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Goldman Slackers ‘Bear’ Indicator Show Blowup, but the Goldman Gang doesn’t seem too worried

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Published : September 05th, 2018
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We apologize for the continued issues with images. These images should all be linked so if you click them you can see the charts.

One year ago, we reported that in its attempt to calculate the likelihood, and timing, of the next bear market, Goldman Sachs created a proprietary “Bear Market Risk Indicator” which at the time had shot up to 67% – a level last seen just before the 2000 and 2007 crashes – prompting Goldman to ask, rhetorically, “should we be worried now?”

While Goldman’s answer was a muted yes, nothing dramatic happened in the months that followed – the result of Trump’s $1.5 trillion fiscal stimulus which pushed the US economy into a temporary, sugar-high overdrive – aside from the near correction in February which was promptly digested by the market on its path to new all time highs (here one has to exclude the rolling bear markets that have hit everything from emerging markets, to China, to commodities to European banks).

At the time, Goldman wrote that it examined over 40 data variables (among macro, market and technical data) and looked at their behaviour around major market turning points (bull and bear markets). Most, individually, did not work as leading indicators on a consistent basis, or they provided too many false positives to be useful predictors. So the bank developed a Bear Market Risk Indicator based on five factors, in combination, that do provide a reasonable guide to bear market risk – or at least the risk of low returns: valuation, ISM (growth momentum), unemployment, inflation and the yield curve.

And, as Goldman’s Peter Oppenheimer explained, while no single indicator is reliable on its own, the combination of these five seems to provide a reasonable signal for future bear market risk.

All of these variables are related. Tight labour markets are typically associated with higher inflation expectations. These, in turn, tend to tighten policy and weaken expectations of future growth. High valuations, at the same time, leave equities vulnerable to de-rating if growth expectations deteriorate or the discount rate rises, or, worse still, both of these occur together.

To aggregate these variables in a signal indicator, we took each variable and calculated
its percentile relative to its history since 1948. For the yield curve and unemployment
we took the lowest percentiles relative to history, while for the other indicators we took
the highest. We then took the average of these.

Fast forward to today, when one year later Goldman has redone the analysis (and after what may have been some prodding from clients and/or compliance, renamed its “Bear Market Risk Indicator” to “Bull/Bear Market Risk Indicator”) where it finds that the risk of a bear market – based on its indicator – is now not only nearly 10% higher than a year ago, but well above where it was just before the last two market crashes, putting the subjective odds of a crash at roughly 75%, well in the “red line” zone, and just shy of all time highs.

Or as Goldman puts it, “Our Bull/Bear market indicator is flashing red.

While one can argue with the subjective interpretation of this heuristic, a tangential analysis shows that Goldman’s indicator is inversely correlated with future returns, and as of this moment, Goldman is effectively forecasting a negative return from now until 2023.

Here even Goldman’s Oppenheimer admits that “the indicator is at levels which have historically preceded a bear market. Should we take this seriously? It’s always risky to argue that this time is different but there are two most likely scenarios when we think of equity returns over the next 3-5 years.”

Or, in other words, “how worried should we be about a bear market?”

Goldman’s answer is two-fold, laying out two possible outcomes from here, either a sharp, “cathartic” bear market, or just a period of slower, grinding low returns for the foreseeable future. Naturally, Goldman is more inclined to believe in the latter:

  1. A cathartic bear market across financial markets. This has been the typical pattern when this indicator has reached such lofty levels in the past. It would be most likely triggered by rising interest rates (and higher inflation), reversing the common factor that has fuelled financial asset valuations and returns over recent years or a sharper than expected decline in growth. Such a bear market could then ‘re-base’ valuations to a level where a new strong recovery cycle can emerge.
  2. A long period of relatively low returns across financial assets. This would imply a period of low returns without a clear trend in the market.

