Markets: Things will improve, or not

A Chartered Financial Analyst explains it all.

The Toronto CFA Society, a non-profit group that supports the educational development of Chartered Financial Analysts, held its 51st annual dinner on Oct. 2. The CFA, of course, is the designation of choice for those hoping to make a living as a portfolio manager, investment analyst or corporate finance executive. And as you might imagine, there are many so-initialled living and working in Toronto. At the end of the workday that Thursday, a herd of Chartered Financial Analysts migrated, mostly on foot, from the Bay Street financial district to the CFA Society soiree in a ballroom at the Sheraton hotel on Queen Street — where they promptly lined up several bodies deep at the bar.

It is CFA holders who are typically the front-line workers when it comes to capital markets. And so the fact that Canada’s benchmark S&P/TSX composite index had plunged a terrifying 613 points that very day was, as you might expect, topic of conversation No. 1.

To the credit of the profession, no one at the dinner seemed unduly concerned. (No one was visibly sobbing, anyway.) And, in fact, most seemed to have events well in hand. And why wouldn’t they? Part of this job is understanding the natural cycle of boom and bust, and the ability to deal with bear markets is a key skill in this profession. Let’s not forget, either, that the dinner has been held through eight recessions since its founding, and the CFA Society is still thriving. So, some perspective, please. Still, the question on everyone’s mind that evening was, When will this financial crisis pass?

The answer fell to Myles Zyblock, chief institutional market strategist with RBC Capital Markets, who was chosen to deliver the annual Fearless Forecast, a hallmark of this dinner and a much-anticipated event on Bay Street. So with the pressure on, Zyblock hit the stage in an exuberant mood and proffered many graphs and charts to explain just what the hell has been going on in stock, bond and commodity markets.

Zyblock warned early in his presentation that the global slowdown will deepen over the next six to nine months. “Every indicator says this is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. The reason for this, Zyblock explained, can be found in the tight correlation between the credit ratio (a number that captures the amount of household debt in relation to the larger economy) and asset prices. Not surprisingly, when total credit in the economy is expanding, asset prices climb. Conversely, as we see credit contract, we might expect asset prices to do the same. Consider the S&L crisis of the late 1980s, which, according to Zyblock, is our “best worst-case scenario.” When the credit ratio sank, commercial real estate prices took a big hit and six years of sluggish economic growth followed.

Zyblock went on to predict that headline inflation in the U.S. will fall to below 1.5% next year as the unwinding of credit leads to general deflation, and that S&P 500 earnings will be down 9% this year and 7% next as a result.

On the bright side, even though earnings will be down, stock markets generally begin moving up nine months before earnings improve at the end of a recession. And that fact suggests that if home prices stabilize, we could actually see the stock market rising by the end of next year. Zyblock’s big prediction of the night was that the S&P 500 would actually be up 11% by this time next year — and that the S&P/TSX composite index would be up 5%.

There is a lot of cash piling up on the sidelines, says Zyblock, and that will eventually fuel a rally. (He’s watching leading indicators like the ISM manufacturing index for a sign as to when we’ve hit bottom. “These are the things that will tell us when it’s time to put risk back into the portfolio,” says Zyblock.)

But he was also careful to check that optimism, and near the end of his presentation displayed a graph that showed the difference between historical forecast estimates of S&P 500 returns and actual returns. The graph made clear an unsettling point: At big turning points like this, expert opinion is actually not that good at predicting stock market performance. In fact, it’s pretty bad. So Zyblock hedged his call a bit, observing prudently, if not a bit facetiously, that, “At this time next year we could or could not be in recession, fighting inflation or deflation, and may or may not be in a bull or bear market.” Knowing glances all around.