull regarding tech stocks. And back in 2004-2007 I was a die-hard bull on Swedish banks. I’m a realist, not an optimist or pessimist. Then again, everybody says that about themselves.
Higher valuations warranted
Well, why not? There is no law saying valuations should be this or that. If valuations are where they are now, they can always move upward yet some. Sure, it’s uncharted territory but so is all of the future anyway.
With rates approaching zero or even going negative, discount rates are approaching zero too, so valuations could in theory go to infinity. The least you could expect is that valuations go a little higher to start with. Forget about the risk of inflation or rates going higher anytime soon; nobody could afford such a development, least of all governments and central banks.
Increased debt equals (necessary) buying power. Lower rates carry a second order boon, in terms of higher willingness to borrow, as well as increased need to borrow to pay for more expensive assets.
Money printing means more money for the same amount of assets. Ergo: higher prices for all assets. And if growth stays low, and consumer prices continue to deflate, there will be even more money over for stocks and other assets.
Tech progress is accelerating, which promises much higher productivity and growth rates. More and more industries are becoming digital and thus subject to Moore’s law. We have only seen the beginning of that process. Higher future growth potential warrants higher valuation multiples today.
Increasing margins. In addition, digital industries means almost zero production cost and thus higher margins. We’ve already seen proof of that in terms of record high corporate profit margins, as well as a market response in terms of record high Price/Sales-type valuation metrics (see Hussman’s median non fin m.cap to GVA e.g.)
To summarize the case for higher valuations: It’s a new era, a new era of higher growth, higher margins, lower rates, more base money, more credit, and not least a new era in terms of simply a continuation of the already clear trend toward higher valuations (the “why not” argument)
Arguments against higher valuations…
Increased competitive pressure: The churn of companies among the Fortune 500, e.g., have increased steadily in parallel with the last 50 years of technological progress. The reason is that increased digitalization, open source culture and the proliferation of infrastructure companies (like Amazon Web Services) has lowered the barriers to entry in almost all industries to close to zero.
Increased risk of brand disasters: The share of companies suddenly losing 20% or more of their brand value has increased in much the same way as the churn of top tier companies.
The sharing economy: It’s a good thing for the environment to share resources, and it’s very good for the trail blazers such as Uber and AirBnB, but the competing companies lose more than Uber gains. So go ahead and give Uber and AirBnB a high valuation but you have to subtract so much more from other transportation and hospitality companies.
Automation: Oh, yeah, it’s great with robo-hamburger flippers, driverless cars, trucks, planes etc., with travel and banking/insurance chat bots and so on. Just remember that for every person losing their job to a machine, there is less purchasing power around. In time, competition will drive down margins again to whatever the toughest competitor is willing to swallow, so higher margins from automation are very temporary. Well, unless, we’ve seen the end of capitalism itself.
Uncertainty: Due to general monetary madness and political scrambling, the regulatory uncertainty is the highest in many decades. That leads to hoarding and lower investment which in turn causes lower growth. Lower potential growth of course means lower warranted valuation of near term sales and profits.
Currency and trade wars in the wake of slowing growth, higher debt burdens and increasingly imbalanced economies that have made beggar-thy-neighbor policies more or less the only alternative exacerbates the problems with regulatory uncertainty and low growth.
Exhausted resources: Unless you accept the pollyannaish notion of technology-driven productivity, perhaps it’s the other way round. It could be that the low hanging fruits of globalization, of urbanization, of emerging markets of on-line education, of population growth etc. have already been harvested. In that scenario, growth will continue to fall.
Pollution: Oh, I almost forgot the environment. There will always be islands of opportunity, not least for environmental plays (clean energy, pollution clean-up, carbon capture etc.). However, companies are increasingly burdened by demands on clean production, of emission compensation, of fair wages… It’s a good thing of course, just not for sales, profits, growth and valuations. At least not for the investment horizons I consider (years and a few decades).
Cycles. An last but not least, during all of investment history, margins, valuations, growth, rates and crises have exhibited more or less clear cycles of highs and lows. Right now, most gauges are at screaming extremes, and like coiled springs they are ready to both return to their means and show some inversion too while they’re at it (in order to preserve historical averages). That does not bode well for the buy and hold with leverage crowd.
Summary of the case for lower valuations: Time Tested Truths. If you accept the “old man’s view” of the world, we’ll continue to see cycles of high and low valuations, just as we’ll see highs and lows in rates, in growth, in greed, in margins, in debt. As a final nail in the proverbial coffin, we’ve already rehearsed what’s coming twice in the last 15 years.
As an optimist I think we’re headed downward (soon)
As a final word, please note that you’re a pessimist if you think we’re doomed to think the current high valuations (and thus low future returns) are permanent. And you’re an optimist, if you think some kind of natural pullback is imminent, leading to lower valuations and thus higher return prospects going forward:
Summary – New era or Old truths?
Are higher or lower valuations warranted? What will be the next step?
Money printing, negative interest rates, automation and productivity, new era growth, margins and thus new era valuations?
Will the world and the psychology of the people in it stay mostly the same, with cycles cycling back again from the current perverse levels?
-Make no mistake, authorities will fall over themselves in trying to prevent a re-set. The problem is that they’ve already done that and they are most likely soon about to be exposed for the frauds they are.
It’s all a confidence game, and right now confidence too is at an extreme high where even highly intelligent people consider the possibility that Yellen, Kuroda etc. can actually pull it off….
“What were they thinking” is the future’s most likely judgement of us all
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