The Price of Fear

The Equity Risk Premium has once again drifted up to all-time high levels in recent weeks. The S&P500 has an earnings yield of around 7.9% (assuming S&P earnings of $105 versus current price of 1,330). Ten year treasuries are 1.6%, so the resulting 6.3% spread is back at levels not seen since the early 70s. Yields remain excessively low; JPMorgan pointed out this weekend in their Global Data Watch publication that the yield curve implies negative real rates on government debt going out for ten years, an outcome outside even the experience of Japan. Whatever you think of stocks, bonds have to be a worse bet.

The Math is as follows: a 1.9% dividend yield on the S&P500 will, assuming 4% annual dividend growth (the 50 year average is 5%) deliver almost five times the return as ten year treasuries – assuming (perhaps crucially) no change in dividend yields in ten years. Or put another way, the holder of ten year treasuries could sell them, place 22% of the proceeds in stocks with the rest in riskless/returnless treasury bills and get to the same place, with 4/5ths of his capital available for other opportunities.

Once you figure in taxes (35% on treasury interest versus 15% on dividends) you only need put 17% of the proceeds from selling the treasuries into stocks. This is how distorted bond yields are – and they’re likely to remain so. Recent weakness in economic data, most notably the June payroll data, may result in further Fed buying of long term bonds. They wouldn’t recommend you do this yourself, as I wrote some weeks ago. The Fed is relentlessly driving the return out of bonds.

Investors have good reason to be cautious. This weekend’s Spanish bank bailout seemed inevitable and also inconclusive at the same time. Few believe the Euro’s fundamental problems have been solved. At the same time, in the U.S. current law requires a series of tax increases and spending cuts starting on January 1. The so-called “fiscal cliff” is estimated to be as much as a 3% hit to GDP and an instant recession. Few believe this will actually happen, reasoning that Congress will roll everything back another year and rely on the 2012 election results to settle the fiscal policy argument once and for all. However, while it seems sensible to assume Congress will act in this fashion, there seems little urgency to do so until the lame-duck session following the November elections. Meanwhile, hiring and capital expenditure decision that rely on some reasonable assumptions about positive GDP growth next year are increasingly at risk. One thing on which supporters of both parties can surely agree is that leaving resolution of near term fiscal policy to so late in the year is irresponsible. The Price of Fear is set in part by our elected representatives in Washington, DC.

Our most recent investment has been to increase our position in Coeur d’Alene. Based on our analysis we think it’s valued at around a 30% discount to the net asset value of its reserves, in common with most miners. Having some exposure to gold and silver at a discount is one way to protect against higher inflation, since that will increasingly appear an attractive solution for most people’s problems (there are more debtors than creditors in the world). In addition, CDE recently announced a stock buyback of $100M< around 6% of their equity market capitalization.

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