Yellenomics: The Folly of Free Money

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The Fed and the other major central banks have been planting time bombs all over the global financial system for years, but especially since their post-crisis money printing spree incepted in the fall of 2008.  Now comes a new leader to the Eccles Building who is not only bubble-blind like her two predecessors, but is also apparently bubble-mute. Janet Yellen is pleased to speak of financial bubbles as a “misalignment of asset prices,” and professes not to espy any on the horizon.

Let’s see. The Russell 2000 is trading at 85X actual earnings and that’s apparently “within normal valuation parameters.”  Likewise, the social media stocks are replicating the eyeballs and clicks based valuation madness of Greenspan’s dot-com bubble.  But there is nothing to see there, either–not even Twitter at 35X its current run-rate of sales or the $19 billion WhatsApp deal. Given the latter’s lack of revenues, patents and entry barriers to the red hot business of free texting, its key valuation metric reduces to market cap per employee–which  computes out to a cool $350 million for each of its 55 payrollers.   Never before has QuickBooks for startups listed, apparently, so many geniuses on a single page of spreadsheet.

Tesla: Valuation Lunacy Straight From the Goldman IPO Hatchery

Indeed, as during the prior two Fed-inspired bubbles of this century, the stock market is riddled with white-hot mo-mo plays which amount to lunatic speculations.  Tesla, for example, has sold exactly 27,000 cars since its 2010 birth in Goldman’s IPO hatchery and has generated $1 billion in cumulative losses over the last six years—–a flood of red ink that would actually be far greater without the book income from its huge “green” tax credits which, of course, are completely unrelated to making cars. Yet it is valued at $31 billion or more than the born-again General Motors, which sells about 27,000 autos every day counting weekends.

Even the “big cap” multiple embedded in the S&P500 is stretched to nearly 19X trailing GAAP earnings—the exact top-of-the-range where it peaked out in October 2007.  And that lofty PE isn’t about any late blooming earnings surge.  At year-end 2011, the latest twelve months (LTM) reported profit for the S&P 500 was $90 per share, and during the two years since then it has crawled ahead at a tepid 5 percent annual rate to $100.

So now the index precariously sits 20% higher than ever before. Yet embedded in that 19X multiple are composite profit margins at the tippy-top of the historical range. Moreover, the S&P 500 companies now carry an elephantine load of debt—$3.2 trillion to be exact (ex-financials). But since our monetary politburo has chosen to peg interest rates at a pittance, the reported $100 per share of net income may not be all that. We are to believe that interest rates will never normalize, of course,  but in the off-chance that 300 basis points of economic reality creeps back into the debt markets, that alone would reduce S&P profits by upwards of $10 per share.

America’s already five-year old business recovery  has also apparently discovered the fountain of youth, meaning that recessions have been abolished forever. Accordingly, the forward-year EPS hockey sticks touted by the sell-side can rise to the wild blue yonder—even beyond the $120 per share “ex-items” mark that the Street’s S&P500 forecasts briefly tagged a good while back. In fact, that was the late 2007 expectation for 2008—a year notable for its proof that the Great Moderation wasn’t all that; that recessions still do happen; and that rot builds up on business balance sheets during the Fed’s bubble phase, as attested to by that year’s massive write-offs and restructurings which caused actual earnings to come in on the short side at about $15!

In short, recent US history signifies nothing except that the sudden financial and economic paroxysm of 2008-2009 arrived, apparently, on a comet from deep space and shortly returned whence it came. Nor are there any headwinds from abroad. The eventual thundering crash of China’s debt pyramids is no sweat because the carnage will stay wholly inside the Great Wall; and even as Japan sinks into old-age bankruptcy, it demise will occur silently within the boundaries of its archipelago. No roiling waters from across the Atlantic are in store, either: Europe’s 500 million citizens will simply endure stoically and indefinitely the endless stream of phony fixes and self-serving lies emanating from their overlords in Brussels.

Meanwhile, what hasn’t been creeping along is the Fed’s balance sheet, which has exploded by $1.2 trillion or 41 percent versus two years ago and the S&P price index, which is up 47 percent in that span. Likewise, the NASDAQ index is up 60 percent compared to earnings growth that languishes in single digits.

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