Sunday, April 25, 2021

Running of the Bulls

Prince, Bowie, or Metallica? I’m still trying to figure out what will be the theme song for 2021. I’d been thinking “Party Like It’s 1999” by Prince until last week, when I suggested that “Space Oddity” by David Bowie might be more relevant if stock prices continue to hurtle into outer space. Either song would be consistent with a continuation of the bull market in stocks. Alternatively, perhaps I need to consider a far more pessimistic theme song like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica.

There’s an old stock market adage: “They don’t ring a bell at the top.” My study of financial history suggests that the adage isn’t true: Credit crunches serve as bells. More specifically, financial crises that trigger a widespread credit crunch tend to cause bear markets in stocks as investors correctly anticipate that the credit crisis will cause a recession (Fig. 1). During credit crunches, the S&P 500 VIX, a measure of stock market volatility, tends to soar along with the yield spread between high-yield bonds and the 10-year Treasury bond (Fig. 2).

While the VIX doesn’t rise on a predictable schedule as does the sun, its rising can also shed light. In addition to rising during bear markets, it also rises during stock market corrections and minor panic attacks (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). Since the start of the bull market in 2009, Joe and I have counted 69 panic attacks. The latest one occurred when the Nasdaq fell 10.9% from February 12 through March 8, mostly on jitters over the backup in bond yields. By the way, we count last year’s selloff as a panic attack rather than an outright bear market. (See Table of S&P 500 Panic Attacks Since 2009.)

The unusual frequency of panic attacks during the current bull market suggests that investors have remained jittery ever since the last bear market during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and prone to hear warning bells. Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), suffered from tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears as a result of injuries sustained in World War I. Similarly, investors traumatized by the GFC remain easily convinced that another bear market is imminent.

No alt text provided for this image Yet despite their propensity to panic, stock market investors are reveling in a festive mood with the bulls stampeding. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) portrays American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights; merrymaking in the festive atmosphere provides them with an escape from reality, for the time being.

Contrarians aren’t indulging in the stock market’s revelry; they see too many indicators flashing that stock market sentiment is unduly bullish. For them, the sun will soon set, providing a good reason to take profits before darkness.

On the other hand, there is plenty of liquidity to drive stock prices higher without a significant correction. M2 is up by an unprecedented $4.2 trillion y/y through February (Fig. 5). Furthermore, over the past 12 months through February, personal saving totaled a record-shattering $3.1 trillion. All that occurred before the third round of relief checks ($1,400 per eligible person) was sent by the Treasury to over 250 million Americans since mid-March.

MAMU, here we come! In my latest book, The Fed and the Great Virus Crisis, I predicted that MMT + TINA = MAMU, where MMT = Modern Monetary Theory, TINA = there is no alternative to stocks, and MAMU = the Mother of All Meltups. (See the relevant excerpt.)

That might turn out to be the new adage for our times. Now let’s have a look at the latest running of the bulls:

(1) Party like it’s 1999. The Nasdaq continues to party like its 1999 (Fig. 6). The tech-heavy index is up 104.8% since March 23, 2020 through Friday’s close. The Nasdaq bottomed on October 8, 1998 following the Russian debt and LTCM crisis. It was up 113.4% on a comparable temporal basis to the current bull run. If the Nasdaq’s bull run is about to turn into a stampede, as happened during the last leg of the 1999/2000 bull market, then it could double in value over the next six to nine months as it did back then. The S&P 500 is up 87.1% since March 23, 2020 through Friday’s close. That’s well ahead of 1999, when it was up 33.4% on a comparable temporal basis (Fig. 7).

(2) Stretched valuation. The S&P 500’s forward P/E continues to fluctuate around 22.0, as it has over the past year. That’s not far off its record 25.7 valuation multiple during April 1999. On the other hand, the forward price-to-sales ratio of the S&P 500 has been setting new record highs for most of the past year, rising to 27.9 on Friday (Fig. 8).

(3) Bullish sentiment running wild. The Bull/Bear Ratio compiled by Investors Intelligence was relatively elevated at 3.77 during the week of April 13 (Fig. 9). By historical standards, the percentage of bulls was particularly high at 63.4%. Bears are relatively scarce at 16.8%, as are investors expecting a correction at 19.8%.

The running of the bulls is even more discernible in the Bull/Bear ratios based on survey data compiled by the American Association of Individual Investors (Fig. 10).

(4) Fun for almost everyone. Measures of market breadth show that the bull market has broadened since early last September. The ratio of the equal-weighted to the market-cap weighted S&P 500 stock price indexes has been rising since it bottomed on September 1 (Fig. 11). The percentage of S&P 500 stock prices above their 200-day moving averages (dma) rose to 96.2% on April 16, exceeding the 96.0% reached on October 16, 2009 (Fig. 12). The S&P 500 was 15.4% above its 200-dma yesterday (Fig. 13). That’s a relatively high reading. During April 16, the percentage of S&P 500 companies with positive y/y stock prices changes was 93.1%, around previous cyclical highs (Fig. 14).

(5) Another adage. Here’s another old stock market adage: “Sell in May and go away.” While doing so might make sense this year since bullish sentiment is so high, I’ve never been a fan of this adage. It doesn’t always work, and even when it does, the investor is left with the problem of determining when to get back into the market. Proponents of the adage say to come back after October, but there have been plenty of times when that advice would have meant missing a summer rebound that followed a selloff in May.

(6) Speed bumps. The meltups in some asset prices are starting to run into some regulatory headwinds. We anticipated this might happen in the SPAC market. We last did so in the March 16 Morning Briefing. We wrote: “The bottom line is that a few of the speculative excesses in the market are under scrutiny by the regulators. The SEC is warning about SPACs with conflicts of interest, and the major central banks are warning about cryptocurrencies being used for illegal activities.”

On April 21, CNBC posted an article titled “SPAC transactions come to a halt amid SEC crackdown, cooling retail investor interest.” It noted: “After more than 100 new deals in March alone, issuance is nearly at a standstill with just 10 SPACs in April, according to data from SPAC Research. The drastic slowdown came after the Securities and Exchange Commission issued accounting guidance that would classify SPAC warrants as liabilities instead of equity instruments. If it becomes law, deals in the pipeline as well as existing SPACs would have to go back and recalculate their financials in 10-Ks and 10-Qs for the value of warrants each quarter.”

Cryptocurrencies also have had a bad case of the jitters over the past week or so on rumors that the Treasury Department could be looking to crack down on financial institutions for money laundering using cryptocurrency. During her congressional nomination hearing on January 19, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen suggested that lawmakers “curtail” the use of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Her concern is that they are “mainly” used for illegal activities, including “terrorist financing” and “money laundering.”

Adding to the jitters in most financial asset markets was President Joe Biden’s plan, announced Thursday, April 22, to raise the capital gains tax from 20.0% to 39.6% for taxpayers earning over a million dollars. Since capital gains are also subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax, the new capital gains rate would be 43.4%. Larry Lindsey, who worked for the Bush administration, described this proposed increase as a “punitive” tax on the wealth.

On the other hand, Goldman Sachs opined on Friday, April 23 that the end version likely will be something considerably less severe, which explains why stock prices rebounded that same day following the previous day’s selloff on the Biden proposal.

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