August 19, 2016

This post is a brief excerpt from a recent commentary posted at TSI.

In the late stages of every long-term bull market there has been a widely-believed, simple story for why prices will continue to rise despite high valuations.

In the early-1970s the story was the “nifty fifty”. The belief was that a group of 50 popular large-cap NYSE-traded stocks could be bought at any price because the quality and the growth-rates of the underlying companies virtually guaranteed that stock prices would maintain their upward trends. The “nifty fifty” not only collapsed with the overall market during 1973-1974, most members of the group under-performed the overall market from 1973 to 1982.

In 1999-2000 the story was the “technology-driven productivity miracle”. The belief was that due to accelerating technological progress and the internet it was reasonable to value almost any company with a web site at hundreds of millions of dollars and it was reasonable to pay at least 50-times annual revenue for any company with a decent high-tech product. Most of our readers will remember how that worked out.

In 2006-2007 there were three popular stories that combined to explain why prices would continue to rise, one being “the great moderation”, the second being the brilliance of the current batch of central bankers (these monetary maestros would make sure that nothing bad happened), and the third being the unstoppable rapid growth of the emerging markets. Reality was then revealed by the events of 2008.

The story is always different, but it always has two characteristics: It always seems plausible while prices are rising and it always turns out to be completely bogus.

The most popular story used these days to explain why the US equity bull market is bound to continue despite high valuations is often called “TINA”, which stands for “There Is No Alternative”. The belief is that with interest rates near zero and likely to remain there for a long time to come it is reasonable to pay what would otherwise be considered an extremely high price for almost any stock that offers a dividend yield. There is simply no alternative!

We can be sure that the TINA story will turn out to be bogus and that the high-priced dividend plays of today will go the way of the “nifty fifty”. We just don’t know when.

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