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Peter Tasker: Global investors juggle euphoria and gloom

TOKYO -- In investment, as elsewhere, averages can be seriously misleading. Despite recent turbulence, on average, world stock markets are at the same level as a year ago and valuations seem reasonable. Yet a closer look reveals a more disturbing picture.

     Rather than a Goldilocks scenario where the porridge is neither too hot nor too cold, we have something akin to a poorly microwaved pizza -- parts of which are still frozen and other parts hot enough to blister lips.

     The ratio of global stock market capitalization to global gross domestic product stands at 85% -- midway between the high of 123% recorded in the euphoric conditions of 2007 and the 43% of early 2009, when it seemed like a replay of the 1930s was in the cards.

     But an examination of the BRICS countries illustrates the scale of the divergence in stock market performance. Even after the recent plunge, China's Shanghai Composite Index is up 50% from the lows of 2014. Over the same period, Brazil's market has halved in dollar terms and Russia's is down 45%, while India remains broadly flat. Other Asian markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have also tanked, taking the MSCI Emerging Markets Index to a six-year low.

Blowing hot and cold

In contrast, stock markets in developed countries have generally been much less volatile. Yet within these markets the polarization has been remarkable. "Defensive" sectors, whose earnings are relatively stable even in downturns, have been bid up ever higher, whereas "cyclicals," which are much more sensitive to economic conditions, have languished, unloved. 

     The trend began in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. But rather than weakening as memories fade, it has intensified. The result has been severe underperformance in so-called value strategies, which favor cheap stocks, in relation to strategies based on growth. There have been only two occasions over the past 30 years in which the MSCI World Value Index has been lower relative to the MSCI World Growth Index than it is now -- in the blow-off phase of the Internet bubble in 1999, and briefly in 1985.

     Today investors are not sensibly poised between euphoria and gloom. They are indulging in both at the same time. The neglect of value stocks reflects intense pessimism about the global economy's ability to mount a sustainable recovery, no matter what policies are brought to bear. The boom in growth stocks, on the other hand, reflects unbridled optimism in the ability of a few companies to enjoy strong profit growth well into the future, no matter what the economic headwinds and competitive pressures are.

Who to trust?

Investment guru Terry Smith recently stated the case for quality growth stocks: "If you plan to hold a share for the long term, the rate of return on capital it generates and can reinvest at is far more important than the rating you buy or sell at," he wrote in a recent comment.  In other words, it does not matter if you buy a stock at an exceptionally high valuation as long as the company's business continues to generate exceptionally high returns.

     Without question that is arithmetically correct. The practical problem is that earnings estimates by professional analysts more than three or four years into the future are worthless. Yet the higher the valuation, the more the future is already discounted in the current stock price -- and the greater the scope for disappointment.

     There is a far-from-encouraging precedent for the current market polarization: the cult of the "Nifty Fifty" large-cap stocks that developed on Wall Street between 1968 and 1972. Then as now, economic conditions were unfamiliar and troubling. Policymakers seemed to have no answer to rising inflationary pressures and the earnings outlook for ordinary companies seemed dismal. In this environment, surely it made sense to invest only in truly outstanding companies with assured growth prospects. Hence the 50 "one-decision" stocks (one only bought and never sold) which at the end of 1972 commanded an average price-earnings ratio of 42.

     It did not end well. Even a future winner such as Coca-Cola underperformed the market by 70% over the following eight years. Star names of the technology sphere such as Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, Burroughs, ITT and Digital Equipment were to go dark, while IBM and Xerox entered long slumps.

     A narrowing market is never a healthy sign. It indicates the economic tide is weakening and can lift only a diminishing number of boats. Paradoxically, for the optimists to triumph, the stocks they are pessimistic about will have to do a lot better. If that doesn't happen, the divergence will ultimately correct itself the old-fashioned way -- through a global bear market.

Peter Tasker is a Tokyo-based analyst with Arcus Research.

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