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1999年的股神会怎么看今天的股市?

Shawn Tully 2018年03月01日

要了解今天的股市,最好看看巴菲特20年前的观点。

两周前的暴跌并没有让看好美国股市的人感到担心。2月初,富国银行、景顺和瑞士银行等机构的分析师和市场策略分析师在CNBC上预言,2018年美股将反弹,涨幅将达到甚至超过10%。

乐观主义者一直都在用看似超级理性的观点来进行解释:暴跌主要是市场无序波动,而真正要紧的是美国经济的光明前景。在他们看来,卓越的经济指标就是注定要持续抬升股市的“基本面”,或者说根本力量。

实际上,他们把两种“基本面”搞混了。经济基本面确实很强,股市基本面却很糟糕。

要弄清楚原因,最好的指南就是1999年的一篇文章《巴菲特先生和市场》(Mr. Buffett and the Market),1999年11月22日),它对巴菲特眼中的影响股价的因素进行了提炼,并解释了当时这些因素为什么带来了危险。这篇文章由《财富》杂志著名撰稿人卡罗尔·卢米斯于1999年巴菲特的两次非正式发言编写而成。

Last week’s big selloff isn’t fazing Wall Street’s bulls. In early February, analysts and market strategists from Wells Fargo, Invesco, and UBS, among several others, declared on CNBC that the stock market will rebound to post gains of 10% or more for 2018.

The optimists invariably present a seemingly super-rational explanation: The steep decline is mainly market noise, when what really matters is the strong outlook for America’s economy. In their view, the economy’s excellent metrics are the “fundamentals,” the essential forces, bound to keep propelling equities.

In reality, the bulls are confusing two kinds of “fundamentals.” The economic fundamentals are indeed strong. The stock market’s fundamentals are lousy.

To understand why, the best guide is a 1999 article that distilled Warren Buffett’s views on the factors that drive stock prices, and why they spelled danger at the time. The story (“Mr. Buffett and the Market,” Fortune 11/22/1999) was adapted by the great Fortune writer Carol Loomis from two informal talks that Buffett delivered that year.

沃伦·巴菲特在巴黎,1999年。他对那年股市泡沫的看法或许也适用于当下。摄影:Etienne De Malglaive—Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

巴菲特在这篇历久弥新的文章中指出,在任何时候,预测未来回报率的两个最有影响力的变量都是利率水平以及公司利润和国民收入之比。对巴菲特来说,它们就是基本面,也是左右股价的一对引擎。在任何时间段开始的时候,如果利率极低而且公司利润极高,随后10年或者更长时间里的回报率就非常有可能表现惨淡。鉴于现在的情况恰恰如此,投资者应该对巴菲特的分析给予高度关注。

公司业绩和利率能告诉我们什么

按照巴菲特的分析,引导华尔街的核心基本面因素,也就是强劲的经济增长前景在预测股市走向时其实较不重要。他举例说,如果目前公司利润已经极高,今后其走势就有可能落后,就算经济增速超过平均水平。

现在看多股市的人仍在说,股价骤然下降和企业高度景气之间发生了“割裂”,进而断言这种情况毫无道理。他们预计股市和经济很快就会并肩向前迈进。巴菲特则对另一种割裂现象提出了警告——一边是超高的股价和泛滥的乐观情绪,另一边则是预示着艰难时期的基本面因素。

巴菲特用两个17年比较了这些基本面因素的初始状态怎样影响后来的市场表现。第一个17年从1964年底到1981年,这期间的股价涨幅为零,给予股市沉重打击的是利率的惊人攀升。

就像巴菲特在那篇文章里说的那样:“利率越高,拉低股市的力量就越大。这是因为通过任何种类的投资,投资者要的回报率都直接和政府债券产生的无风险利率挂钩。”1964年底美国10年期国债的收益率为4%,远低于5%以上的历史平均值。到了1981年底,这个数字达到15%,是期初的三倍以上。公司业绩同样表现很差,占GDP的比重从6.9%,也就是正常波动范围(4%-6.5%)的高端下滑到3.5%。

虽然巴菲特没有具体阐述国债收益率急剧上升的原因,但动力应该来自两方面。首先是自动化趋势拉低了其他所有资产的价格,从而造成“实际”利率,也就是剔除通胀因素后的10年期国债收益率上升。局势良好时,“实际”利率会在资本需求增大时上行,此时经济往往繁荣发展,公司则在其中看到了许多赚钱的机会。

