Increased globalization after the fall of the wall in 1989 spurred low inflation growth, which in turn increased willingness to take on debt — for governments, households and companies. The rising mountains of debt made the economy increasingly sensitive. As leverage grew, politicians thus provided a safety net, a “put”, in order to avoid a bout of deflationary deleveraging. Thus recurring central bank Buy The Dip action taught ordinary investors to do the same.
-Buy The Fucking Dip
Buying every dip, ever faster and with increasing conviction of the strategy’s efficacy pushed volatility to historical lows. Stock prices simply couldn’t fall as much as in the pre-BTFD era before buy the dippers pushed the price up again.
Low volatility, zero interest rates and central bank puts encouraged even more debt on all levels and every domain of the economy. Why wouldn’t you use some leverage to increase your earnings when it seemed basically risk-free. Growth over the last 10 years was “not great, not terrible“, but most likely way higher than it would have been without rapidly growing leverage. The 2010’s are widely known as the weakest economic recovery ever after a recession. That very fact masked that the asset price boom was the greatest and most insane on record, taking the valuations of stocks and bonds to levels never seen before.
The situation with very low volatility, zero interest rates, huge debts, maximum risk-on mentality, TINA (there is no alternative to stocks), 3x historical valuation levels for stocks*, and levered risk-parity trades, was dubbed “The New Normal”. Any sane person of course understood it wouldn’t last, but most people still couldn’t resist being along for the ride, hoping to get off at the top.
* Dr Hussman’s cyclically adjusted valuation multiples demonstrate stocks in February 2020 reaching levels more than 3x their historical norm.
Unfortunately, this time’s not different from all previous asset price bubbles. The cycle turns when it hurts the largest number of people. It doesn’t matter what the trigger is, but once th cycle is ready, it turns.
The Old Normal
So, you’d better prepare for a return to sanity, to historical norms, to the old normal.
The virus was just the trigger, the pin to the bubble, the smallest and first of dominoes.
As risk-parity schemes come crumbling down, causing simultaneous sell-offs in stocks and bonds, each catalyzing more selling in the other, an all but unstoppable deleveraging process is set in motion. Selling begets selling as more and more margin calls have to be met. Rising bond prices no longer cover for falling stocks — quite the opposite.
When leveraged bets are liquidated, excessive debt melt away and disappear, taking trillions of perceived wealth with it. That wealth is not easily conjured into existence again. Hence, the artificially high valuation levels have to return to their old normal, most likely not to be seen again for a generation.
After a decade or two of free money and high valuations, real value investors are few, small and far apart. The market will have a hard time finding the real bottom, until those investors find stocks interesting from a dividend or net asset point of view. As I keep repeating, when you pay for an asset, you want to know beforehand how to get your money back, from whom end when. Those questions were ignored so far in the 21st century, but I suspect they’ll come into vogue again.
In addition to all the negative factors above, the measures taken to stop the Covid-19 disease from spreading might even trigger a de-globalization, as supply chains are disrupted, and trade wars erupt in order to protect the local economy. Just as globalization was good for growth and low inflation, de-globalization pushes growth lower and inflation higher. The same goes for the WWII age cohort retiring. It was disinflationary as it provided a large group of workers and investors, but now turn inflationary, while at the same time liquidating their retirement nest eggs. So, more inflation, less growth and lower valuations are to be expected all else equal.
The old normal, with lower valuations, lower growth, less debt, less easy money, more risk aversion, less get rich quick schemes, more inflation, is nothing to be feared. That’s how most of history has looked. We all managed quite fine in that environment.
What’s really good about all this, is that people in their 20s get to buy assets at reasonable prices — prices that promise decent or even good returns. And they didn’t have to see a life time of savings go up in smoke. If you only had invested in stocks for 0-10 years before Covid-19 hit, it’s too bad getting this re-set, compared to. e.g., those who are closer to retirement.
Imagine being 65+ in 2020. If the virus doesn’t kill you, the stock market crash (half of the downside still to go) ate your savings — and inflation will eat your promised state pension. That’s a tough deal, compared to a healthy 20-30-year old with a life time of investing at attractive valuations ahead.
But first a LOT MORE of the New Crazy
We’re not done yet, though. The plague is only reaching the end of the beginning (March 25, 2020) and it’s about to get orders of magnitude worse before we see the peak crisis, including lockdowns, economic effects and crashing markets. And politicians are set to release one stimulus package crazier than the last. 1 TRILLION, 10 TRILLION, 25 TRILLION USD… who knows where the new crazy will end. One thing is for sure though, gold is the place to be through all this.
The total market value of gold should be a certain percentage of the amount of money needed for the system to run. As the amount of currency doubles, the price of gold in that currency should double. And if the price of gold had lagged for some time, as it has, it’s likely to do some catching up. How does 10 000 USD/ounce sound to you?
(Just to get a feel for where the price equlibrium for gold might be, to cover 40% of the amount of money, M2, in the US, gold has to rise to around 25 000 USD/oz)
NB: THIS POST IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED AS FINANCIAL ADVICE. THIS CONSTITUTES NO RECOMMENDATION TO BUY OR SELL ANY FINANCIAL INSTRUMENTS, GOLD OR WHATNOT. I HOLD NO LICENCES AND I NEVER GIVE FINANCIAL ADVICE. DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. CONSULT A LICENCED INVESTMENT ADVISER.