December 19, 2016

Doug Kass on Bertrand Russell

I always have admired the writings of British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970, 14 years before the Russell 2000 Index was created and compiled.

The Russell Index, his "namesake," now may be priced to perfection.

While respecting the strength of the last month's stunning and almost parabolic move and recognizing that the only certainty is the lack of certainty, the markets to this observer are overvalued on almost every basis and the reward versus risk is substantially tilted toward the downside.

My pal David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist with Gluskin Sheff, shares my view that the market is being over optimistic:

"If you were to do a fair-value estimate of the multiple against where it is today, you could actually then back out what the implicit earnings forecast is. And right now, it's 30%. That is the implicit earnings increase that is priced in. So if you're buying the equity market today, just know that you're buying an asset class writ large that is expecting a V-shaped +30% bounce in earnings growth over the course of the coming year. Trouble is, that it is a 1-in-20 event -- and normally that 1 in 20 happens early in the cycle, not late in the cycle .... Actually, six quarters of negative comparisons. I mean, if the earnings recession is behind us and if there are Trump tax cuts ahead of us -- even if I allow for the full brunt of corporate tax cuts -- and if I allow for whatever nominal GDP growth is going to be, I still can't get earnings growth much above 10%. 15% is a stretch, but you might still get there. But even that doesn't get you to a 30% earnings expectation."
 --Welling on Wall Street


So, what is the best short? Perhaps it's the Russell Index.

"When all the forecasters and experts agree, something else is going to happen." --Bob Farrell's Rule #9

* Over the last year the Russell Index has materially outperformed the broader indices: Since mid-December 2015, the Russell Index has doubled the performance of the S&P Index (up 24% compared to 12%). As Bertrand Russell noted, "extreme hopes are born from extreme misery" -- at least if you have been short iShares Russell 2000 ETFIWM! (Note: In its history, the Russell Index never has been as extended relative to the Bollinger Bands.)

* The recent widening in relative performance (Russell vs. S&P) may be a function of the president-elect's policies toward protectionism and against globalization; the timeliness and extent of impact might be overestimated.

* The Russell Index is more richly valued than the broader indices. The 2016 price/earnings multiple for the Russell Index is 32x and 25x 2017 estimates (before any new effective tax rate) on non-GAAP earnings. The S&P Index is trading at 19x 2016 non-GAAP and 17.5x 2017 estimates. However, the S&P multiple of GAAP is 26x -- there is no currently available GAAP multiple of the Russell.

* As interest rates gap higher, the cost of capital is rising for small and medium-size companies: This is occurring at a speed far faster than many previously thought. Large, multinational companies have better and cheaper access to capital through the markets and/or on their cash-rich balance sheets. (Note: This morning's move in the 10-year U.S. note yield to more than 2.50% may be a tipping point).

* The rate of growth in the cost of commodities and services is starting to accelerate. This hurts smaller domestic companies that are less diversified compared to the larger companies. Remember, mono-line smaller companies often have less pricing power than their larger brethren. (Note: This morning's $2.35 rise in the price of crude oil to nearly $54 also may be a tipping point).

* Smaller capitalized, domestically based companies are not beneficiaries of possible repatriation of overseas capital. As Russell wrote, "Sin is geographical!"

* The president-elect's infrastructure plans likely will be slow to advance. There will be some opposition from both parties, members of which will be looking for a revenue-neutral and not "budget-busting" fiscal jump-start. At best, this is a 2018-2019 event. Moreover, the build-out could benefit some of our larger companies (e.g., Caterpillar(CAT) and United Rentals (URI) ) over smaller companies. In the broadest sense, however, infrastructure build-outs rarely contribute to sustained prosperity; just look at the sophisticated and state-of-the-art infrastructure in Japan.
That build-out has failed to bring sustainable economic growth to that country. The same can be said for Canada, which is mired in a 1% Real GDP growth backdrop despite Prime Minister Trudeau's large infrastructure spending of years ago.

* The president-elect's immigration policy -- building a wall, limiting in-migration and exporting those who are in our country illegally -- are not pro-domestic growth and could hurt small to medium-size companies.

* The president-elect's China policy and broader protectionism policy could end up hurting the sourcing (impacting availability and cost) of many smaller companies, potentially squeezing profits by lowering margins and reducing sales.

Bottom Line

"All movements go too far."  --Bertrand Russell

My view is that the Russell may soon stop crowing and I am moving toward a more aggressive short of that Index.


via realclearmarkets

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