November 26, 2014

It is not uncommon for people who make predictions about the financial markets to be right for the wrong reasons, meaning that even though their reasoning turned out to be wrong the market ended up doing roughly what was predicted. Here are two examples that explain what I’m talking about.

The first example involves the popular forecast, during 1995-2000, that the US stock market would continue to be propelled upward by a technology-driven productivity miracle. This reasoning was used by high-profile analysts such as Abby Joseph Cohen to explain why stratospheric valuations would go even higher. As long as the bull market remained intact these analysts were generally held in high regard, but their reasoning was terribly flawed.

Anyone with a basic understanding of good economic theory knows that increasing productivity causes prices to fall, not rise. Furthermore, while it is certainly possible for some individual companies to justifiably obtain higher market valuations by becoming more productive than their competitors, a general increase in productivity will not cause a sustained, economy-wide increase in corporate profitability and will not justify higher valuations for most equities. To put it another way, the main beneficiaries of higher productivity are consumers, not stock speculators and investors in equity-index funds. Consequently, there was never a possibility that rising productivity was behind the 1995-2000 surge in the US stock market. “Rising productivity” was just a story that sounded good to the masses while the market was going up.

Like all bull markets in major asset classes, the bull market in US equities that ended in 2000 was driven by the expansions of money and credit. After the pace of monetary expansion slowed, the bull market naturally collapsed.

The second example involves the forecast, in 2011-2012, that the gold price was destined to fall a long way due to deflation. Regardless of whether your preferred definitions of inflation and deflation revolve around money supply, credit supply, asset prices or consumer prices, there has been no deflation and plenty of inflation over the past 2-3 years, so advocates of the “gold is going to lose a lot of value due to deflation” forecast could not have been more wrong in their reasoning. However, the gold market has performed as predicted!

Rather than being a victim of deflation, gold was a victim of the reality that over the past three years a bout of rampant monetary inflation led to a huge rally in the broad stock market, which, in turn, boosted economic confidence. Ironically, had the reasoning of the “gold to fall due to deflation” group been close to the mark, the gold price would probably have experienced nothing more than a 12-18 month consolidation following its September-2011 peak. This is not because gold benefits from deflation (it doesn’t), but because the combination of economic weakness, declining economic confidence and the actions taken by central banks to address the economic weakness would have elevated the investment demand for gold.

I’ve noticed that fundamentals-based analysis is rarely questioned if it matches the price action and, by the same token, is often greeted with skepticism if it is in conflict with a well-established price trend. During a raging bull market even the silliest bullish analyses tend to be viewed as credible, and after a bear market has become ‘long in the tooth’ even a completely illogical or irrelevant piece of analysis will tend to be viewed as smart, or at least worthy of serious consideration, if its conclusion is bearish. However, from a practical investing perspective, fundamental analysis can be most useful when its conclusions are at odds with the current price trend. The reason is that the greatest opportunities for profit in the world of investing and long-term speculation are created by divergences between value and price.

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