As shown above, lower capital costs (discount rate) can justify higher valuations even in the face of dwindling earnings growth. As both growth and discount rates trend towards zero, prices rise to infinity.
This is perhaps what many investors have missed when constantly expecting markets to fall back to earth: while there truly is a disconnect between the economy and markets, there may also exist a causal link between economic weakness and higher stock prices, a self-reinforcing trend of perverse incentives where slow growth fuels market uptrend, where bad news for the economy can quite literally become good news for stocks, and markets may have been riding this stagnation boom for many years now.
I would add that QE and central bank interventions are factors that will tend to affect expected returns over time. In markets, the cost of equity capital is mainly a function of interest rates, volatility, and risk premia. By keeping interest rates low and dampening volatility, central banks’ activity can really be thought of as one giant exercise in reducing expected returns. When the Federal Reserve announced that it would start buying high yield bond ETFs, the prices of these bonds quickly jumped. There is nothing irrational about this investor behavior. If a high yield bond had a yield of 6% prior to the Federal Reserve’s decision to step in, once the Fed enters the fray, investors were happy to accept a lower yield, maybe 5%, simply because they knew the Fed would step in to support prices as needed. Equities work the same way. In a world where any weakness or volatility is met with the immediate expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and trillions in government intervention, you would expect equity investors to feel more comfortable and adjust their risk appetite. For example, a stock that an investor would have normally considered too risky to buy (perhaps a high-octane IPO), can suddenly become a very justifiable acquisition once the Fed’s de-facto pledge to support markets is factored in. Coincidentally, more IPOs have doubled in price in 2020 than any year since the tech bubble. (4)
This reasoning can be pushed even further to explain some of the current sector dynamics: in a world of constantly falling cost of capital, equity valuation becomes disproportionately affected by cash flow duration. To draw a parallel from the bond world, if we knew that rates were going to consistently decline, we would naturally look to buy the longest-dated bonds (maybe a 20+ year treasury). Likewise, if the equity cost of capital is constantly falling, winning the equity valuation race becomes a game of who can extend cash flow duration the furthest into the future.
This may at least partially explain why today’s dominant stocks are to be found in the tech world. As highlighted in StoneX’s report, U.S. tech giants, with their low payout ratios, low book values, and future-proof product lines, can be thought of as the equity equivalent of a very long-dated bond and will benefit the most from the falling cost of capital. The SocGen report referenced earlier also highlighted that the tech sector’s outsized benefit from QE for similar reasons.
In the game of ever-increasing cash flow duration, current earnings and profitability are secondary to future cash flows. Any company with a semblance of growth enters the race to a near zero-value denominator and is disproportionately favored by investors. Similarly to how aggressive bond traders might look to increase the convexity of their books (buy bonds with the highest duration sensitivity to changes in yield), equity traders could be chasing stocks with the greatest pace of price appreciation for a given decline in capital cost, endlessly bidding up speculative growers in the tech world, at the expense of value and yield.
These ideas would certainly be consistent with what we witness almost daily in today’s market, which appears to be obsessed not just with innovation, but with all manners of futuristic buzzwords. In today’s world, computing is not enough, you need quantum computing, automation is not enough, you need AI, databases are not enough, you need blockchain, trucks are not enough, we demand cybertrucks.
But of all the tech-obsessed endeavors, my favorite is probably space exploration. When it comes to creating the longest cash flow duration imaginable, I can’t think of anything better than spending the next few decades burning through trillions of dollars building spaceships, all in the hope of one day dominating the intergalactic travel market. So it is perhaps no surprise that just about every billionaire CEO seems in love with the idea: Elon Musk has SpaceX, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin. In a day and age when life on earth seemingly requires a constant supply of face masks, antiseptic wipes, and experimental vaccines, perhaps the time has come for us to propel ourselves into outer space in search of less green pastures. After all, life in one of Elon Musk’s planned human colonies on Mars can’t be all that much different from being locked down in a Berlin suburb. (5)
WHEN APPLES AREN’T APPLES
In his book “The Systems Bible” John Gall introduces a concept he calls “operational fallacy”, which describes instances where systems do not do what they say they do. The best way to explain operational fallacy is to think of a simple term like “fresh apples.” Fresh apples can evoke the thought of strolling through your grandmother’s garden on a late summer day, and picking ripe apples right off the tree, perhaps to make a delicious pie later that day. But “fresh apples” could also be an item you grab from the shelf of a suburban supermarket while quickly pushing your cart down the produce aisle one evening after work. In both examples, the term “fresh apples” is technically correct, yet the two products and experiences are nothing alike. What most people really want is grandma’s apple experience, but that’s exactly what the system cannot provide.
2020’s pandemic and the ongoing economic struggles of the last decades have prompted leaders around the world to implement a variety of support measures to stimulate the economy. Those same decision-makers would no doubt congratulate themselves on what they perceive to have been decisive and successful steps that secured the economy, fostered growth, and protected the integrity of markets through difficult times. Yet the results produced by this complex system of incentives hardly match what most would look for in a prosperous economy. The economic equivalent of grandma’s apple would probably involve a combination of plentiful well-paying local jobs, healthy government finances, and growth. Instead, the current economic landscape delivered stagnant growth, gig-economy, and soaring deficits.
Perhaps these support measures are more likely to produce supermarket apples: the mechanism through which quantitative easing (by far the largest component of all stimulus attempts) benefits the economy is still unclear, and one could argue that QE is in fact counterproductive. Instead of promoting growth, easy money and low rates may instead lead to misallocation of capital, leading to weaker economies and fueling the vicious cycle of stagnation.
What these measures did achieve was a spectacular rally in stock price, and this may be because QE is more akin to a form of price control than an economic stimulus. Historically, price control has involved various attempts to reduce the price of goods to curb inflationary forces, but we have no need for that type of price control now. In today’s upside-down, hyper-financialized world, we’re instead attempting to generate growth and inflation by controlling the price of risk, the cost of financial capital. Global markets are supposed to be way too large to be controlled by anyone, but trillions of dollars have a way of coercing even the strongest forces of their will.
Attempts at price control generally have a terrible historical track record, and while I spent a lot of time justifying the market‘s continued rise in my comments, it’s important to note that the same market dynamics can work just as efficiently in the opposite direction to produce sharp sell-offs and volatility. This may be the greatest challenge our decision-makers will face: how to navigate our way out of the current QE-fueled trap, and back to healthier market dynamics?
Eventually, market forces always prevail against attempts to control them. Everything has a price, and even if the current trends remain in place for the foreseeable future, sooner or later, the law of unforeseen consequences will cause distortions created in one part of the market to re-emerge somewhere else, the challenge of 2021 and beyond may be to figure out where that might be.
– Syl Michelin, CFA®