Stocks are for the long run is a phrase you would have heard often. But that’s not what William H Gross seems to believe anymore. “The cult of equity is dying. Like a once bright green aspen turning to subtle shades of yellow then red in the Colorado fall, investors’ impressions of “stocks for the long run” or any run have mellowed as well,” he wrote in his monthly investment outlook for August 2012.
Gross is the Managing Director of Pacific Investment Management Company (Pimco) and manages Pimco’s Total Return Fund. The Total Return Fund currently has assets under management of $263billion and is the biggest mutual fund in the world.
“An investor can periodically compare the return of stocks for the past 10, 20 and 30 years, and find that long-term Treasury bonds have been the higher returning and obviously “safer” investment than a diversified portfolio of equities,” wrote Gross. So what this clearly tells us is that the higher risk of investing in stocks is not always rewarded with excess return and sometimes it might just make sense to invest in dull and boring bonds which guarantee a given rate of return.
But that’s just one part of the evidence. In the really really long term stocks have done very well. As Gross points out “The long-term history of inflation adjusted returns from stocks shows a persistent but recently fading 6.6% real return (known as the Siegel constant) since 1912.” Hence $1 invested in 1912 would have turned to $500(inflation adjusted) hundred years later i.e. now in 2012. No wonder the Americans took onto investing in stocks like nobody else did. The prime reason for this was the premise that returns from equity beat that from bonds over the long run. Shankar Sharma, joint managing director and vice chairman of First Global explained this phenomenon to me in a recent interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) in this way: “Rightly or wrongly, they (the Americans and the much of the Western world) have been given a lifestyle which was not sustainable, as we now know. But for the period it sustained it kind of bred a certain amount of risk taking because life was very secure. The economy was doing well. You had two cars in the garage. You had two cute little kids in the lawn. Good community life. Lot of eating places. You were bred to believe that life is going to be good so hence hey, take some risk with your capital. People were forced to invest in equities under the pretext that equities will beat bonds… They did for a while. Nevertheless, if you go back thirty years to 1982, when the last bull market in stocks started in the United States and look at returns since then, bonds have beaten equities. But who does all this Math?” (You can read the complete interview here)
What has changed now is the ability of Americans to take risk by investing in equity. “Americans are naturally more gullible to hype. But now western investors and individuals are now going to think like us. Last ten years have been bad for them and the next ten years look even worse. Their appetite for risk has further diminished because their picket fences, their houses all got mortgaged. Now they know that it was not an American dream, it was an American nightmare. So I cannot make a case for a broad bull market emerging anytime soon,” said Sharma.
And this seems phenomenon seems to be clearly evident in the numbers that are coming out. As the USA Today reported in mid May: “Stocks remain out of fashion…Retail investors have yanked more than $260 billion out of mutual funds that invest in US stocks since the end of 2008, says the Investment Company Institute, a fund trade group. In contrast, they have funneled more than $800 billion into funds that invest in less-volatile bonds. Investors’ chronic mistrust of stocks is reigniting fears that an entire generation is unlikely to stash large chunks of cash in the increasingly unpredictable market as they did in the past. “Investors have suffered a traumatic shock that has caused severe psychological damage and made them more risk-averse,” says Carmine Grigoli, chief investment strategist at Mizuho Securities USA.”
The phrase to mark here is “risk-averse”. As Sharma puts it “Investing in equity is a mindset. That when I am secure, I have got good visibility of my future, be it employment or business or taxes, when all those things are set, then I say okay, now I can take some risk in life.”
The question that concerns us in India is how will this change in mindset impact India? Before I come to that question let me deviate a little and discuss the concept of naturally occurring ponzi schemes.
A ponzi scheme essentially is a fraudulent investment scheme in which money being brought in by new investors is used to pay off the old investors. The people running the scheme typically promise very high returns to tempt prospective investors to invest money in the scheme. But this money is not invested anywhere to generate returns. The “promise” of high returns ensures that newer investors keep coming in. They money they bring in is used to pay off the older investors. The scheme keeps running till the money being brought in by the new investors is lesser than the money that needs to be paid off to the older ones. This is the point when the scheme collapses. Typically the people who run such schemes disappear with the money, before the scheme collapses.
In his book, Irrational Exuberance, Robert Schiller introduces the concept of Naturally Occurring Ponzi Schemes, which happen without the contrivance of a fraudulent manager. Such a scheme works on a price to price feedback theory. When prices go up creating successes for some investors, this may attract public attention, promote word of mouth enthusiasm and heighten expectations for further price increases. (Adapted from Shiller 2003). The stock market is the best example. Stories about stock markets going up spread very fast. Investors, in an optimistic mood, might want to buy stock and take the stock price further up. This leads to more investors entering the market, fuelling an even greater price rise and the cycle gets repeated over and over. As Shiller mentions, “When prices go up a number of times, investors are rewarded by price movements in these markets, just as they are in Ponzi Schemes.”
The point being that the real returns in the stock market are made when prospective investors are in the Ponzi scheme mode and are willing to invest. A major reason for the bull run in the stock market in India between 2003 and 2007 was the fact that foreign investors brought in a lot of money, thus driving up stock prices and generating returns for those who had already invested. But things have changed over the last five years.
Between April 2007 and July 2012, the foreign investors invested Rs 3,538,108.46 crore in Indian stocks. That clearly is a lot of money. But they also sold Rs 3,537,016.97 crore worth of Indian stocks. This means that the net investment of foreign investors in Indian stocks in the last five years and three months has been a miniscule Rs 1091.49crore.
During the same period the domestic institutional investors made investments worth Rs 1,571,084.73 crore. They sold stocks worth Rs 1,462,118.66 crore. Hence their net investment in stocks was Rs 108,938.27 crore. (Source: www.moneycontrol.com)
It is this net investment by Indian institutional investors which ensured that the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, has delivered an absolute return of 30% since April 2007. This means an average return of 5.1% per year. I need not tell you that you would have been better off doing a fixed deposit where the returns were more or less guaranteed. If you had taken on some risk by investing in a mutual fund scheme like Birla Sun Life MIP-II Savings 5 G, you would have managed to get a return of 10.35% per year, more than double that of the stock marekt. The scheme invests 95% of the money collected in debt and the remaining in stocks.
The point I am trying to make is that for the stock market in India to give good returns it is important that foreign investors bring money into India and stay invested in Indian stocks. With their attitudes towards investing in stocks changing whether they will continue to invest in India, remains to be seen.
The other way out is that Indian investors start investing more money in the stock market both directly and indirectly. I don’t see that happening due to two reasons. A lot of Indian investors over the last few years invested money in the Indian stock market indirectly through unit linked insurance plans(Ulips) sold (or rather mis-sold) by insurance companies.
They are now coming to the realization that they have been taken to the cleaners. Money invested five to seven years back is just about breaking even and they would have been much better off by simply letting their money lie idle in a savings bank account.
This is primarily because Ulips used the premium paid by investors to pay very high commissions to insurance agents and did not invest the full premium. So these investors who were taken for a royal ride are not going to come back to the stock market anytime soon.
While systematic investment plans( SIPs) offered by mutual funds have done a lot better than Ulips but the returns are nowhere in the region that would compensate for the increased risk of investing in stocks.
The other reason is a more fundamental reason that was explained to me by Shankar Sharma. “Emerging market investors are more risk averse than the developed world investors. We see too much of risk in our day to day lives and so we want security when it comes to our financial investing… But look across emerging markets, look at Brazil’s history, look at Russia’s history, look at India’s history, look at China’s history, do you think citizens of any of these countries can say I have had a great time for years now? That life has been nice and peaceful? I have a good house with a good job with two kids playing in the lawn with a picket fence? Sorry boss, this has never happened…. Indians have figured out that equities are a fashionable thing meant for the Nariman Points of the world.”
Given these reasons it is difficult to make a case for equities as a long term investment in India as well, though things may not turn to be as bad as they might turn out to be in America and other parts of the Western world.
In the end let me quote an economist who the world always goes back to, when they run out of everything else. As John Maynard Keynes once famously said “In the long run we are all dead”.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 6,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/investing/the-case-against-equity-in-the-long-run-we-are-all-dead-406223.html)
(Disclosure: Despite the slightly negative take here, the writer continues to makes regular investments in the Indian stock market through systematic investment plans, though the amount of investments have come down over the last six months)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
High risk means high returns.
Or does it?
When more risk does not mean more return
The ten year bond issued by the United States (US) government currently gives a return of around 1.8% per year. Bonds are financial securities issued by governments to finance their fiscal deficits i.e. the difference between what they earn and what they spend.
Returns on similar bonds issued by the government of United Kingdom (UK) are at1.9% per year.
Nearly five years back in July 2007 before the start of the financial crisis the return on the US bonds was at 5.1% per year. The return on British bonds was at 5.5% per year.
The return on German bonds back then was around 4.6% per year. Now it stands at 1.44% per year.
Since the start of the financial crisis governments all over the world have been running huge fiscal deficits in order to try and create some economic growth. They have been financing these deficits through increasing borrowing.
In 2007, the deficit of the US government stood at $160billon. This difference was met through borrowing. The accumulated debt of the US government at that point of time was $5.035trillion.
In 2012, the deficit of the US government is expected to be at $1.327trillion or around 8.3times more than the deficit in 2007. The accumulated debt of the US government is also around three times more now and has crossed $14trillion.
The situation in the United Kingdom is similar. In 2007 the fiscal deficit was at £9.7billion. The projected deficit for 2012 is around 9.3times more at £90billion. The government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has gone up from around 37% of GDP to around 67% of GDP.
The same trend seems to be happening throughout the countries of Western Europe as well. Hence we can conclude that it is more risky to lend to the governments of United States, United Kingdom and countries like Germany and France in Western Europe. Though to give Germany the due credit it doesn’t run fiscal deficits as large as US or UK for that matter. Its fiscal deficit in 2010 had stood at €100billion but was cut to around €25.8billion in 2011.
Even though the riskiness of lending to these countries has gone up, the investors have been demanding lower returns from the governments of these countries. Why is that?
The answer might very well lie in what happened in Japan in the late 1980s.
The Japan story
The Japanese central bank started running a low interest policy to help exports from the mid 1980s. This other than helping exports fuelled massive bubbles in both the stock market as well as the real estate market. The Nikkei 225, Japan’s premier stock market index, returned 237% from the start of 1985 to December 29,1989, the day it peaked at a level of 38,916 points. The real estate prices also shot through the roof. As Paul Krugman points out in The Return of Depression Economics “Land, never cheap in crowded Japan, had become incredibly expensive…the land underneath the square mile of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace was worth more than the entire state of California.”
This was the mother of all bubbles.
Yasushi Mieno took over as the 26th governor of the Bank of Japan, the Japanese central bank, on December 17, 1989. Eight days later on December 25, 1989, he shocked the market by raising the interest rate. And more than that, he publicly declared that he wanted the land prices to fall by 20%, which he later upped to 30%. Mieno didn’t stop and kept raising interest rates.
The stock market crashed. And by October 1990 it was down nearly 40%. Since then the stock market has largely been on its way down. And it currently quotes at 8,900 points down 77% from the peak.
The real estate prices also fell but not at the same fast rate as the stock market. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracle “ “The greatest bubble in human history” burst in 1990 with no pain at all, like falling off Everest without breaking a bone. At its peak Japan accounted for 40 percent of the property value of the planet, but instead of collapsing, the price of real estate slowly declined at a 7% annual rate for two decades, ultimately falling by a total of about 80%. There was never a major round of foreclosures or bankruptcies, as the government kept bailing out debtors, ruining its own finances.”
The GDP growth rate collapsed from 3.32% in 1991 to -0.14% in 1999. In the next ten years i.e. between 2000 and 2009, the GDP growth rate never went beyond 2.74% and was at -5.37% in 2009.
The balance sheet depression
Japan has been in what economist Richard Koo calls a balance sheet recession. What this means in simple English is that after bubbles burst, specially real estate bubbles, the private sector companies as well as individuals and families who had speculated on the bubble end up with a lot of excessive debt and an asset (like land or stocks) which is losing value. The excessive debt has to repaid. Given this individuals and companies try to save, in order to repay the debt. But what is good for the individual is not always good for the overall economy.
The paradox of thrift
John Maynard Keynes unarguably the greatest economist of the twentieth century called this the paradox of thrift. What Keynes said was that when it comes to thrift or saving, the economics of an individual differs from the economics of the system as a whole.
If one person saves more then saving makes tremendous sense for him. But as more and more people start doing the same thing there is a problem. This is primarily because what is expenditure for one person is an income for someone else. Hence, when everybody spends less, businesses see a fall in revenue. This means lower aggregate demand and hence slower or even no growth for the overall economy.
