Are You Missing Out on the Great Market Melt-Up?

Make no mistake, fear is running amok on Wall Street these days—fear of missing out.

As the S&P 500 got off to its best start to a year since 1999 and the Dow Jones industrial average topped 25,000, it’s clear that fear of missing out—FOMO—has jumped to the top of the fear charts with a bullet. It’s risen above worries about North Korea’s “Rocket Man” and the unpredictable U.S. president who revels in provoking him. It’s blown past lingering concerns about the European Union coming apart at the seams. It’s even eclipsing the most popular talking point of fear merchants everywhere: marketwide valuations that in many cases are approaching the highest they’ve ever been.

Is this such a bad thing? Maybe yes, probably no. Unlike other FOMO-driven rallies of the distant and not-so-distant past—from Dutch tulip bulbs in the 1600s to dot-com stocks at the turn of the century to the Great Bitcoin Craze of 2017—there’s little debate that there will be something legitimate to miss out on in the stock market in the near term, rather than the hazy distant future.

Forget about the economy. The massive tax cuts President Trump signed into law on Dec. 22 will probably boost gross domestic product growth by a few tenths of a percentage point, but that’s not what investors are excited about. As economists gently inch up GDP estimates, equities strategists may find themselves stepping over one another to jack up their forecasts of different parameters: the benefits to corporate profits, the subsequent cash returns to shareholders, a return of confidence and greed to the collective investor psyche—and good ol’ FOMO. The wholesale dismantling of Obama-era regulations adds a hard-to-quantify, but real, fuel to the fire.

The average estimate of strategists surveyed by Bloomberg on Jan. 8 is for the S&P to end just below 2,900 by next New Year’s Eve. If the rally continues at anywhere near the breakneck pace with which it started the year—up almost 3 percent in the first four sessions of 2018—it will hit that yearend forecast before Groundhog Day. Some measures of upward momentum in the market are at the highest in half a century or more, and often the strong momentum generates more strong momentum.

#lazy-img-322421195:before{padding-top:133.33333333333331%;}Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Jan. 15, 2018. Subscribe now.Photo illustration: Justin Metz; Photograph: Getty Images

When price gains get downright ridiculous, it’s referred to on Wall Street as a “melt-up,” perhaps because these self-perpetuating rallies tend to be followed by meltdowns. This is the uncomfortable prospect that many investors are contemplating. For those of us old enough to remember the dot-com boom and bust, it’s tempting to assume the market will never become that irrationally exuberant again. Of course, many current market participants were in grammar school then. Old-timers need to consider that the market’s collective memory may be shorter than their own.

Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist of asset manager GMO LLC in Boston, who’s been following markets for five decades, is an old-fashioned value investor who finds himself in the “interesting position” of looking beyond valuation metrics, instead studying previous melt-ups to try to figure out how long the current party will last. The takeaway, by his analysis, is that the S&P 500 would need to surge as high as 3,700, or 34 percent, in 18 months to qualify as even the tamest “classic bubble event” in history.

Grantham defines a bubble as having “excellent fundamentals, euphorically extrapolated.” His description is sounding more familiar every day. Earnings growth for S&P 500 companies is forecast to accelerate to almost 15 percent in 2018, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Economic indicators are strong and beating estimates; the average GDP forecast for 2018 has risen to 2.6 percent, from 2.1 percent on Election Day 2016. Credit markets are healthy. Business, consumer, and investor confidence is off the charts.

Yet most of the measures investors use to evaluate stocks are dizzying. The S&P 500 trades at 2.3 times its companies’ sales, a hair below its dot-com peak. Price-earnings ratios are also sky-high: Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimates the median stock in the index has been more richly valued for only about 1 percent of the benchmark gauge’s history. What’s known as the cyclically adjusted p-e (CAPE) ratio, at more than 33, is above its level before the crash of 1929—indeed, it’s higher than at any moment in history, excluding the dot-com debacle.

Some of these valuations can be explained away, for those willing to try. The CAPE ratio, often called the Shiller p-e after Yale economist Robert Shiller, uses 10 years of earnings in its calculations. Considering the decimation of profits during the financial crisis, the calendar alone will pull that valuation metric lower as the catastrophic years of 2008 and 2009 drop out of the math. Another standard, known as the PEG ratio, used by investors such as Fidelity Magellan Fund legend Peter Lynch, divides p-e ratios by expected profit growth. The current PEG of 1.4 is above average but well below a record of more than 1.7 in early 2016.

“Yes, markets are arguably expensive by history, but this environment of accelerating not only earnings but also economic strength is what’s catching the market’s attention right now,” John Augustine, chief investment officer for Huntington Private Bank in Columbus, Ohio, recently told Bloomberg.

It’s hard to know to what degree stock prices already reflect the benefits investors expect from tax reform. Goldman Sachs’s basket of companies with high tax rates has outperformed low-tax stocks by almost 10 percentage points since the middle of October. But taxes are complicated, and there could well be more positive than negative surprises as the details are sorted out. Consider the $37 billion boost to book value that Barclays Plc analysts estimate Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. will enjoy because of reduced tax liability on its appreciated investments.

Yes, 2018 will probably see more complaints that tax reform didn’t benefit the little guy as much as it could have. Yes, there will be complaints about how much of the windfall is spent on share buybacks, dividend increases, and mergers and acquisitions. Yes, there will be complaints about the eventual consequences of a swelling federal budget deficit and the massive, business-friendly deregulation under way. These are worthy, important topics for society to debate. The stock market, though, is all id and no superego, and most CEOs will continue to abide by its demands to reward shareholders first and foremost.

Stocks are always risky, and euphoric rallies like this may be the riskiest. How long FOMO reigns at the top of the fear charts is anyone’s guess. Tax cuts may overheat the economy, finally lighting the inflationary fuse and pushing interest rates higher quickly enough to induce a recession. There’s also a “live by America First, die by America First” concern that’s worth considering if Trump’s protectionist trade policies provoke retaliatory responses from trading partners.

Two recent reports out of China highlight this risk. What may sound like a minor tweak in the way Beijing fixes its exchange rate created big ripples in the currency markets —and stocks don’t often react well to big ripples in other markets. Many traders took the exchange rate tweak as a signal that the People’s Bank of China wasn’t pleased that the yuan had strengthened 7 percent against the dollar since the election of Trump, whose platform included harsh rhetoric about China keeping its currency weak. The following day, on Jan. 10, Bloomberg reported that senior officials in Beijing were recommending the nation slow or halt purchases of U.S. Treasuries, sending 10-year yields to their highest level since March and causing a rare weak open in the stock market.

In the near term, there’s a risk that the coming earnings season will result in corporate outlooks that aren’t quite as euphoric as the share-price gains that preceded them. And we’ll probably spend another year worrying if we’re one tweet away from nuclear war, or one Robert Mueller indictment or midterm election away from impeachment proceedings that will paralyze Washington.

For now, FOMO is the biggest fear investors need to grapple with. That could change quickly, and anyone with the gumption to think they can time the market will need to be on alert. Fear, like love, has inspired much great work—and a lot of mediocre results—from poets and investors alike. For investors, the best advice about today’s market comes from the 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.” —With Lu Wang

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *