The coronavirus pandemic has been excellent for investors, but most now realize that the stock market’s extraordinary performance is not based on fundamentals, which ceased to matter some time ago.
Central banks have been driving asset prices with massive liquidity infusions and zero interest rates. Consumption and corporate earnings are underpinned by large government transfer payments, fiscal stimulus and industry support.
Will it last? The consensus is that most assets are overpriced. Prices ultimately are the present value of future cash flows. Authorities have manipulated the discount rate but altering underlying long-term cash flows, which are driven by the real economy, is more difficult. Low volatility, engineered by central banks, also encourages exuberant prices. At some stage, profligate government deficits may be reigned by either winding back spending or increasing taxes. These policies may also drive inflation, requiring tighter monetary policy and higher rates.
Currently high stock prices expose investors to the risk of a sudden correction, when the game of musical chairs stops unexpectedly. Given that almost all of the gains have been in price rather than income (dividends, interest, etc.), the vulnerability is exacerbated. The unstable structure of the financial system — high leverage, shadow banks, illiquidity, unresolved linkages, the rise in trend following investors — means that any problem may trigger a major adjustment.
Investors’ options are limited. You could believe in the permanency of a “new normal.” Risky asset investments are then justified on the basis that authorities must ensure high- and rising asset prices, primarily as the alternative is too awful to contemplate. This assumes that policy options remain unconstrained indefinitely.
Or investors can rely on momentum, essentially Keynes’ so-called beauty contest theory of investing, which anticipated today’s “meme stocks.” Successful investment requires investors to select the most popular faces among all judges, rather than those they may personally find the most attractive. The difficulty is knowing the judge’s mind and recognizing when to sell before the music stops.
Third, investors can park their money in cash. This means accepting exceptionally low returns perhaps for a prolonged period and, worst of all, missing out on further gains.
An alternative is to reposition defensively into assets or businesses with reliable income streams operating in essential industries or selling staples. These traditional “widows and orphans” investments are more difficult to find today. “Safe” government bonds now offer little income but high risk. Stock and property prices are highly correlated, reflecting investor behavior as well as the common reliance on leverage. More liquid and better-quality assets frequently come under selling pressure when leveraged investors need to raise cash. Today, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a receding surge leaves everyone stranded.
Fourth, investors can seek to benefit from higher inflation, switching to stocks that benefit from increasing prices. But the impact on equity prices will depend on whether it is profit inflation (that is, end-product prices rise) or cost inflation, including increases in wages. If it is the latter, then the squeeze on earnings may adversely affect equity valuations. Combined with higher rates, this may adversely affect stocks. Another alternative is inflation-linked securities, such as Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS)
Fifth, investors could go “off-piste,” believing that existing policies are unsustainable and the economic system is irredeemable broken. This favors crypto-currencies, precious metals or collectibles — non-traditional assets whose supply is naturally constrained. The ability of the state to confiscate, tax and regulate, as well as reliance on courts to enforce rights, complicates this quest for freedom.
The ultra-rich and some high-net worth individuals have gone off-grid already by moving into private markets. Concerned about manipulated and gamified markets, they focus now on non-listed real businesses and assets as well as private debt, sacrificing liquidity and transparency for better economics, privacy and control. Unfortunately, these options are limited for ordinary individuals — a different form of inequality.
Investors therefore face Hobson’s illusory choice, where only one thing is actually offered. They can lose by betting against price rises or that prices keep rising.
Policymakers, meanwhile, continue to compound decades of mistakes. They must now keep increasing debt and maintaining low rates in order to keep asset prices high. Government deficits are essential to maintaining economic activity. Kicking the can down the road is the only way to ensure that the day of reckoning is deferred — NIMTO (not in my term of office). This forces investors to go out further on the risk curve to generate returns.
Perhaps investors nowadays should stick to comedian Will Rogers’s famous investment advice: “Don’t gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.”
Satyajit Das is a former banker. He is the author of ”A Banquet of Consequences – Reloaded: How we got into this mess we’re in and why we need to act now’ (Viking 2021).