Peak Pessimism: the “evidence”

An Abundant World is asking in a comment what evidence I have for my claim we’re at a peak in the “low risk” behaviour, aka that we are at or just going past Peak Pessimism.

I was tempted to just answer “gut feeling”, and it’s largely that, but digging around I think I have some facts to back it up to some extent. Note though that it’s of course a biased selection in favour of my argument, and it’s not hard to find some counterfactuals. How they balance is where it’s hard to do any better than gut feeling.

The US investors “rotation” (from bonds to equity)

The argument has been made repeatedly and better than I can by the Reformed Broker who has close contact with key constituencies like his clients (high net worth individuals) and industry insiders. This also seems consistent with the general background noise in US-centric media.

Corporate deleveraging is (mostly) over

One great advantage of doing stock picking is that it forces you to be in touch with how businesses are doing on the ground — if through the rose tinted glasses of management reports. My view is somewhat biased because I’m primarily looking at UK-listed corporations. So this is subject to a “London view” bias, even if I select primarily companies with a world or at least European presence. This limitation notwithstanding, I have observed that the sharp change of mood in 2008-2009 from “leverage is good” to “we have too much debt” has essentially run its course. This seems equally true in the relatively few non-UK large caps I look at. The U-turn was sharp and violent — and with everybody doing it at the same time, it’s no surprise there’s been a world recession — but now it seems to me that most companies (which could afford it) have reasonable balance sheets, and more importantly now debt is at reasonable levels (or below reasonable if you’d put it in an a mathematical optimisation framework, for tax reasons if nothing else) management seem to have switched their mindsets from “reduce debt” to “keep it under control”, which is just a notch away from proactive optimism-driven investing.

Bubble virgins

That idea came to me from an article in Handelsblatt about German youth’s (people in their twenties) preferred savings vehicle being the plain bank savings account (which as we all know pays inflation at best, if you chase special deals). This made me realise that there’s a whole generation that has grown up without participating in any sizeable financial craze. The last properly bubbly event on the financial markets was the dot com/tech bubble, which is a good decade ago now. Outside Germany, this younger generation has seen a property bubble in many countries, but mostly as spectators, and it should be easy to sell them that non-property asset classes are different. I think this is a great tail wind for any potential financial asset/sector bubble. It would be a great surprise that this generation doesn’t get to take their turn at the “this time is different” game, like every one previous.

The nominal yield effect

While this is really just an iteration of the money illusion, lot of people are enamoured with the idea that bond (risk free) yields “have to go up”, just because the nominal yields are lower than average they’ve seen during their (investing) lifetime — conveniently, outside Japan you can pick any period and it works to some degree or other whatever backward looking period you choose. This is another push towards “high risk” assets, just to escape the expected “reversal to mean” in “risk free”. This view is based primarily on nominal optics (good luck trying to extract a fact-based narrative from these people) and as such a background force away from anything “risk free”. Being a nominal effect it’s also immune to fundamental changes: it applies regardless of changes in any fact-based scenarios on rates paths.

The 3/5 year rear view mirror effect

Many financial tools, and most forms of historical performance assessment exercises are by convention based on looking at 3 to 5 year time periods, or shorter. This means that the 2009 trough will soon drop from the charts and all people will be seeing is a perennially up trending market, with the odd gentle correction to avoid frightening those who, rightly, would run away from exponential growth.

Troll fatigue

That’s the simple observation that inflationistas, gold bugs and other survivalists are getting increasingly unable to justify why Armageddon is taking so long to happen. Enough defections at the margin, of the less vocal followers, is a great push towards less risk free investing.

Small anecdotal fun “evidence” here: Zero Hedge is going out of fashion apparently.

Structural reforms work slowly

This is perhaps most relevant to the Eurozone: the main problem with structural reforms as a policy tool is that they work very slowly and they often make things worse first. For example on core/peripheral wages convergence we’re probably 2/3 done, but it took 5 years to get there. Export-centric policies are disastrous in the short term when everybody tries concurrently, but once it starts taking effect and there’s a bit of external demand (e.g. US/Japan/Core demand for peripheral Europe) the operational leverage is great. This also relevant to the US where the sequester is essentially a supply side structural reform in its effects.

Conclusion: it’s windy here

Many other things could go wrong, and I’m not clear about what’s happening in China and Emerging Markets, though there as well lot of negative views have limited potential to get much worse. There always can be exogenous disasters, but I think we do have a fair few tail winds pointing to animal spirits going back into positive territory, in the “next several years” kind of time frame — I’m not trying to predict what will happens this Christmas here.

1 comment
  1. Thanks CIG – I tend to think you’re right, just that I’m on the look out for evidence too. I tend to think one of the great indicators will be institutional investors demanding more capital investment, largely because there’s nothing left to invest in and also because the rate of return corporates desire (15% plus) is way too high in a world of sub 5% nominal rates. James

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