The party's over

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Jan 4 15:10:19 MST 2001


>From the Common Dreams news center

http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0103-04.htm

Published on Wednesday, January 3, 2001

The Stock Market Party's Over by Mark Weisbrot

With the stock market of 2000 racking up its worst performance in more than
a decade and a half, the wrangling between bulls and bears over what to
expect in 2001 has begun in earnest.

The Nadaq's record 39 percent loss over the year (down more than half from
its peak) has shattered the illusion that prices can be bid up to any level
that investors are willing to pay for them, and stay there. Still, many
people assume that since stocks have historically outperformed bonds, over
long periods of time, this must happen in the future.

We often hear people say that they are "in it for the long haul," as if it
were guaranteed that stocks will be a good investment if they are held for
a long enough period of time. In fact they are often told just that by
investment counselors.

Ironically, it is the long-term future of stocks that looks very bad right
now. And unlike stock prices in the short-term-- which can fluctuate wildly
-- in a bubble situation, it is the long run that one can actually say some
thing definitive about.

What does it mean to say that there is a bubble in the stock market? It
means that the average price of stocks is still much too high, even after
the correction of 2000, to be justified by earnings that the economy could
generate in the future. In other words, it is not possible to come up with
a future scenario consistent with anyone's projections about the economy
that would make investors want to hold stocks for a long time-- unless
stocks prices were to first drop very steeply.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was the
first economist to work through the arithmetic of the bubble, and his
findings have since been confirmed by other prominent economists. It works
like this: in the long run, investors hold stocks only because of the
earnings of the underlying companies. Stockholders get a return from two
sources: the shared earnings paid in the form of dividends, and an increase
in the price of the stock (capital gains).

The average dividend payout is only about 1.5%. Capital gains, over the
long run, cannot grow much faster than the economy-- unless you are
starting from a point where stocks are undervalued relative to future
earnings. But the average stock price relative to earnings-- known as the
price-to-earning s ratio-- is still near twice its historic level. So
unless you are willing to believe that stock prices are unrelated to the
profits of the companies they represent, you can't expect capital gains
much higher than the long run growth rate of the economy-- at least from
here on out. That rate is currently estimated at about 2.2% annually.

That adds up to 3.7%, and even if growth turned out to be considerably
higher than the 2.2% that economists are projecting, it couldn't solve the
problem. It just doesn't make much sense to hold stocks rather than a US
Treasury bond, which has a similar real (inflation-adjusted) return but
almost no risk. Unless you think that other investors are going to keep
bidding up the price of stocks independently of earnings: in other words,
that the bubble will grow. But speculative bubbles can't grow forever--
eventually they must break.

Of course this analysis applies only to the whole market, or the average
stock. If you can pick the next Microsoft or Wal-Mart and get in early
enough , you could still do very well. But this is not easy to do. So most
individual and institutional investors maintain some sort of diversified
stock portfolio that moves more with the broad market. And at some point
they are going to move out of those stocks, in large numbers.

Depending on the steepness of further market declines, there is a real
danger to the US economy. Japan's stock market lost nearly 40 percent of
its value in 1990-- a decade later it is down even more, 64 percent from
its peak in 1989-- and its economy has yet to recover.

The Japanese scenario may be less likely here, but it would be foolish not
to act before a downward spiral began. The Fed should begin lowering
interest rates immediately. Both Congress and the executive branch should
abandon the extremist and groundless economic theories-- which we could
tolerate while the economy was booming-- that advocate paying off the
national debt over the next 12 years. A commitment to pay down the debt is
a commitment to reduce demand and slow the economy at a time when we really
don't know where the bottom of the current economic slowdown is going to be.

The record stock market run-up has generated great wealth for some, but not
most Americans, who still own little or no stock even in retirement funds.
The majority, who did not share in the festivities, should not get stuck
paying the bill.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
. His email address is weisbrot at cepr.net.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/





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