但经济前景非常不明朗时“实际”利率也会上升,此时紧张的债权人会要求用较大的缓冲作为今后局势变差时的保险。当政府借款开始争夺居民储蓄时,私营部门的信贷成本就会增大。这两种因素从20世纪70年代后期开始发挥作用,一直延续到1981年底。经济在油价的压迫下奋力抗争,巨大的赤字让联邦政府借款不断攀升。1981年,实际利率几乎达到6%,在到今天为止的40多年里一直都是最高点。

然而,困扰股市的是另一只“怪物”,那就是肆虐的通胀,它源于欧佩克上涨了两倍的油价。价格急升而且不可预测让投资者如坠五里雾中。他们对美国的经济领先位置失去了信心,并且担心企业提高产品价格的速度赶不上成本增速。总之,高通胀让股票变得比以前危险得多了。因此,投资者要股价大幅下降,以补偿随后可能变幻莫测的情况。

第二个17年从1982年初开始,到1998年底结束。在这个起点上,利率高得不可思议,公司利润则格外低。对巴菲特来说,这绝对是最佳入手点,因为这两个指标只需回到正常水平就能产生绝佳收益。情况也确实如此。这并不是因为GDP的快速增长,从而证明了巴菲特的观点,即整体经济增速不是影响股市回报率的关键因素。实际上,国民收入增幅远低于上一个17年。但同样的,在美联储主席保罗·沃尔克策动下,利率出现了历史性下跌,从而让股市收益达到最高水平。到1998年底,10年期国债收益率下滑了10个百分点,降至5%。公司利润则强劲反弹,占国民收入的比重达到5.3%,上升了1.8个百分点,但原因并不是GDP迅猛上升,这只是因为企业利润占国民收入的比例回到了正常水平。

黯淡预期成真

巴菲特上述分析的目的是在股市大涨之后评估1999年的前景。当时他预测说,1982年的超高债券收益率和低于平均水平的公司利润带来了巨大回报,同理,低于平均值的利率和出众的公司业绩预示着1999年的股市将表现一般。巴菲特指出,预期回报率达到两位数的投资者可能会大失所望。他说:“这些日子股市投资者的预期太高了。”他同时预测,包括分红在内,这些人的全年收益率最多为6.5%。

巴菲特认为,上述两大影响因素都不大可能改善,因为前一阶段它们已经有了如此之好的表现。他说两大基本面因素实际上都已经没有空间了。从这个角度来说巴菲特错了——到2015年底,10年期国债收益率从4.6%降到了2.2%,公司利润占GDP的比重从5.2%升至8.8%。但两种不利现象抵消了它们的作用。首先是经济,在金融危机打击之下,经济年均增速只有区区2%。所以尽管企业利润占国民收入的比重变大了,但主要原因是公司业绩增长出色以及GDP增速较慢。

同时,市场遇到了反击——巴菲特曾就此发出过警告,那就是估值大幅缩水。巴菲特看到1999年股票价格极高。投资者赋予公司利润的估值倍数,或者说他们愿意接受的股价/利润比高达33倍。巴菲特指出,投资者或许不愿意长期承担如此之高的价格。后者确实也不愿意。从1999年到2015年,标普500指数的市盈率从33倍降至23.5倍,几乎下挫30%。尽管这个阶段(1999-2015年)的最后七年出现了一波大牛市,但股市整体表现甚至没有达到巴菲特的预期。标普500指数年涨幅只有3%。因此,加上这个阶段开始时1.5%的股息收益率,总回报率也仅为4.5%。

警示信号

那么就现阶段而言,巴菲特的理论告诉了我们什么呢?预示未来低回报的基本因素要么跟2015年一样处于极端水平,要么变的更为极端。10年期国债收益率去年虽然急剧上升,但目前仍只有2.84%。也就是说,“实际”利率更低,只有1%。公司利润占国民收入的比重不断上升,目前这个数字为9.4%,比长期平均值高50%。

1999年巴菲特是这样说的:“如果今后10年或者17、20年一位投资者要在市场上大赚一笔,就必须满足三个条件中的一个或多个,其中包括利率进一步下降和公司利润占GDP的比重上升。”

目前,巴菲特的两大基本面指标比1999年夸张得多,而当时他就误以为二者已经达到危险水平。利率已经开始上升,而且美联储还会继续加息。由于失业率接近历史最低点,公司终于开始提高工资以吸引就业者。因此,今后几年劳动力在国民收入中的比例将上升,从而挤压利润。这样的反转意味着每股收益增速有可能落在GDP后面。

