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Watch Out For the Second Leg of the Stock Market Downturn

Stock-Markets / Stocks Bear Market Apr 14, 2009 - 12:45 AM GMT

By: John_Mauldin

Stock-Markets

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThis week we will look at two shorter essays for this edition of Outside the Box. The first is some thoughtful words by Tom Au on whether or not we have put in a true bottom for the market. I particularly want you to read his thoughts on what earnings will look like going forward, and whether we can get back to the highs in corporate earnings we saw in 2006.


Tom is the executive vice-president of R. W. Wentworth, a contributor to Real Money at www.thestreet.com and the author of "A Modern Approach to Graham and Dodd Investing"

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box


Watch Out For the Second Leg of the Downturn
by Tom Au

Do you think that the crash is over, as certain former bears do? This question arises as we have breached the first downside target, of Dow 7000, based on my proprietary investment value model, that was first published in thestreet.com October 24, 2007. It was less a forecast than an evaluation. The Dow has now vindicated this model by reaching "fair value," as one would expect from a simple definition. Does that represent a base for a new bull market? Or is it just one more stop to the nether regions?

To understand my model, note that a stock can be analyzed as a combination of a bond plus a call option. My proprietary investment value metric for a stock is book value plus ten times dividends. That is a Ben Graham like construct that treats stocks almost like bonds, and gives no effect to growth over and above the pro rata return from the reinvestment of retained earnings. On the other hand, many investors prize stocks, particularly tech stocks, for their "optionality," the hypothetical ability to generate "positive surprises" over and above what economic theory would support. At bottom, the belief in the new economy was a belief in "optionality," that random positive events that occur from time to time, and did so with particular frequency in the 1990s, will become a recurring fixture of the economic landscape.

But such a process can also work in reverse, as it has recently. We are now experiencing what my colleague Robert Marcin calls the Great Unwind. A turbocharged economy is most likely to become "unstuck" when the conditions that initially favored it no longer exist. When this happens, an economy can grow as much below trend as it was formerly above trend, a fact that is likely to be reflected in the financial markets. History is not very encouraging on this score. In past downturns, such as those of 1932 and 1974, the Dow troughed at one half of my investment value metric, reflecting then-prevailing investor beliefs for negative optionality; that the economy will be worse than normal economic forces would dictate. With investment value at 7000 (actually a rounded version of 6600) on the Dow, half of that would be 3300. And during the 1930s, this metric actually fell, meaning that the "ultimate" low could be half of a number lower than 6600.

So having completed a first downleg, the market is now working on a second one. And this would be fully reflective of economic forces. For instance, financial earnings used to represent some 40% earnings (if you count the financing arms of some old line "industrial" companies such as General Electric and General Motors). Thus, they made up $32 of what used to be normalized S& P earnings of $80. But most of those financial earnings have disappeared. That, by itself, would take the S&P earnings into the $50s.. But how many of those non-financial earnings (of $48) were tied to the finance bubbles such as the homebuilding and the "housing ATM?" At least 10%, or around $5, and that is being conservative. Thus, normalized S&P earnings are likely to be no more $50 a share, if that.

The problem comes at payback time. For instance, much of the borrowing was tied to the housing market, on the bogus theory that houses could be made twice as valuable (as a multiple of rent) as they were for all of American history if prices could be kept on steady incline. The problem was that valuations collapsed when house prices fell, or even failed to rise, bringing down the market with it. To make up the shortfall, the U.S. economy now has to consume less than it produces, for a time. But the formerly virtuous circle became a vicious circle when falling prices (and consumption) led to falling production in a self-reinforcing process of the kind best described by George Soros in the Alchemy of Finance. This is a process called underabsorption, which in its strongest form, is called disintermediation. When a major part of the economy becomes "unstuck, the rest of it doesn't merely go into retrograde. It has to fall apart also to keep pace.

But I can live with $50 trough earnings, say many. And at historical multiple of 14-16 times trough earnings, the S&P should stop its downside in the 700-800 range. But the point is, they're not trough earnings, they are the "new normal." And in the current "slow" (zero or worse) growth environment, a trough P/E of 6-8 times earnings is more likely. Put another way, we are about to get the worst of all worlds; below trend earnings, below trend growth from a depressed base, and below trend P/E, after having gotten the best of all worlds, astronomical P/Es on above-trend and rapidly growing earnings, about a decade ago. Warren Buffett now agrees, saying that we will get "almost the worst of all possible worlds..."

The bears-turned-bulls have taken the latter stance because the market now reflects at least a severe recession. One such commentator likened the recent market to 1938-1939, and feels that the latter represents a bottom. But the 1930s bottom was 1932, not 1939, which is to say that the market probably has further to fall. Having correctly dodged the "overvaluation" bullet earlier, the new bulls pin their hopes on the prospect that the current market represents everything bad short of the 1930s Depression. Unlike us, they aren't willing to grasp the nettle that the current crisis will likely be as bad as anything including the Great Depression.


By John Mauldin

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore

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Copyright 2008 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved
John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staff at Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC may or may not have investments in any funds cited above. Mauldin can be reached at 800-829-7273.

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