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Trading a Range-Bound Market


Quality companies outperform in an unsteady tape.


Editor's Note: This article was written for Prof. John Mauldin's Weekly E-Letter. Below is a brief note from Prof. Mauldin.

Are we in a bull, a bear, or a cowardly lion market? As we will see, the answer can make a huge difference in your investment portfolio. This week I am at my Strategic Investment conference in La Jolla. About four times a year I take a break from writing the letter and bring in a guest writer. This week Thoughts from the Frontline will have the very distinguished analyst and author Vitaliy Katsenelson.

In his recent book, Active Value Investing: Making Money in Range-Bound Markets (Wiley, 2007), he exhorted investors to fasten their seat belts and lower expectations for the next decade or so. He also provided a strategy for improving returns in this environment, what he calls range-bound or cowardly lion markets. Long-time readers will recognize some themes consistent with my own research, but Vitaliy adds some very interesting twists that I believe will make you think. In today's letter, Vitaliy runs through his analysis of what will happen and provides an overview of how investors can make money in what will otherwise be an ocean of stagnant returns. Warning: the letter will print long, but that is because there are a lot of great charts.

Let me also highly recommend Vitaliy's book, Active Value Investing. I think as you read today's letter, you will get a sense of why I am so enthusiastic about his work. You can get you copy at

For the next dozen years or so the U.S. broad stock markets will be a wild roller-coaster ride. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index will go up and down (and in the process will set all-time highs and multiyear lows), stagnate, and trade in a tight range. At some point during the ride, index investors and buy and hold stock collectors will realize that their portfolios aren't showing much of a return.

I know this prediction has a mild sci-fi feel to it. After all, how could I possibly know what the market will do, especially that far into the future? Though I'll explain in more detail in just a second why I have the audacity to make this prediction, let me offer you a little factoid: over the last 200 years, every full-blown, long-lasting (secular) bull market (and we just had a supersized one from 1982 to 2000) was followed by a range-bound market that lasted about 15 years. Yes, this happened every time, with the exception of the Great Depression, over the last two centuries.

Though we tend to think about market cycles in binary terms - bull (rising) or bear (declining) - in the long run markets spend a lot more time in bull or range-bound (sideways) states, roughly half in each, and visit a bear cage a lot less often then we think. This distinction between bear and range-bound markets is extremely important, as you'd invest very differently in one versus the other.

Are bull markets driven by superfast economic growth? Are range-bound markets caused by subpar economic growth? Could the subpar market performance be related to high or low inflation?

The answer to all these questions is undoubtedly - "no." Though it is hard to observe in the everyday noise of the stock market, in the long run stock prices are driven by two factors: earnings growth (or decline) and/or price-to-earnings expansion (or contraction).

As is apparent from Exhibits 1 & 2, either by a decade at a time or a market cycle at a time, it is difficult to find a link between stock performance and the economy (e.g., GDP, corporate earnings growth, or inflation). The connection does exist, but periods of disconnect appear to last for decades at a time.

Exhibit 1

Click to enlarge

Exhibit 2

Click to enlarge

What about interest rates? Exhibit 3 shows P/Es for the S&P 500 (based on one-year trailing earnings) and inverse long-term bond yields - the implied P/E - the famous Fed Model. This model, despite its name, is not endorsed by the Fed; it indicates the existence of a tight relationship between (inverse of) long-term Treasury bonds and P/Es of the S&P 500.

Exhibit 3

Click to enlarge

By taking a look at the last full 1966-2000 range-bound/bull market cycle (see Exhibit 3), we can see that the Fed Model perfectly predicted the direction of equities in relation to interest rates (okay, assuming you could predict interest rates). Long-term interest rates were rising from 1966 to 1982, while implied and actual P/Es were falling. Whereas from 1982 to 2000 interest rates were dropping, and implied and actual P/Es were rising. Intellectually that makes sense, because stocks and bonds compete for investors' capital, and thus higher interest rates make equities less attractive and vice versa.

However, it is hard to find any relationship between interest rates and the animal with its name on the secular market if you look at the first 66 years of the 20th century. None!

It's difficult to dismiss the role interest rates play in stock valuations, but they seem to be a second fiddle in the orchestra conducted by economic growth and valuation. If the Fed Model worked flawlessly, how could we explain declining P/Es of Japanese stocks in the last decade of the 20th century, when interest rates declined and were scratching zero levels?

It's valuation! If earnings growth in the long run remains consistent with the past, P/E is the wild card that is responsible for future returns. Though continued economic growth appears to be a wildly optimistic assumption given the meltdown of the housing industry in particular, and job layoffs, it's not particularly unrealistic to predict that we'll see economic growth overall. With the exception of the Great Depression (see Exhibits 1 & 2), though it had its ups and downs, economic growth was fairly stable throughout the 20th century.

Earnings, though more volatile than real GDP, grew consistently decade after decade, paying no attention to the animal (bull, bear ... or cowardly lion - my pet name for range-bound markets, whose bursts of occasional bravery lead to stock appreciation, but which are ultimately overrun by fear that leads to a subsequent descent) lending its name to the stock market.

Though economic fluctuations were responsible for short-term (cyclical) market volatility, as long as economic performance was not far from the average, long-term market cycles were either bull or range-bound. Valuation - the change in price to earnings, its expansion or contraction - was the wild card that was mainly responsible for markets being in a bull or range-bound state.

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