In 2000, Robert Shiller’s book, aptly titled, Irrational Exuberance, contributed to the stock market crash that saw the S&P 500 lose close to 50% of its value following excessive valuations linked to the technology bubble that formed at the end of the 1990s.
Since the start of 2017, we have seen a sort of “nirvana” on the markets, with over twenty successive record highs on the major US indexes, the lowest levels of volatility on the majority of asset classes, and a fall in bonds that, surprisingly, has not had any impact on other asset classes.
A climate of blind euphoria
This generalised optimism and absence of volatility is leading some investors to hope that this time, the markets’ exuberance is rational and therefore sustainable. But, beyond hope, is this environment of blind euphoria not a precursor to the next correction?
Since the election of Donald Trump, the prevailing sense of scepticism has given way to a wave of enthusiasm that is sweeping aside any fears. The publication of company results that were for once above analysts’ expectations, the continued European growth recovery and the effects of Brexit on the UK economy, which are so far very limited, have also fed the exceptional rise in stock market indexes in both the US and Europe.
Over the last twelve months, this rebound has exceeded 20% for most stock markets around the world. Several records have been broken and a number of indexes recently moved out of their fluctuation ranges, which is being interpreted by a majority of technical analysts as a new step on the path to highs well above current levels. Some are even claiming that higher interest rates following the multiple Fed hikes expected in 2017, record valuations for US-listed companies, and sustainably low volatility could become the norm in the long term, feeding “rational bubble”.
The new normal
Analysis of the fundamentals should dampen this blissful optimism. Even though Trump’s programme has given new life to the notion of reflation, which has supported the general sense of enthusiasm, the political calendar, with the lack of economic visibility that it implies, is hanging like a sword of Damocles which cannot be ignored by anyone.
The outcomes of the upcoming elections in the major European countries are also highly uncertain and could endanger the foundations of the EU. Brexit will get under way in 2017 and reveal its real consequences only gradually. The positive impact of reflation in the United States should not be felt for several quarters either.
Last, and most important, the winding up of asset-purchase programmes by central banks (if this happens as announced) will mark a major shift, with the end of the implicit guarantee provided by these purchases over the past five years potentially penalising equity and bond markets.
It is always risky to try and predict how long speculative bubbles will last or when they will burst; and this has in fact been the main subject of study of many a Nobel Prize-winner in recent years. The late 1990s bubble must serve as a cautionary tale: Alan Greenspan’s speech in 1996 came some four years before the dotcom bubble burst. Investors who interpreted these remarks as a sign to pull out of equity markets sold when the Dow Jones was around 6,500 points, yet the index continued to rise until January 2000, reaching close to 12,000. This highlights the difficulty in pinpointing the moment to sell even when worrying factors are building up.
Capturing and preserving
Portfolio managers like us have a duty to capture these recovery phases which contribute significantly to markets’ historical performances, especially in the case of equity markets. However, even in these good times, capital preservation must remain the key objective for long-term asset management, pushing us to protect our investments against a potential wave of corrections that could wipe out our gains.
Today, the main certainties are these: equity valuations in the United States are reaching levels that can only herald accelerated growth for the next few years, and the upcoming elections in Europe will spark a sharp resurgence in volatility in the coming months. The combination of these two factors does not, however, signify that a correction is imminent, and any rash decisions would raise the risk of missing part of the current upturn.
A risky choice
However, investors’ gut reaction to volatility’s return must not be underestimated. We are in a classic phase of market euphoria, where investors are mesmerised by their belief in a paradigm shift and refuse to see the many warning signs. For investment portfolios, this could lead to excessive exposure to risk – a pitfall that active asset managers must avoid.
Analysing stock-market cycles and understanding speculative bubbles lies at the heart of recent economic and financial research. Avoiding massive corrections is certainly the Holy Grail for every active asset manager and is the primary expectation of both private and institutional clients. The current market euphoria as well as the performances seen in recent months, both in equities and in interest rate instruments, require us to protect our positions, and betting on rational exuberance looks like a risky choice.
CEO Private Banking