Lowered Long-Term Portfolio Return Expectations: Mean Reversion Impact

QVM Clients:

  • Current stock and bond trends are mostly up and S&P 1500 breadth indicators have normalized
  • S&P 500 is approximately at consensus 2016 price level
  • Mean reversion risk is substantial but timing of realization is unknown
  • Institutional long-term asset return assumptions are lower and portfolio return expectations should be tempered
  • Specific mean reversion risks presented in charts

CURRENT TRENDS
The current trend is generally up, with non-US developed markets struggling, and emerging markets transitioning to clear up trend. Here are the trend ratings for ETFs representing key asset categories commonly found in portfolios. The ratings are based on the monthly four factor indicator used by QVM:

  • Direction of tip of 10-month moving average
  • Position of price above or below the 10-month moving average
  • Net buying or net selling pressure
  • Price position versus a progressive threshold changing at a geometric pace

As additional information, the table provides the price percent below the 12-month high price; the price position within the 12-month high-low range, the overbought or oversold condition based on the money flow indicators, the positive or negative signal from the MACD signal line, and whether the MACD is above or below the center line.

Even though current trends are up, the Bull is aged and probably in late stages, with significant long-term risk associated with eventual withdrawal of central bank market distortions. Cautiousness and conservatism is warranted.

DISCLAIMER ABOUT CAUTIONARY LONG-TERM VIEWS THAT FOLLOW
Fear of loss and risk avoidance are important emotional and behavioral factors that are about twice as strong as satisfaction with gains and opportunity seeking emotions and behavior. That gives us some pause talking about long-term risks. We do not want to frighten anybody or cause them to, as Jeff Gundlach said, “Sell Everything”. Market performance problems that are certain to be upon us someday are not upon us now, and within reason, we must take advantage of current positive trends. But we want you to be aware of the nature of the problems that will most certainly be realized some uncertain time in the future. There are important setups of valuations that are too far from long-term mean levels to be permanently sustained, and that are the basis of multiple institutions cautioning investors of subdued returns over the next decade.

PREVAILING EXPECTATIONS FOR YEAR-END S&P PRICE LEVEL

In June a survey of institutional investment strategist saw the S&P 500 ending 2016 at around 2100 to 2200. We are pretty much there now, suggesting not a lot of upside over the remainder of the year, which also dovetails with the likely reluctance of investors to be fully exposed to market risk during this unusual presidential election.

THE LONG-TERM IS MUCH ABOUT MEAN REVERSION

We have been in the Great Distortion for years now, and “mean reversion” can gettcha if ya don’t look out. Unfortunately, while mean reversion is a near certainty, when reversion takes place is not. Wide deviations from “normal” levels can go on for long periods (but can also revert quickly). Our central bank and those of Europe, Japan and China have been doing things to prevent mean reversion for years now. Someday the forces of mean reversion will defeat the central banks if the banks don’t toss in the towel on their distorting efforts first.

Before a general look at overvaluation and mean reversion in the S&P 500, here from 720 Global is one of the worst cases today of yield chasing that has put utilities into rarefied territory with very strong mean reversion risk.

The image below shows the S&P 500 sector ETF (XLU) Price-to-Sales ratio is more than 3 standard deviations above its average since 1990; and the Price-to-EBITDA ratio is nearly 3 standard deviations above. Valuations 3 standard deviations from the mean have odds stacked well against them being sustainable.

The price would be cut in half to get back to average Price-to-Sales ratio, or cut by about one-third to get back to average Price-to-EBITDA. That is not an attractive risk for a slow-growing industry. This problem caused by the frantic search for yield that has raised the price of typically high yield or strong dividend growth companies to unattractive valuation levels.

The need eventually to move valuations back toward the mean levels in key asset categories is the reason so many forecasters see muted portfolio returns in coming years.

The current trends in US stocks, and bonds are up right now, which is itself unusual as a pair. They are all marching to the tune of ZIRP and NIRP (zero interest rate policy and negative interest rate policy), which cannot go on forever – a long-time yes, but not forever. When rates normalize (revert to mean), so too will stocks and bonds. Interest rates are at the base of most aspects of investing, and tend to drive valuation of other assets. Having some idea what normalization would be is important to setting expectations.

A wide variety of institutional voices have concluded and published their expectation of lower portfolio returns over the next several years, as a result of the significantly above normal returns of the past several years. They talk of interest rates rising, profit margins declining, revenue growth slowing or not accelerating, valuation multiples compressing, debt servicing costs rising, reduced stock buybacks resulting in less boost to earnings per share, and just general world GDP slowing or moderation.

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