Seth Klarman On "Born Bulls", Bitcoin, & "The Truman Show" Market

With 40% of the portfolio in cash and having returned $4 billion to clients at year-end, Seth Klarman's Baupost Group has "drawn the line in the sand" as they reflect on the diminished opportunities in the so-called "Truman Show" market we see today. In the face of mixed economic data and at a critical inflection point in Federal Reserve policy, Klarman notes, the stock market, heading into 2014, resembles a Rorschach test - "what investors see in the inkblots says considerably more about them than it does about the market." From "born bulls" to "worry genes" and from Bitcoin to flash-mob-speculation, "there is a growing gap between the financial markets and the real economy...and the overall picture is one of growing risk and inadequate potential return almost everywhere one looks... as every 'Truman' under Bernanke’s dome knows the environment is phony."

Excerpted from Baupost Group's Seth Klarman letter,

"Born Bulls"

In the face of mixed economic data and at a critical inflection point in Federal Reserve policy, the stock market, heading into 2014, resembles a Rorschach test. What investors see in the inkblots says considerably more about them than it does about the market.

If you were born bullish, if you’ve never met a market you didn’t like, if you have a consistently short memory, then stock probably look attractive, even compelling. Price-earnings ratios, while elevated, are not in the stratosphere. Deficits are shrinking at the federal and state levels. The consumer balance sheet is on the mend. U.S. housing is recovering, and in some markets, prices have surpassed the prior peak. The nation is on the road to energy independence. With bonds yielding so little, equities appear to be the only game in town. The Fed will continue to hold interest rates extremely low, leaving investors no choice but to buy stocks it doesn’t matter that the S&P has almost tripled from its spring 2009 lows, or that the Fed has begun to taper purchases and interest rates have spiked. Indeed, the stock rally on December’s taper announcement is, for this contingent, confirmation of the strength of this bull market. The picture is unmistakably favorable. QE has worked. If the economy or markets should backslide, the Fed undoubtedly stands ready to once again ride to the rescue. The Bernanke/Yellen put is intact. For now, there are no bubbles, either in sight or over the horizon.

But if you have the worry gene, if you’re more focused on downside than upside, if you’re more interested in return of capital than return on capital, if you have any sense of market history, then there’s more than enough to be concerned about. A policy of near-zero short-term interest rates continues to distort reality with unknown but worrisome long-term consequences. Even as the Fed begins to taper, the announced plan is so mild and contingent – one pundit called it “taper-lite” – that we can draw no legitimate conclusions about the Fed’s ability to end QE without severe consequences. Fiscal stimulus, in the form of sizable deficits, has propped up the consumer, thereby inflating corporate revenues and earnings. But what is the right multiple to pay on juiced corporate earnings? Pretty clearly, lower than otherwise. Yet Robert Schiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E valuation is over 25, a level exceeded only three times before – prior to the 1929, 2000 and 2007 market crashes. Indeed, on almost any metric, the U.S. equity market is historically quite expensive.

A skeptic would have to be blind not to see bubbles inflating in junk bond issuance, credit quality, and yields, not to mention the nosebleed stock market valuations of fashionable companies like Netflix and Tesla. The overall picture is one of growing risk and inadequate potential return almost everywhere one looks.

There is a growing gap between the financial markets and the real economy.

"Flash-Mob Speculation"

When it comes to stock market speculation, it’s never hard to build a “coalition of willing.” A flash mob of day traders, momentum investors, and the usual hot money crowd drove one of the best years in decades for U.S., Japanese, and European equities. Even with the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed still bloated and the economy barely improved from a year ago, the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Russell 2000 regularly posted new record highs (45 for the S&P, 52 for the Dow, and 66 for the Russell) while gaining a remarkable 32.4%, 29.7%, and 38.8% including dividend reinvestment, respectively, in 2013. It was the best year for the S&P 500 since 1997... In the closing weeks of 2013, it was as if the strong gravitational pull of valuation had been temporarily suspended and stock prices had been launched by a booster rocket, allowing them to reach escape velocity. As with bull markets past, favored stocks started to become unmoored and unbounded.

"Speculative Froth" and Dot-Com 2.0

Whether you see today’s investment glass as half full or half empty depends on your age and personality type, as well as your “lifetime” of experiences in the markets and how you interpret them. Our assessment is that the Fed’s continuing stimulus and suppression of volatility has triggered a resurgence of speculative froth. Margin debt measured as a percentage of GDP recently neared an all-time high. IPO activity in 2013 was greater than it has been in years, with 230 offerings taking place, 59% more than last year and approaching 2007’s record of 288 transactions.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-03-08/seth-klarman-born-bulls-bitcoin-truman-show-market

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