Thursday, August 19, 2010

The market of opinion

Both the professor in the below article and the leader of the Men of Newport Beach continue to battle over the hearts and minds of investors. The outcomes (wether stocks or bonds outperform) inure to their benefit.

Ten years ago we experienced the biggest bubble in U.S. stock market history—the Internet and technology mania that saw high-flying tech stocks selling at an excess of 100 times earnings. The aftermath was predictable: Most of these highfliers declined 80% or more, and the Nasdaq today sells at less than half the peak it reached a decade ago.

A similar bubble is expanding today that may have far more serious consequences for investors. It is in bonds, particularly U.S. Treasury bonds. Investors, disenchanted with the stock market, have been pouring money into bond funds, and Treasury bonds have been among their favorites. The Investment Company Institute reports that from January 2008 through June 2010, outflows from equity funds totaled $232 billion while bond funds have seen a massive $559 billion of inflows.

We believe what is happening today is the flip side of what happened in 2000. Just as investors were too enthusiastic then about the growth prospects in the economy, many investors today are far too pessimistic.

The rush into bonds has been so strong that last week the yield on 10-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) fell below 1%, where it remains today. This means that this bond, like its tech counterparts a decade ago, is currently selling at more than 100 times its projected payout.

Shorter-term Treasury bonds are yielding even less. The interest rate on standard noninflation-adjusted Treasury bonds due in four years has fallen to 1%, or 100 times its payout. Inflation-adjusted bonds for the next four years have a negative real yield. This means that the purchasing power of this investment will fall, even if all coupons paid on the bond are reinvested. To boot, investors must pay taxes at the highest marginal tax rate every year on the inflationary increase in the principal on inflation-protected bonds—even though that increase is not received as cash and will not be paid until the bond reaches maturity.

Today the purveyors of pessimism speak of the fierce headwinds against any economic recovery, particularly the slow deleveraging of the household sector. But the leveraging data they use is the face value of the debt, particularly the mortgage debt, while the market has already devalued much of that debt to pennies on the dollar.

This suggests that if the household sector owes what the market believes that debt is worth, then effective debt ratios are much lower. On the other hand, if households do repay most of that debt, then the financial sector will be able to write-up hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and mortgages that were marked down, resulting in extraordinary returns. In either scenario, we believe U.S. economic growth is likely to accelerate.

Furthermore, economists generally agree that the most important determinant for long-term economic growth is productivity, not consumer demand. Despite the subpar productivity growth reported for the last quarter, the latest year-over-year productivity growth of 3.9% is almost twice the long-term average. For the first two quarters of this year productivity growth, at over 6%, was the highest since the 1960s.

From our perspective, the safest bet for investors looking for income and inflation protection may not be bonds. Rather, stocks, particularly stocks paying high dividends, may offer investors a more attractive income and inflation protection than bonds over the coming decade.

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