Jeremy Grantham – The Market Appears Not To Care At All About The Past Or To Learn Much From It

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One of our favorite investors here at The Acquirer’s Multiple is Jeremy Grantham at GMO. GMO recently released its Q2 2017 Commentary in which Grantham highlights that while many believe we are living in a new era of investing, behaviorally nothing has changed in 92 years.

Here’s an excerpt from that commentary:

Now, cutting across that previous attempt to understand these major changes in our new 20-year era, comes an entirely behavioral approach. Whether sensibly or not, investors love high margins and like stable growth even if it’s modest, and hate inflation. They felt this way from 1925 to 1997 and they felt exactly the same way in our new era of 1997 to 2017. So, behaviorally it is absolutely not a new era.

It is precisely – to a 0.90 correlation – the same ole same ole. The peaks of 1929 and 1965 delivered favorable margins and inflation inputs but for a very short while in both cases. In contrast, the period of 1997 to 2017 has delivered to investors their preferred conditions almost the entire time, with only two very quick time-outs for market breaks. Can the market really be this easy to explain?

Well, it has been for 92 years! And what can we investors do with this information? It tells us that if we re-enter a period of old normal profits and old normal inflation, the market’s P/E will indeed mean revert to its old average.

And if we don’t re-enter such a period, the P/Es are likely to stay high. It tells us separately that if we expect a market crash, we should also expect to have a crash in margins (as we did in 2008-09) or a truly dramatic rise in sustained inflation (as we did in 1979-81) or some powerful combination. All of which is possible of course, but I think improbable, at least in the near term. This behavioral approach to explaining shifts in P/Es is certainly a much simpler equation than my previous stew-of-factors approach. But it does have some powerful similarities to my earlier arguments found in Parts 1 and 2 of “Not With A Bang But A Whimper”.

In both approaches, the role of profit margins is dominant. Improved margins not only move the earnings up directly, but also the P/E multiplier applied to those earnings. Inflation is also a strong secondary factor in both approaches, for low inflation, of course, drives down the interest rates, which appear to be an important ingredient in the stew.

So, where does this leave us? It suggests to me that I have in general been over-intellectualizing the working of the market for a few decades. I have had too strong a belief that investors would at least be influenced by past data in a sensible way. The market, however, appears not to care at all about the past or to learn much from it. This model for sure seems to say that for 92 years, at least, the market has with remarkable consistency been a coincident indicator of superficially appealing variables that in a strict economic sense have been inappropriate, and that have caused spectacular and unnecessary market volatility. The model is apparently a reflection of human nature and, of all factors influencing the market, human nature, as economically inefficient and unsophisticated it may be, seems the least likely to change.

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