Dear Clients and Prospective Clients:
In his wonderful book A Short History of Financial Euphoria, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that human beings ascribe higher and higher levels of intelligence to people based on how much money they make and business success they have. The opposite would be that a lower and lower level of intelligence are ascribe to investors and business people as difficult economic and stock market circumstances dominate the news. Charlie Munger, who is the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, told Stanford Business School MBA candidates a few years ago that psychology is the most undervalued discipline in business. I’d like to combine the wisdom of the timeless academic Galbraith and the respect for psychology from the super-successful investor Munger to ponder our current market conditions.
The stock market in the U.S. has already fallen 50% from peak to trough since October of 2007 to today. Among many admirable money managers and stock pickers, we at Smead Capital Management appear to have very little intelligence and our IQ seems to get lower by the week. This decline ranks as the worst bear market by magnitude since the 1929-32 market, which lost over 80% of its value from peak to trough.
Perma-bear, Jeremy Grantham, who because of his negative stance on the stock market over the last 10 years is ascribed a great deal of intelligence. He has written extensively recently that he believes “high quality” U.S. stocks provide good long-term value at these levels, but strongly cautions investors that these kind of psychological business crises can overshoot to the downside. He therefore urges consistent buying, but warns that the S&P 500 Index could drop as low as 600 (around 770 today) before it makes a bottom. His main reason for the concern about the downside is that negative psychology and a negative feedback loop can dictate a great deal of panic through human behavior.
It is our view that additional major downside movement in the U.S. stock market could only be justified by a much greater economic contraction than the one we have seen so far (5% contraction year to year) or a substantial increase in U.S. Treasury bond interest rates. Many of the most negative stock market prognosticators look at the market bottoms in 1932, 1974 and 1982. Those market bottoms averaged price-to-earnings ratios of 6-8 and dividends yields of 6%. The 1932 bottom included 25% unemployment and was part of four years averaging 12% year to year contraction in the economy. The economy was chopped in half in four years. The other two bottoms at those historically low average P/E ratios (1974 and 1982) saw Treasury interest rate peaks of 9 to 10% and 13 to 15%, respectively. Therefore, without a near complete collapse in the economy or dramatically higher Treasury interest rates, we don’t see those worst-case scenarios being realized.
None of this makes the bullets we are all sweating fit through our pores any better. However, Grantham points out that his quantitative models show above average returns the next seven years on the S&P 500 Index. Bargain prices on outstanding companies with bright futures outweigh the negative psychology around us and the low level of intelligence ascribed to us for saying so.