Market Valuation: An Indicator of Long-term Sentiment

The ‘Fed Model’ did an excellent job of providing a base
line valuation for twenty years.  It provided a warning to investors
during the "bubble era" of 1999-2000.

Since then, there has been a sustained period where the model has indicated
that stocks were undervalued.  Some think that the model is
"broken."  There is another possible interpretation, which
deserves our consideration.

We all know that market valuations are not specific timing indicators.  At
"A Dash" we believe that they are better interpreted as long-term
sentiment indicators.  Instead of viewing the Fed Model as broken, one can
look at market history and understand why investor sentiment has been extremely
negative for an extended period of time.

This is extremely important since it directly addresses the risk/reward for the
2007 market.

Will this be the year when Misguided Gloom
comes to an end?

To answer this question, it is helpful to consider market history over the
relevant period.  Take a look at the timeline (click to enlarge).

Timeline_1
The red line shows the level of over- and under-valuation of the S&P 500 during the period using the Fed model as our indicator.  The range is about 60% over-valued  in late 1999, to about 40% under-valued for most of the last few years.  Check here for more detail.

Y2K – Internet – Technology Bubble
The 1998-2000 time period was truly
exceptional, but not in the way investors thought at the time.  Market veterans always worry when someone suggests that
"this
time is different
" and so it proved during the Internet/technology
bubble.

Economic growth was extremely strong, with real GDP growing in the 4-5% range for several consecutive years.  This growth rate was both astounding and unsustainable, but to many, it seemed like a new era of prosperity.  In retrospect we can see that part of the growth was artificial.  Many businesses, for example, bought new computers rather than worry about how the old ones would deal with the Y2K problem.  Internet IPO’s flourished for a time, ordering plenty of new equipment and software.  Labor markets were stretched thin, with marginal workers drawn into the labor force.  This put participation rates at record highs.

The stock market, and especially technology stocks, reached incredible valuations.  Individual investors turned to day trading and speculated in IPO’s.  The savvy professionals who sold stocks short were repeatedly burned and finally gave up.  It was a setup for major losses.

The 2001 Recession

The 2001 recession was relatively brief and relatively mild.  It was so mild that many did not realize it was happening.  It lasted for about eight months, from March, 2001 until November, 2001.  Real GDP declined by a fraction of a percent during this period, and actually increased during the calendar year.  Market analysts had been looking forward in their estimates.  In March, the peak of economic activity, the forward earnings estimates on the S&P 500 were about seven percent lower than four months earlier.  By November, forward earnings estimates had declined over seventeen percent from the peak.  This time the analysts were wrong, since November actually marked the trough of economic activity.

Future articles will discuss our conclusions more extensively, but an important fact leaps out.  Current investors who have not studied the "bubble era" carefully may associate the stock market collapse with the recession.  Putting aside the discrepancy in timing, the recession was too mild to create such a major effect.  The stock market declined because excessively positive sentiment — irrational exuberance — had carried it to levels not justified by the fundamentals.

The Economic Recovery

The economic recovery from the 2001 recession has been the subject of plenty of analysis by Wall Street Researchers.  Most of that analysis is very poor.  Researchers compare the recovery period with all past recoveries, trying to use a cookie-cutter approach.  The cycle pattern is the basis for their forecasts.

This is silly, and it is time someone said so.

The current recovery period has been very different because the time preceding the recession was different — a lot different.  In addition, the economic recovery was inhibited by the 9/11 attacks, the prelude to the Iraq War, a major strike, and a related period of business caution.  These all deserve more detailed discussion, including the impact on investor sentiment.

(to be continued – but I think you can see where this is going.  The current market sentiment is stuck in the period of misguided gloom.)

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3 comments

  • Bill a.k.a. NO DooDahs January 12, 2007  

    Valuation metrics are a long-term sentiment indicator for indivdual stocks as well. Value investing is a mean-reverting sentiment TRADE with a long payoff horizon.

  • muckdog January 13, 2007  

    Is there a lot of gloom out there? How are you measuring gloom? Looking at a moving average (50dma) of put/call ratio which to me doesn’t show gloom or exuberance right now. But the Investors Intelligence survey indicates quite a bit of optimism out there. (These two are my favorite sentiment indicators).

  • Tom Drake April 5, 2007  

    Dash of Insight indeed!
    A good friend just pointed me your way, and I am grateful. I thought I had read it all on the FED Model, but I hadn’t.
    I grew tired of Hussman’s incessant criticism of the model and his persistent losses (mainly losses of opportunity, to be fair).
    I have mainly relied upon some personal tweaks of more or less traditional sentiment data for the short term and some econoic data for the longer term. But now I see I simply must pay attention to the Model.
    I no longer have access to Yardenmi’s version nor a subscrption to Thomson data. I am a personal investor. Do you have any advice on either an accessible updating model site or the source of data?
    Thanks so much for your insights.