巴菲特所说的第三个条件让股市前景更加黯淡,那就是动量成为主导因素。他警告说:“一旦进入牛市,一旦出现无论遵循什么样的机制人人都能赚钱的情况,就会有一大群人被吸引进来,而且他们对利率和利润都没有反应,他们只看到一件事,那就是不炒股似乎是个错误。实际上,人们会把‘我不能坐失良机’这个因素置于左右市场的基本面因素之上。”

动量过大

目前看来,动量确实掩盖了基本面。按美国通用会计准则(GAAP)下过去四个季度的静态利润计算,市盈率仍处于25倍的高点,而且这个数字甚至极大地低估了股票的实际昂贵程度,原因是公司利润正处于历史高点,并有可能无法维持下去。

巴菲特在1999年的那篇文章中谈到了整体股价水平,这种情况很少见。在最近的采访中,他一直都拒绝说明自己是否认为股价过高。所以那篇文章绝不会代表巴菲特目前的想法。

但这篇启蒙读物提供了预测今后情况的工具。看来这位投资传奇从没想过他关注的基本面因素可能不断地测试新的极限。如今这些因素已经突破了他在19年前划定的可能范围,所以很难想象除了朝着不好的方向迈进外,利率和利润还能往何处发展。

巴菲特当时预计1999年股市回报水平一般,但那个时候这些基本面因素远没有如今这么夸张。现在,这些因素回归正常水平就意味着今后的情况会比一般更差,而且要差得多。上周的暴跌就是这种局面可能已经到来的第一个信号。(财富中文网)

译者:Charlie

 

In that evergreen piece, Buffett explains that at any point in time, two variables are most influential in predicting future returns: The level of interest rates, and the ratio of corporate profits to national income. For Buffett, those are the fundamentals, the twin pistons that power stocks. If rates are extremely low, and profits extremely high, at the start of any period, it’s likely that returns over the next decade or more will most likely be poor. Since those are precisely today’s conditions, investors should pay close attention to Buffett’s analysis.

What earnings and rates tell us

According to Buffett’s analysis, the principal fundamental that guides Wall Street, the prospect of strong economic growth, is actually relatively unimportant in forecasting the performance of equities. For example, Buffett shows that if profits are already extremely elevated today, they’re likely to lag in the future, even if the economy expands at a brisker-than-average pace.

Today’s boosters keep talking about the “disconnect” between a sunny climate for business and the sudden drop in equity prices, and claim that it makes no sense. They predict that stocks and the economy will soon advance shoulder-to-shoulder. Buffett is warning about a different disconnect: Super-high prices and rampant optimism, versus fundamental factors signaling lean times ahead.

Buffett compares how these fundamentals at the start of each period shaped the market’s performance over two, seventeen-year spans. The first ran from the end of 1964 through 1981. In that entire interval, stock prices registered zero gains. The big hammer was an astounding jump in interest rates.

As Buffett states in the article, “The higher the rate, the greater the downward pull. That’s because the rates of return that investors need from any kind of investment are directly tied to the risk-free rate that they can earn from government securities.” The period dawned with the 10-year treasury yielding 4%, well below its historic average of 5%-plus. By late 1981, that number had more than tripled to 15%. Corporate profits also performed poorly, sagging from 6.9% of GDP–the high end of their normal range of 4% to 6.5%–to 3.5%.

Although Buffett doesn’t specify what caused the spike, that particular jump in yields came from two sources. The first is the trend that automatically lowers the prices of all other assets, a rise in the “real” rate, measured by 10-year Treasury yield adjusted for inflation. In good times, the “real” rate increases when demand for capital swells, typically when companies eye lots of profitable opportunities in a thriving economy.

But it can also jump when the economic outlook is highly uncertain, so that nervous creditors demand a big cushion as insurance against tough times ahead, and when heavy the government to borrowing competes for America’s savings, inflating the cost of credit for the private sector. Both of those forces were at work in the late 1970s through the end of our time frame, 1981: The economy was wrestling with crushing oil prices, and huge deficits swelled federal borrowing. In 1981, the real rate hit almost 6%, still the highest level in more than four decades.

But another bogeyman haunted equities: rampant inflation, ignited by OPEC’s tripling of oil prices. A climate of exploding, unpredictable prices shrouds investors in a thick fog. They lose confidence in the nation’s economic leadership, and fret that companies can’t raise prices as fast as costs. All told, high inflation makes stocks look a lot riskier, and hence investors demand steep discounts to compensate for a potentially treacherous times ahead.

