Category Archives: asset bubbles

22/10/17: Leverage risk and CAPE: Why Rob Shiller Might Be Wrong

Rob Shiller recently waxed lyrical about the fact that - by his own metrics - the markets are overpriced, yet no crash is coming because there is not enough 'leverage in the system' to propagate any shocks to systemic levels.

The indicator Shiller used to define overpricing is his own CAPE - Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio - and the indicator does indeed flash red:

CAPE is defined by dividing the S&P 500 index by the 10-year moving average of index components' earnings. The long-run average of CAPE is 16, and the index currently sits above 31, making the current markets valuations trailing those of the bubble peak (using recent/modern comparatives).

So the markets are very expensive. But what Shiller says beyond this mechanical observation is very important. His view is that these levels of valuations are 'sustainable' in the medium term because there is very little leverage used by investors in funding these levels of stock prices. In the nutshell, this says that if there is any major correction in the markets, investors are unlikely to be hit by massive margin calls, triggering panic sell-offs. So any correction will be short-lived and will not trigger a systemic crisis.

All fine with the latter part of the argument, if we only look at the stock market brokerage accounts leverage, ignoring other forms of leverage.  And we can only do this at a peril.

Investor is a household. Even an institutional one, albeit with a stretch. When asset prices correct downward, income received by investors falls (dividends and capital gains are cut) and investor borrowing capacity falls as well (less wealth means lower borrowing capacity). But debt levels remain the same.  Worse, cost of funding debt rises: as banks and other financial intermediaries see their own assets base eroding, they raise the cost of borrowing to replace lost income and capital base with higher earnings from lending. Normally, the Central Banks can lower cost of borrowing in such instances to compensate for increased call on funds. But we are not in a normal world anymore.

Meanwhile, unlike in the bubble era, investors/households are leveraged not in the investment markets, but in consumption markets. Debt levels carried by investors today are higher than debt levels carried by investors in the and pre-2007 era. And these debts underwrite basics of consumption and investment: housing, cars, student loans etc (see Which means that in an event of any significant shock to the markets, investors' debt carry costs are likely to rise, just as their wealth is likely to fall. This might not trigger a market collapse, but it will push market recovery out.

An added leverage dimension ignored by Shiller is that of the corporates. During the crises, cash-rich and/or liquid corporates can compensate for falling asset prices by repurchasing stocks. But corporates are just now completing an almost decade-long binge in accumulating debt. If the cost of debt carry rises for them too, they will be the unlikely candidates to support re-leveraging necessary to correct for an adverse asset prices shock.

I would agree with Shiller that, given current conditions, timing the markets correction is going to be very hard, even as CAPE indicator continues to flash red. But I disagree with his view that only margin account leverage matters in propagating shocks to a systemic level.

14/10/17: Happy Times in the Rational Markets

Two charts, both courtesy of Holger Zschaepitz @Schuldensuehner:

In simple terms, combined value of bond and stock markets is currently at around USD137 trillion or 179% of global GDP. Put slightly differently, that is 263% of global private sector GDP. There is no rational model on Earth that can explain these valuations. 

Since the start of this year, the two markets gained roughly USD15 trillion in value, just as the global economy is now forecast to gain USD3.93 trillion in GDP over the full year 2017. Based on the latest IMF forecasts, the first 9.5 months of stock markets and bonds markets appreciation are equivalent to to total global GDP growth for 2017, 2018, 2019 and a quarter of 2020. That is: nine and a half months of 'no bubbles anywhere' financial growth add up to thirty nine months of real economic activity.

Happy times, all.

15/5/15: Monetary Titanic & Bubbles Troubles

Food for thought this morning - two links:

Note, first link above cites low worker productivity. Here's a slide from my recent (this week) presentation on same: 

And here is my view on the Irish property bubble (in development, but not yet fully manifested):

What is interesting about the Irish property markets is that whilst price and activity levels are not yet at concern points, the rates of increases in commercial rents and declines in yields, and rates of rises in residential property prices in Dublin are clearly fuelling a massive hype by real estate agents and the media. This is hardly consistent with a 'healthy' market.

I will be speaking about the financial valuations bubbles, focusing on M&As and strategy for avoiding these, next week at so stay tuned for slides on that next week.