With retail investors still rushing to buy whatever institutional investors have left of offload in the very late innings of the longest bull market in history (and with Fidelity’s zero cost ETFs making it especially easy to do that), Goldman does not want to spook its clients into selling, and writes that “several factors suggest that a flatter return for longer may be more likely.” They are as follows:

i) Valuation is currently the most stretched of the factors in the Indicator – other factors such as inflation appear more reasonable. This is largely a function of very loose monetary policy and bond yields (see Exhibit 45).”

ii) Inflation and, therefore, interest rate rises have played an important part in rising bear market risks in past cycles. Structural factors may be keeping inflation lower than in the past, and central bank forward guidance is reducing interest rate volatility and the term premium. Without monetary policy tightening much, concerns about a looming recession – and therefore risks of a ‘cyclical’ bear market – are lower. So long as the Phillips curve remains as flat as it is now, strong labour markets can continue without the risk of a recession triggered by a tightening of interest rates. While this has not happened before in the US (and hence the economic cycle has not lasted more than 10 years), there have been examples of other economies experiencing very long economic cycles where the unemployment rate moved roughly sideways for many years.

Our economists have shown that there are good examples of long expansions, such as in Australia from 1992 to the present, the UK from 1992 to 2008, Canada from 1992 to 2008 and Japan from 1975 to 1992. Typically they find that a flatter Phillips curve, stronger financial regulation and a lack of financial imbalances are all good indicators that a long cycle is more likely.  On this later point, the signs are quite positive.

In the case of the US, our economists point out that a passive fiscal tightening, tighter financial conditions and supply constraints are likely to leave growth at 1.6% in 2020, below potential, leaving a greater risk of at least a technical recession in 2020-2021. But this is not their base case and their model (which uses economic and financial data from 20 advanced economies to estimate recession odds) puts the probability of a US recession at under 10% over the next year and just over 20% over the next two years, below the historical average.

iii) Aligned to this point, we can see that inflation targeting and independent central banks have both contributed to lower macro volatility and longer expansion phases in economic cycles since the 1980s.

So on the surface, while admitting we are overdue for a crash, Goldman spins the narrative into positioning what happens next not as a crash, but as a period of lower returns, adding that a sharp bear market in the absence of a recession is unlikely, and that generally equities rise when economic growth is positive:

… using US equity market data, the probability of negative annual equity returns falls dramatically as real GDP (lagged by 2Q) rises. So, for example, the probability of negative year-on-year returns when real GDP is between 1% and 2.5% is just 31%.

Or, in other words, “the absence of a trigger for a sharp economic downturn suggests that, while this cycle may have been the weakest in the post-war period, it is likely to be the longest. This, together with lower private sector imbalances, may reduce the prospect of a sharp bear market anytime soon.”

That’s the good news. The not so good news, is that as Goldman admits, with monetary and fiscal policy having thrown everything at the 2008 global financial crisis, “even if the next economic downturn turns out to be mild, it may prove difficult to reverse.” As a result, we may go back to an environment dominated by concerns over secular stagnation, for which Goldman lists two reasons:

  1. The US has already expanded fiscal policy and its debt levels and budget deficit are rising, which could make it difficult to find room for significant easing. The federal deficit will increase from $825bn (4.1% of GDP) to $1,250bn (5.5% of GDP) by 2021. By 2028, it is expected to rise to $2.05 trillion (7.0% of GDP). This would leave federal debt at 105% of GDP in ten years, 9pp higher than CBO’s latest projections.
  2. There may be room for US interest rates to be cut in the next downturn but less so than in other downturns. Also, European interest rates may still be at or close to zero when the next US downturn hits. The same would be true for Japan.

In other words, while Goldman’s indicators suggest a crash is imminent, the bank redirects the discussion to a period of low returns and secular stagnation, which while eliminating the threat of an imminent collapse presents even greater concerns about investing in the current market.

Most ominously, the bank admits that “the combination of constrained fiscal policy headroom in the US and limited room to cut interest rates in Japan and Europe may well dampen the ability to generate a strong coordinated policy response to any downturn, and also make it harder to get out of such a downturn.”

Said otherwise, whether the next crash is sharp and “cathartic” or slow and extended, the problem is what happens next, because as even Goldman now admits, the ammo to kickstart the US and global economy has already been used up.


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Andrew W. Sutton, MBA received graduate honors in the field of Economics and is the Chief Market Strategist for Sutton & Associates, LLC, a Registered Investment Adviser in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
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