You Can’t Get Blood Out Of A Stone

My title comes from Jeremy Grantham’s recent CNBC interview. This remark occurs in a discussion about likely returns from the U.S. stock market. Everyone at Grantham’s firm, Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo (GMO), agrees that over the next two decades stocks will deliver around 2% after-inflation or “real” returns, says Grantham himself. Traditionally, the market has delivered 6%-7% annualized real returns, but trying to achieve that now will be like trying to draw blood out of a stone. Investors hoping for the historical 6%-7% are bound to be disappointed.

The reason for Grantham’s pessimism is simple — P/E ratios are high. Grantham uses the Shiller PE (current price of the S&P 500 Index relative to the underlying constituents’ past 10-year average real earnings). The long term average of that metric is around 16, but over the past quarter century is has been over 20. But Grantham doesn’t think the average will return to 16 soon or in a way that value investors want. It will likely take around two decades instead of a more typical 7-year cycle. And, in a way, that’s more painful than having a market crash. A crash amounts to a valuation re-set; prices get cheap, and the opportunity to invest presents itself to those with courage. But a slow movement from a Shiller PE of 30 (where it sits now) to 16 is a real problem for long term investors who won’t get a good opportunity for returns for a generation.

Besides expensive valuations, the economic cycle will not be in investors’ favor. Grantham thinks recent growth numbers reflect a one-time bump of sidelined workers getting back into the labor market from the time of the financial crisis. That increase has produced an artificial percentage point of growth in recent years, Grantham estimates, which means the U.S. isn’t growing at, say, 2.5%. Instead, it’s growing at more like 1.5%. That will be apparent, in Grantham’s opinion, as the last workers who were frightened out the labor market after the crisis re-enter. Perhaps that game of re-entry can persist for a few more years, Grantham speculates, but it’s not a permanent feature of the economy. When it ceases, growth will suffer.

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