Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Stock Market and the World in 2022-2023

2022 has become one of the most extraordinary year ever. The stock market reached all-time highs as we tallied 6m deaths (condolences to all the bereaved families) and Russia decided to start a war. A further 10m people were forced out of their homes as refugees, while people in sunny Singapore happily go for overseas tours. Some even decide to visit Ukraine to proselytize! (Dear Singaporeans, please don't do that...) It is a sad year and I am sorry to say, I actually only have more bad news.

Courtesy of and Google Image search

There are three key topics in 2022-2023 which we will discuss today and they are all bad:

1. Inflation

2. Bear market and valuations

3. Regime change

We have seen inflation in recent months and we are going to see more inflation like we have never seen before. This is a new experience for most of us and it is not pleasant. Essentially, our money in the bank is losing value but it is not visible. $100,000 doesn't actually become $90,0000 but effectively, it does because prices of things we want to buy are going up. The geo-political landscape is making things worse.

Wars are inflationary because everything that is used in the war does not create value add but takes away useful resources that can propel the economy. The Russian-Ukraine war in particular is causing commodities prices to skyrocket and disrupting global manufacturing supply chain especially in autos and semiconductors. But the repercussions can go far and wide. For example, prices of eggs in Singapore also skyrocketed (for reasons unclear to me now). All this happened while the West was trying tame 7-8% inflation, which has not happened for a long time. 

This is a big deal and this is bad. We have never experienced 7-8% inflation for more than 40 years. 2-3% inflation, yes and it is manageable. Our wage growth usually beats that and everyone is happy but when inflation is that high, lower income families may not see income growth covering cost inflation. For middle and upper income households, people are also seeing their luxury comfort slipping away. Some cannot change iPhone every year now because it's literally causing a kidney for a donor (see below).

Kidney donors are paid $2,000

Air ticket prices are rising, so that means less overseas travel even as we open up. Car and COE prices are also going up. In general, it will be just more expensive to live. Corporates are also not doing great. Wage inflation is all the rage now, banks and prominent startups in the US are forking out $100,000 to get fresh grads (It's also a talent war out there). Manufacturing companies see raw material cost increasing and those who can afford to pass it on do so, further exacerbating inflation, those who cannot take a hit to the margins. That is not good for share prices which brings us to the stock market discussion.

S&P500 as of May 2022

We are probably at the start of the bear market. The S&P500 peaked at 4,766 and has dropped 15% since then. The headwinds are so strong that it is hard to see how the market can still go up. We have valuations still at very high levels but topline growth is slowing. The biggest worry though, is not that. It is the US interest rate. For those who studied this either on this infosite or in school or in finance theory, you might remember that valuations are, by and large, determined by interest rates. In textbook language, this is the risk-free rate, which usually meant the 10 year government bond yield. 

The reason why 50x PER was ok for a while was that risk free rate was below 1%. So when that happened, equity risk premium was also compressed and investors were ok with 50x PER which is roughly 2% earnings yield. The alternative was to buy US Treasury bonds at 1%, or some boring companies' bonds at 3%, which wasn't that palatable. The cherry on the cake was, of course, 50x internet companies always put in some spectacular growth story, so investors just piled up to buy.

But now, the story has changed. If the 10 year US Treasury bond yield is going to 2.5%, you can no longer justify 50x PER, cherry or not. Calculating the earnings yield again, say the equity risk premium is also 2.5%, we are talking about 5% earnings yield for the market which translates to 20x PER. So in this new regime, a sexy growth stock could trade at 25-30x but 50x is definitely, a stretch. That is one key reason why Netflix and some of the hot stocks of past 5 years collapsed.

In the stock market, every 10-20 years, we see a regime change. We all heard about the Nifty Fifties and the bear market in the late 60s of the era past. In recent times, the late 1990s were led by the internet stocks. Then they collapsed and new leaders from Asia emerged. This was the boom of China that also drove the commodities supercycle. It collapsed with the GFC and we entered the current regime around 2011-2012. The first half was driven by recovery and false starts - remember Brexit and Grexit and the shadow banks in China? The second half was driven by the FANGs. We are now at the bloody ending in this horror movie (maybe The Shining and it's not going to end well). The FANGs have all declined and Netflix, the N here, fell 80% from its peak. This is a watershed moment.

Some of the other FANGs might do well, some might not, it is hard to say. It is probably prudent to trim some holdings if you have and wait for a better entry. In the broader sense, we are in another era now(改朝换代了), we are now in a bear market and cheap valuations, which has long been forgotten as the true compass for investors will now be ever more important. 2022-23 will be turbulent and we just have to wait and see how far this decline can take us before things get settled down.

So meanwhile, keep calm, keep liquidity, stay vigilant and stay safe!

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