For the average person trying to decide how to feel about the economy, the single biggest data point is the stock market. When share prices are rising, the implicit message is that finance professionals -- who, after all, dedicate their lives to understanding such things and should therefore know what's happening -- have decided that life is good and getting better.
So the rest of us relax and go shopping. Known as the "wealth effect," this tendency of asset prices to affect consumer behavior is now a key policy goal of the US and pretty much every other major government.
But what if it's all a gigantic, multi-trillion-dollar con? That's the conclusion a growing number of analysts are reaching as they dig into the reality behind the recent record highs in US equity prices.
The first part of the story goes like this: The US has lowered interest rates to the point where it is actually more profitable for many companies to borrow money and use the proceeds to buy back their own shares, thus eliminating the need to pay dividends on those shares. Gordon T. Long of Macro Analytics recently ran the numbers:
Unprecedented Buybacks Levels
In case you are in the 1% who have been too busy counting your startling increase in net worth, let me first highlight the velocity with which corporate buybacks have accelerated to.
90% of all S&P 500 profits are presently being spent on corporate Buybacks and Dividends. This is historically unheard of. We are approaching nearly $2 Trillion in buybacks by the S&P 500 members within a forecasted 2 year period. So why is this distortion happening?
A Free Tax Ride
We presently have one of the biggest tax ruses in history going on as the Fed and US Treasury desperately try and increase the wealth effect to elevate asset prices and finance government debt. To make low bond yield seem relatively attractive (at present historic lows), the Fed needs to get stock yields down via elevating stock prices. Corporations have been willing accomplices in this charade.
Generic Tax Example
- Dividend payout rate approximates the S&P 500 average of 2.25% per annum.
- Borrowing costs approximate 3.5% per annum
- Corporate nominal US tax rate 35%
- Assume stock trades at $100/share with 100 shares outstanding,
- Market Capitalization of $10,000 (100 X 100)
A 2.25% Dividend rate means a $2.25 Dividend payout per year.
If we were to borrow $225 to buyback 2 1/4 shares it would cost $7.89 ($225 @ 3.5%)
The tax deductibility of $7.89 at a nominal tax rate of 35% would be $2.76
Therefore our model corporation would save $0.51 ($2.76 - $2.25)) by borrowing to buy back their shares.
Long goes on to illustrate the point using Apple and IBM, and concludes that buying back stock, even at today's elevated levels, is a profitable arbitrage.
What does this mean? The short answer is that the bull market is fake, fueled primarily by companies looking to save money on taxes rather than invest in undervalued shares. In effect they are, with the government's help, tricking both their shareholders and individual investors into buying overvalued equities in order to generate bigger year-end executive bonuses for themselves.
Arguing for the validity of this cynical conclusion is the fact that corporate insiders are selling their personal shares while directing their companies to buy back those same shares. See Rise in legal insider selling raises yellow flag:
Corporate insiders are selling shares of their own stock at a quickened pace at the same time the U.S. stock market is making new highs, a bearish sign that raises a yellow caution flag for investors.
Neil Leeson, an ETF strategist at Ned Davis Research, zapped out a warning to clients today about "legal" insider trading.
"Despite the fact that most investors feel they have no alternative to being fully invested (in stocks), there is one crowd of investors who has turned into pretty consistent sellers, and that's corporate insiders," Leeson told clients in a video.
In fact, insider selling has picked up so much that is has generated a new "sell signal" on the market, Leeson said, citing an NDR indicator that tracks and measures insider buying and selling.
"Insider selling," Leeson says, "is typically bearish for markets."
When insiders are selling, it sends the message that they believe their company's shares have become fully valued and, therefore, have limited upside.
The second part of the story is even more disturbing, because it involves the world's central banks which are now, apparently, buying equities directly. From Cris Sheridan at Financial Sense:
In a recently published interview with Financial Sense, David Marsh, Co-Founder and Managing Director of the OMFIF, explains how central banks are now suffering the consequences of their own low-rate policies and, like everyone else, attempting to earn greater returns by shifting directly into stocks.
Although a limited number of central banks have been doing this for quite some time, on a "worldwide scale it is relatively new...and therefore really worth taking heed of," said David.
When asked how long this might last, David didn't think this was a temporary move but "part of a longer-term trend." Central banks, he said, "tend to be rather herd-like creatures. They will look at this market for a number of years, figure out how best to attack it...and then once they've discovered a taste for these markets, they will stay there."
Although careful with his choice of words, David does warn that this growing trend may contribute to a "slightly overheated international equity market":
"I'm not saying that this is the factor driving the markets but it may be a factor in some areas leading to a possible tendency for overheating. It is interesting that the central bankers' bank, the Bank for International Settlements, just over the weekend has pointed out that some capital market participants are getting a little bit carried away by euphoria and investing too much in risky assets. And, of course, this is really like the pot calling the kettle black because many of the shareholders of the BIS, which includes 60 central banks from around the world, are themselves investing in equities. Although they are trying to do it, I'm sure, in a way that isn't driving up equity prices, they may be in aggregate helping to lead to what we might think in future years has become a slightly overheated international equity market."
The result of all this more-or-less random stock buying is a market that is, by pretty much every valuation measure, hyper-expensive and therefore ready for (at least) a serious correction. For a sense of what happens when our manifestly-false bull market finally ends, see this evocatively-titled essay from Automatic Earth: Don't Go Walk Under Wall Street Windows