Saturday, August 15, 2009

Post-Crash Dynamics

If you look carefully at the economic data that shows improvement, and correct for the impact of government outlays, it is difficult to find anything but continued deterioration in private demand and investment. What we do see is a government that has run what is now a trillion dollar deficit year-to-date, representing some 7% of GDP. That sort of tab will undoubtedly buy some amount of Cool-Aid, but it has been something of a disappointment to watch how eagerly investors have guzzled it down. This is like somebody borrowing money from their Uncle and then celebrating that their income has gone up.

Moreover, it might be enticing to look at a chart of the S&P 500 and envision a quick return to 2007 highs and beyond, but it is important to recognize that those highs were based on profit margins about 50% above historical norms, combined with an elevated P/E multiple of about 19 against those earnings. Even if the economy is poised for a sustained recovery here, the belief that those joint outliers will be quickly re-established goes against historical precedent.

When markets crashes are coupled with changes in the fundamentals that supported the preceding bubble – as we observed in the post-1929 market, the gold market of the 1980's, and the post-1990 Japanese market, and currently observe in the deflation of the recent debt bubble – they typically do not recover quickly. Indeed, the hallmark of these post-crash markets is the very extended sideways adjustment that they experience, generally for many years.
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