The Japanese savings rate at the time when the bubble popped was around 0%. After this the Japanese started to save more and the savings rate of the Japanese private sector and households increased. It reached around 16% of the GDP in the year 2000.
All this money was being used to pay off the excess debt that had been accumulated. This meant slower growth for Japan. The government in turn tried to pump economic growth by spending more and more money. For this it took on more debt and now the Japanese government debt to GDP ratio is around 240%.
Ironically as the government debt went up the return on the government debt kept coming down. As Martin Wolf of Financial Times points out in a recent column “At the end of 1990, when its “bubble economy” went pop, the Japanese government’s 10-year bond was yielding 6.7 per cent…But yields on 10-year Japanese government bonds (JGBs) fell to close to 2 per cent in 1997 and then, with sizeable fluctuations, to troughs of 0.8 per cent in 1998, 0.4 per cent in 2003 and, recently, to 0.9 per cent. In short, the worse the Japanese government’s present and prospective debt position has become, the lower the interest rates on JGBs has also become.” (All returns per year)
The reason for this in retrospect is very straightforward. As the Japanese individuals and companies were saving more they did not want to risk their savings in either the stock market which had been continuously falling or the real estate market which was also falling, though at a slower rate. Hence a major part of the savings went into JGBs which they thought were safer. Given that there was great demand for JGBs the Japanese government could get away with offering lower returns on its bonds, even though over the years they became riskier.
The Japan Way
Richard Koo believes that what happened in Japan over the last twenty years is now happening in the US, UK and parts of Europe. Individuals in these countries are saving more to pay off their excess debts. An average American in the month of March 2012 saved 3.8% of his disposable income in March 2012. Before the crisis the American savings rate had become negative. . The same stands true for Great Britain where savings of household were -3% at the time the crisis struck. They have since gone up to 3% of GDP. The corporate sector was saving 3% of GDP is now saving 5% of GDP. Same stands true for Spain, Ireland and Portugal where savings were in negative territory (i.e. the people were borrowing and spending) before the crisis struck, and are now going up. In the case of Ireland the savings have gone up from -10% of GDP to around 5% of the GDP since the crisis struck.
Hence companies and individuals across countries are saving more to pay off the excess debt they had accumulated. This in turn has meant that they are spending lesser money than they used to. This has led to slower economic growth. A large part of these savings is going into government bonds keeping returns low. Retail investors have taken out nearly $260billion out of equity mutual funds in the United States since 2008, even though the stock market has doubled in the last three years. At the same time they have invested nearly $800billion in bond funds, which give very low returns.
ZIRP – Zero interest rate policy
The governments of these countries have cut interest rates to almost 0% levels and are also borrowing and spending more money. That as was the case in Japan has resulted in some economic growth, but nowhere as much as they had expected. Even though governments want their citizens and companies to borrow and spend money in order to revive economic growth, they are in no mood to do that.
The citizens would rather pay off their existing debt than take on new debt. And the companies need to feel that the economic opportunity is good enough to invest, which it clearly isn’t. That explains to a large level why US companies are sitting on more than $2trillion of cash.
The banks are also not willing to take on the risk of lending at such low interest rates, as was the case in Japan. What has also not helped is the case of continuously bailing out the financial sector like was the case in Japan. Hence real estate prices in countries like Spain still need to fall by 35% to come back at normal levels.
All in all most of the Western world is headed towards the Japan way, which means slow economic growth in the years to come. As Sharma writes “Over the next decade, growth in the United States, Europe and Japan is likely to slow…owing to the large debt overhang”. This will impact exports out of countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India etc. The Chinese exports for the month of April 2012 grew at 4.9% in comparison to 8.9% during the same period last year. This in turn has pushed down imports. Imports grew at a negligible 0.33% against the expected 11%.
A slowdown in Chinese imports immediately means lower prices for commodities. As Sharma puts it “It’s my conviction that the China-commodity connection will fall apart soon. China has been devouring raw materials at a rate way out of line with the size of its economy… Since 1990, China’s share of global demand for commodities ranging from aluminum to zinc has skyrockected from the low single digits to 40,50,60 % – even though China accounts for only 10% of total global output.” .
Over a longer term slower growth in the Western World will also means slower and lower stock markets. As the old Chinese curse goes “may you live in interesting times”. The interesting times are upon us.
(This post originally appeared on Firstpost.com on May 17,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/japan-disease-is-spreading-high-risk-and-low-returns-311952.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])