US Equities: Resilient Force or Case Study in Denial?

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As readers of this blog know, I don’t write much about whether stocks collectively are over or under priced, other than my usual start of the year posts about markets or in response to market crisis. There are two reasons. The first is that there is nothing new or insightful that I can bring to overall market analysis, and I generally find most market punditry, including my own, to be more a hindrance than a help, when it comes to investing.
 The second is that I am a terrible market timer, and having learned that lesson, try as best as I can to steer away from prognosticating about future market direction. That said, as markets test their highs, talk of market bubbles has moved back to the front pages, and I think it is time that we have this debate again, though I have a sense that we are revisiting old arguments.
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Who are you going to believe?
One reason that investors are conflicted and confused about what is coming next is because there is are clearly political and economic storms that are on the horizon, and there seems to be no consensus on what those storms will mean for markets. The US equity market itself has been resilient, taking bad macroeconomic and political news in stride, and a bad day, week or month seems to be followed by a strong one, often leaving the market unchanged but investors wrung out. Investors themselves seem to be split down the middle, with the optimists winning out in one period and the pessimists in the next one. One measure of investor skittishness is stock price variability, most easily measured with the VIX, a forward-looking estimate of market volatility:
Here again, the market’s message seems to be at odds with the stories that we read about investor uncertainty, with the VIX levels, at least on average, unchanged from prior years. If you follow the market and macroeconomic experts either in print or on the screen, they seem for the most part either terrified or befuddled, with many seeing darkness wherever they look. As in the Christmas Carol, the ghosts of market gurus from past crises have risen, convinced that their skill in calling the last correction provides special insight on this market. In the process, many of them are showing that their success in market timing was more luck than skill, often revealing astonishing levels of ignorance about instruments and markets. (At the risk of upsetting those of you who believe these gurus, GE is not Enron and index funds are not responsible for creating market bubbles…)
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