Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Stock Market Boom in the midst of a faltering economy

James Surowiecki  @ The New Yorker takes a look at the stock market boom - driven by a growing disconnect between the welfare of Americans and the profits of "U.S." corporations:
With the stock market setting new highs on a nearly daily basis, even as the
real economy just slogs along, there seems to be one question on everyone’s mind: are we in the middle of yet another market bubble? For a growing chorus of money managers and market analysts, the answer is yes: the market is a house of cards, held up by easy money and investor delusion, and we are rushing all too blithely toward an inevitable crash. Given that we’ve recently lived through two huge asset bubbles, it’s easy to see why they’re worried. But in this case the delusion is theirs.

The bubble believers make their case with a blizzard of charts and historical analogies, all illustrating the same point: the future will look much like the past, and that means we’re headed for trouble. Smithers & Company, a London market-research firm, says that, according to a number of market indicators, stocks are, by historical standards, forty to fifty per cent overvalued. The bears admit that corporate profits are high, which makes the market’s price-to-earnings ratio look quite normal, but they insist that this isn’t sustainable.
They think that earnings will return to historical norms, and that, when they do, stock prices will be hit hard. Today, after-tax corporate profits are more than ten per cent of G.D.P., while their historical average is closer to six per cent. That’s a vast gap, and it’s why bears believe that the market is, in the words of the high-profile money manager John Hussman, “overvalued, overbought, overbullish.”

It’s certainly unusual for corporate profits to soar during a slow recovery. But the argument for a stock-market bubble is flawed: when it comes to the role that corporations play in the U.S. economy, the present looks very different from the past, which means that historical comparisons to the nineteen-fifties, let alone the thirties, tell us little. The four most dangerous words in investing may be “This time, it’s different.” But this time it is different.

Take taxes: one big reason that after-tax corporate profits are much higher than their historical norm is that corporations pay much less in taxes than they used to. In 1951, corporations had to pay almost half of reported profits in taxes. In 1965, they had to pay more than thirty per cent. Today, they pay only around twenty per cent.