The chart below plots “The Buffett Yardstick” (inverted) against forward 10-year returns in the stock market. Right now, according to this measure, investors are paying such a high price they are likely to receive essentially nothing in return over the coming decade, including dividends.
At the same time that potential returns look so poor, the potential for risk may be greater than it has been in generations. Warren also famously wrote, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Determining when they are greedy and when they are fearful is the trick. While The Buffet Yardstick carries a sentiment message of its own, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Great Crash 1929, “Even the most circumspect friend of the market would concede that the volume of brokers’ loans—of loans collateraled by the securities purchased on margin—is a good index of the volume of speculation.” When investors are keen to add leverage via margin debt to their portfolios they are clearly greedy and vice versa.
Comparing this “index of the volume of speculation” to the size of the economy (inverted in the chart below), just as we did with equity values, shows it hitting a new record high over the past couple of years. In other words, investors haven’t been this greedy in many decades – since 1929, in fact. All of this leveraged speculation must at some point be unwound, usually via forced selling during a bear market. The last two times it came even close to the current level the stock market suffered 50% declines.