It’s quiet out there. Too damn quiet

Driven by record amounts of money pouring in to exchange-traded funds, markets are starting to feel a little overheated, says John Stepek. Are we nearing the top?


It's starting to feel that we're in the early stages of a "melt-up" phase
(Image credit: 2011 Getty Images)

Listening to your gut is not a viable investment strategy.

This is not because your gut is always wrong. An infallible contrarian indicator is one of the most useful things you could ever have in the markets you just always do the opposite of what it suggests.

No, the problem with your gut is that it's inconsistent. Sometimes it's wrong. Sometimes it's right.

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So you need to try to work out if it's just your own cognitive biases talking, or if that little voice is actually worth listening to.

At the moment, my gut is telling me that it's all starting to feel a bit overheated out there.

So where's the evidence?

Donald Trump has reignited dormant"animal spirits"

There's something in the air. Markets as judged by the S&P 500 have been overvalued for a while, but the irrational exuberance element has been lacking.

That feels as though it's changing.It's starting to feel that we're in the early stages of a "melt-up" phase in markets. The melt-up may conclude with nothing more than a correction, or it might be the one that ends up delivering us a nasty bear market. I don't know.

But is this just finger in the air stuff? Or is there any reason to feel that something's changed? Let's look at what's going on.

One thing you need to fuel a good old-fashioned bout of irrational exuberance is a convincing story - a reason for people to believe that a more profitable future lies right ahead of them. This is often based on a technology, but it doesn't have to be (the property bubble, for example).

In this case, the most obvious catalyst is Donald Trump. The man running the world's most important economy is shaking things up. Whether you like it or not is beside the point the world has felt as though it's been stuck in stasis for a long time.

That stasis is ending. People have been looking for an excuse to shed despair for a while, and insane as it may seem Trump is the excuse. That's the story Trumpflation is coming. Markets have currently bought the idea that it will end well. If it doesn't, from current valuations, there will be hell to pay.

The financial fuel pumping this market higher

So we have a story. Anotherthing you need to fuel a proper old-fashioned bubble is lots of investors pumping money into the market. That'll often happen via a "new" financial technology that makes it easier or cheaper to do so.

We have a "new" financial technology in the form of passive investing. Passive investing has been around for a long time (I've been writing about it for more than a decade now, and it goes back a lot further than that). But it's only in the last few years that it's really taken off.

Ordinary investors and their advisors have woken up to the fact that on average, they're going to be better off just tracking the market rather than paying someone in the hope that they can beat the market. (We've written about this a lot, so I won't go into detail again here just read this piece if you need more info).

Meanwhile, a specific type of passive investment the exchange-traded fund (ETFs), a stockmarket-listed passive fund has made it incredibly easy to nip in and out of the market as and when you want to.

That does rather go against the point of passive investing (it's not cheap if you trade in and out) and the father of passive investing Vanguard's Jack Bogle has always criticised ETFs on that basis (although it's important to point out that you don't have to use ETFs in this way they just make it easier for us humans to indulge our self-destructive impulses).

In any case, an incredible amount of money has flooded into ETFs in the first two months of this year. As Chris Flood points out in the FT's FM supplement, in 2016, a record-breaking $390bn went into ETFs. That's quite an impressive number.

But between the start of 2017 and the end of February alone, another$131bn equivalent to a third of last year's record inflows in just two months had been shoved into ETFs, according to figures from the ETFGI consultancy.

Now I need to make one point very clear, as there are a lot of people in the finance world who would love to see the passive industry fall flat on its face: none of this means that there is anything fundamentally wrong with tracker funds or ETFs.They just happen to be the transmission mechanism for everyone's enthusiasm these days.

At some point in the future, scholars will perhaps look back and say: "Ah, the crash of the late 2010s/early 2020s that was partly driven by passive investing, which was then a relatively new financial technology."

There are other "gut feeling" markers merger and acquisition activity is starting to hit the headlines more regularly, for example but even if we're getting close to a top, what can you do about this?

First, I suspect that the catalyst for any ultimate "top" this year, might well be a relief rally following the European elections. Assuming (and it is an assumption) they go more smoothly than markets fear, we could get a big "buy the rumour, sell the news" reaction.

Secondly, in terms of what you should own just now, I'd stick with the cheaper markets. Japan is the one I always bring up, but there's good reasons for that. My colleague Merryn Somerset Webb goes into them here.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.