The second period runs from the start of 1982 until the end of 1998. This time, the starting point was incredibly high rates, and extraordinarily low profits. For Buffett, that was the best of all places to launch, because a mere return to normal in both categories guaranteed super results. And super they were. The reason wasn’t an explosion in GDP, confirming Buffett’s view that overall growth isn’t a critical factor in equity returns. In fact, national income increased a lot less than it had in the previous period. Once again, it was an historic drop in rates, engineered by Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, that brought the biggest benefits. By late 1998, the 10-year yield had dropped by ten points, to 5%. Profits also rebounded strongly, gaining 1.8 points to reach 5.3% of national income. Profits thrived not because GDP growth was great, but simply because they reclaimed a normal share of national income.

A glum prediction comes true

The point of Buffett’s analysis was to assess the outlook in 1999, at the end of that fabulous run. Just as the gargantuan yields and sub-par earnings in 1982 heralded great returns to come, he predicted, below-average rates and excellent profits in 1999 foreshadowed mediocre times ahead. Buffett stated that investors who expected double-digit returns would be sorely disappointed. “Investors in stocks these days are expecting far too much,” Buffett said, forecasting that folks would reap total returns, including dividends, of a maximum of 6.5% a year.

Buffett predicted that the neither of the two big drivers was likely to improve from their current levels, because they’d already registered such favorable moves in the previous period. In effect, he said, the two big fundamentals had run out of room. In that sense, he was wrong: the 10-year Treasury yield fell from 4.6% to 2.2% by the end of 2015, and profits as a share of GDP rose from 5.2% to 8.8%. But a two headwinds blunted those forces. First, the economy, hammered by the financial crisis, grew at a pokey average of just 2% a year. So while profits took a bigger share of national income, it was largely because earnings grew at decent rates while GDP lagged.

But the markets suffered a counter-punch that Buffett warned about–a big contraction in valuations. Buffett observed that stocks were extremely pricey in 1999. The multiple investors award earnings, the amount they’re willing to pay for each dollar in profits, stood at a towering 33. Buffett noted that investors might not be willing to pay such rich prices for long. And they weren’t. From 1999 to 2015, the S&P 500’s P/E fell from 33 to 23.5, a decline of almost 30%. And even though the last seven years of that span (2009-15) included a roaring bull market, all told, stocks performed even worse than Buffett predicted. The S&P gained a mere 3% a year. So adding the 1.5% starting dividend yield, the total return came to just 4.5%.

Warning signals

So what does Buffett’s methodology tell us about the current period? The basics signaling low future returns either remain just as extreme as in 2015, or have only become more so. The 10-year yield has risen sharply in the last year, but still sits at 2.84%, putting the “real” rate at less than just 1%. Profits have kept claiming larger and larger shares of national income. The ratio of earnings to national income is now 9.4%, or 50% higher than its long-term average.

Listen to Buffett in 1999: “If an investor is to achieve juicy profits in the market over the next ten years or 17 or 20, one or more of three things must happen: (1) Interest rates must fall further. (2) Corporate profitability in relation to GDP must rise.”

Today, Buffett’s two main fundamentals are much more stretched than in 1999, when he wrongly believed that they’d reached the danger point. Rates are already rising, and more Fed rate hikes are on the way. With unemployment at near-record lows, companies are finally raising wages to attract workers. As a result, labor will get a bigger share of national income in the years to come, putting the squeeze on profits. That reversal means that earnings-per-share will likely lag GDP.

But the third factor Buffett mentioned further darkens the outlook. That when momentum takes charge. “Once a bull market gets underway,” he warns, “and once you reach the point where everybody has made money no matter what the system he or she followed, a crowd is attracted into the game that is responding not to interest rates and profits but simply to the fact that it seems a mistake to be out of stocks. In effect, people superimpose an I-can’t-miss-the-party factor on top of the fundamental factors that drive the market.”

Too much momentum

Today, it sure looks like momentum is swamping the fundamentals. The P/E, based on trailing GAAP earnings over the past four quarters, stands at a still lofty 25. Even that number greatly understates how expensive equities really are, since earnings are hovering at historic, probably unsustainable, highs.

The 1999 article marked one of the few times that Buffett discussed the general level of stock prices. In recent interviews, he’s declined to take a stance on whether stocks are excessively expensive. So in no way does this article purport to reflect current Buffett’s thinking.

But Buffett’s 1999 primer provides the tools for assessing what’s ahead. It appears that the legendary investor never imagined that his fundamentals could keep testing new limits. Now, that they’ve gone beyond the probable limits he outlined 19 years ago, it’s hard to imagine that rates and profits can go anywhere but in the wrong direction.

Buffett was predicting mediocre returns in 1999, when the fundamentals weren’t nearly this stretched. Now, a shift to normal would mean a future that’s worse than mediocre, a lot worse. The careening market is the first sign that the journey may have begun.

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