Thursday, November 29, 2007

Recipe for a meltdown

The primary culprits behind the market turmoil are sky-high stock prices -- and it's only going to get worse, writes Fortune's Shawn Tully.

From Fortune:

With the S&P down over 10% from its October record high, TV pundits and Wall Street strategists are blaming the most obvious culprits for the sudden reversal of fortune, chiefly the subprime crisis and the looming threat of a recession. But it's neither the credit crunch, nor a slowing economy -- nor a third hobgoblin, the weak dollar -- that pushed the markets into correction territory Monday.

The real reason is so basic, and so antithetical to Wall Street's habitual happy talk about stocks, that it barely rates a mention in the market chatter. Put simply, stocks are extremely expensive relative to the daunting risk in owning them. At current prices, earnings can't possibly grow fast enough to give investors the fat returns they covet.

There's just one way for equities to get their lustre back -- their prices have to fall substantially so that investors can harvest attractive returns from the modest profit growth that's in the cards. Like the biblical sheik who hastens to Samarra to escape death, only to find death waiting for him there, stocks have an inescapable appointment with a withering fate.

Naturally, stocks could bubble back to their old heights in the next few weeks or months. If the recent past proves anything, it's that the course of equity prices is totally unpredictable from day to day or quarter to quarter. As the economist Milton Friedman once told me, after returning my call collect, "Stock prices are rational in the long-term, but in the short-term, they're far from rational. They're full of noise."...MORE