In our mid-month Of Special Interest, “Valuation Extremes: Here Be Dragons,” we examined valuation outliers as a measure of market sentiment. The hypothesis was that exuberance is reflected in investors’ willingness to hold stocks priced on an aggressive “vision” of the future; companies that are either habitually unprofitable or trade at a Price/Sales ratio above 15x.
Stock market valuations may be considered the ultimate in fundamental measures, but they can just as easily be considered long-wave sentiment indicators. What causes equity investors to pay as little as 10x for S&P 500 Normalized Earnings at one point (March 2009), but pay more than 30x a dozen years later? The Fed printing press was in overdrive at both points; only emotions can account for the difference.
We get irked when TV pundits misrepresent the mood of equity investors as unduly pessimistic based one or two (or zero) data points. Among the dozens of “Attitudinal” indicators we track, an overwhelming majority show professional and retail investors have jumped back into the fray.
The need to sound contrarian has become a borderline obsession among market pundits. Media opportunities for talking heads have exploded in the last decade, forcing those who hold the safest consensus views to falsely portray themselves as lonely and misunderstood market mavericks.
This issue of Leuthold Quick Takes reviews the conflicted nature of investor sentiment as seen by Doug Ramsey (Chief Investment Officer) and Jim Paulsen (Chief Investment Strategist).
As the market rebound has extended, we’ve noted its striking similarities with the rally of 1999—one that might have been the most speculative in U.S. history.
It’s been one of the worst years on record for diversification, with our hypothetical All Asset No Authority (AANA) portfolio down 7.2% YTD through yesterday. That’s the second-worst year for AANA since 1972, and there’s probably not enough time left for performance to undercut 2008 (-24.9%) for the bottom spot.
Tax cuts, a strong economy, and daily stock market records have lifted measures of investor sentiment to levels not seen in two decades. But sentiment is only a slightly better timing tool than valuations (which is not saying much), and there’s plenty of room for excitement to build before a final top is at hand.
Evidently, being a bull in a bull market is no longer good enough.
We revisit our “Red Flag Indicator” of prior bull market tops versus today. Usually most of these internal market measures will deteriorate in advance of the final bull market peak. At the latest S&P high, three of the seven leading measures had raised Red Flags, by not confirming, but two of them (DJ Transports and the NYSE A/D Line), are within just ticks of new bull market highs.
This month’s “Of Special Interest” allots eight pages to the (opposition) view that the correction is over, featuring charts we find the most threatening to our bearish stance. Based on its sudden popularity among the press and punditry, the indicator in this chart—highlighting the air-pocket in investor confidence—perhaps should have been part of that feature. Here’s why it wasn’t.
Last year will certainly go down as the bull market year in which investors were finally retrained (as they usually are, late in every bull market) to buy the dips. Most of our Attitudinal measures—ranging from option activity and bear fund assets, to surveys of investor sentiment—show retail investors finally shaking off the worry that gripped them for most of the bull market’s first five years.
Extreme market viewpoints get the headlines, but it’s baked into our disciplines that we will (occasionally) be noncommittal.