Some of the country’s most famous investors, including Warren Buffett and John Bogle, have started to make the case that it’s time to dive back into the stock market.
They are usually careful to add that they don’t know what stocks will do in the short term. Yet their basic message is clear enough: stocks are now cheap, irrational fears have been driving the market down lately, and people who buy today will be glad that they did.
After a day like Tuesday, when the market rose 11 percent, it’s easy to see the merits of the argument.
But there is another argument that deserves more attention than it has gotten so far. It’s the bearish argument that is based neither on fears that the country may be sliding into another depression nor on gut-level worries about the unknown. It is based on numbers and history, and it has at least as much claim on reason as the bullish argument does.
It goes something like this: Stocks are truly cheap only relative to their values over the last 20 years, a period that will go down as one of the great bubbles in history. If you take a longer view, you see that the ratio of stock prices to corporate earnings is only slightly below its long-term average. And in past economic crises — during the 1930s and 1970s — stocks fell well below their long-run average before they turned around.
To make matters worse, corporate earnings have now started to plunge, too. Assuming that they keep dropping, stocks would also need to fall to keep the price-earnings ratio at its current level.
As stocks were soaring on Tuesday afternoon, I called James Melcher to hear a dose of fact-based bearishness. Mr. Melcher is president of Balestra Capital, a hedge fund in New York, who wrote an essay for his clients two years ago that predicted the broad outlines of the financial crisis (and then arranged Balesta’s portfolio accordingly). Like the bulls, he said that no one could know what the market would do in the short term. “But to think stocks are cheap now,” he added, “is not rational.”
He went on: “In the last 20 years — and particularly in the last six or seven — you had the most massive creation of liquidity the world has ever known.” Consumers went ever deeper into debt, thanks to loose lending standards, and a shadow banking system, made up of hedge funds and investment banks, allowed Wall Street to do the same. All that debt lifted economic growth and stock returns.
“It was a nice party,” Mr. Melcher said. “The problem is that all the bills are coming due at the same time.” He thinks stocks could easily fall an additional 20 percent and maybe 35 percent before hitting bottom.
So who’s right — the bears or the bulls? The smartest people in both camps, like Mr. Melcher, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Bogle, have a healthy dose of humility about their own conclusions. And when you dig into their arguments, you find that they’re not quite as different as they first sound. But they are different, and it’s worth taking a minute to consider the numbers.
(See Bogle's latest CNBC appearance in the video)