Trigger warning: if you are a cryptocurrency fanatic you may find this column both offensive and distressing.
Right, that bit out of the way, it is not crypto I want to start with, it is other, lesser, chaos. If you spent the past few weeks attempting to navigate stockmarkets – or attempting to ignore them – you might have the feeling that everything is unmapped, unprecedented and unpredictable.
But it isn’t really so. We have had no shortage of warnings from history – and from many a market old timer – about all this. We know that over easy fiscal and monetary policies lead to inflation.
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We know that very low real interest rates tend to lead to capital misallocation. We know that investors mostly don’t like inflation to get over 4% – although they were a little too sanguine when it hit 4% this time around.
We know that long-duration stocks – the “jam-tomorrow” ones that soared during the pandemic years – are very sensitive to moves in interest rates. We know that long-term market valuations tend to return to the mean – and we have lots of rules of thumb that give us some hints as to when we should start worrying about that kind of thing.
Think of Warren Buffett’s focus on the ratio of total US stockmarket valuation to US GDP, for example – the latter is currently rather higher than the former, something which suggests the US market is still unpleasantly overvalued.
We have also had lots of numbers to add to those rules of thumb – there is an almost overwhelming volume of data on stockmarkets. So we know, for example, that even at the end of April this year the US market was trading at somewhere between 30% and 50% higher than its 15-year median on pretty much every valuation method you might have thought of using – for example, 50% for the price/book ratio and 33% for dividend yield.
We are also aware that there was no major market globally that could be considered properly cheap. If you think of that as being over 15% below the 15-year median in valuation terms – as Duncan Lamont, head of research and analytics at Schroders, does – this represented a pretty clear and present danger to markets.
The bear market could last a very long time
Things have eased a little over the past week – Lamont’s latest numbers have most markets showing at least some green with even US stocks, as measured by the MSCI US index, 6% below their 15-year median, at least in terms of the trailing price/earnings ratio.
These numbers don’t tell us everything of course – in a world of cost-push inflation and super-stressed consumers, the e in lots of p/e calculations is likely to be too optimistic, meaning valuations are even higher than they look.
At the same time, the past 15 years have been all about the easy money macro regime that we are now leaving far behind us: over the past 15 years, for example, the US median p/e has been 19.6 times, but over the very long run it has been more like 17.5 times. Maybe 17.5 is a more relevant number to watch. Something to worry about.
We also know quite a lot about how bear markets tend to play out. We’ve seen these kinds of multiple collapse before – think the early 1970s, 1987 and the early 2000s – and we’ve also seen profit collapses of the type we might now expect.
Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, has looked at US market falls in bear markets (including those that fell 19% rather than the full technical 20%) with recession and without recession (you can hear my conversation with Liz Ann on the latest MoneyWeek Podcast here).
The average market fall in the no-recession group has been 28%; with recession, it has been 34% – not much difference in the great scheme of things but it is worth noting that the recessionary bear markets lasted on average twice as long as the non-recessionary bear markets.
Lamont has also looked at how long losses have lasted in previous market collapses – in nominal terms. If you had stuck with stocks after the first 25% fall in markets in 1970, 1974, 2001 and 2008 you would have been even after somewhere between two and 4.8 years.
If you had dashed for cash after a 25% fall instead, that number rises very substantially – to 5.3 after the crash of 1974, and to very big indeed post-2001, as you are still under water.
More to worry about: the key point here is that we might not know quite which template to use for the crash of 2022 yet (although the 1970s look like the best place to start). But we do at least have templates to choose from. It is also worth noting that using these templates is not about recognising that there is value in listed companies – of course there is – it is about figuring out how to price that value in any one environment.
Is there any value at all in bitcoin?
On to the offensive and distressing bit. Ready? None of the above is true of cryptocurrencies. None of it. There is no template for their behaviour – there is no history to lean on. And there is very little to back up the idea that there is value in crypto that we can find a way to price rationally.
It isn’t a store of value – bitcoin is 70% off its highs and down 25% in the last five days alone. It isn’t an inflation hedge – it would be up 10% this year if it were. It isn’t uncorrelated to interest rates – far from it!
It doesn’t provide a hedge to equity markets – again, far from it. It isn’t better at shifting money around the place than conventional methods – for those of us not evading taxes, money laundering or fleeing war zones.
It isn’t environmentally friendly and, crucially, it isn’t easy to use. As all the fluff around it disappears it is hard to see what will be left for crypto holders.
This is the first bubble that has even been quite like this: you may have lost all your money in the tulip bubble, for example, but tulip bulbs can be planted or, in extreme cases, eaten – they taste a bit like onions.
All in all, so far all that bitcoin – and the other cryptocurrencies – have proven themselves to be is temporarily turbocharged plays on money printing. I can make a case for there being residual value in almost any asset; I can’t make one for bitcoin.
I’ll keep holding my £1,000 worth (once £4,000 worth) as a tiny hedge against my old-fashioned thought processes. But when I use the templates of the past to tot up the current value and the expected minimum value of my overall portfolio (this is not a happy calculation to make) I will continue to value it at £0.
• This article was first published in the Financial Time
Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).
After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times
Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast - but still writes for Moneyweek monthly.
Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.
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