Dow 36,000 Returns

James Glassman, the co-author of Dow 36,000, returns today to explain what he got wrong and why the Dow can still make it to 36,000:

First, investors have become more frightened of stocks, not less — as reflected in a higher equity risk premium, the excess return that investors demand from stocks over bonds.


The heightened fears of investors are reflected in lower valuations. Currently, for example, the forward P/E ratio (based on estimated earnings for the next 12 months) of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is about 14. In other words, the earnings yield for a stock investment averages 7 percent (1/14), but the yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is only 1.9 percent — a huge gap. Judging from history, you would have to conclude that bonds are vastly overpriced, that stocks are exceptionally cheap or that investors are scared to death for a good reason. Maybe all three.

One way stocks could jump to 36,000 quickly would be for fears to subside and P/E ratios to rise. Assume that earnings yields fall to 5 percent. That would mean P/E ratios would go to 20, a boost of 50 percent in stock prices, assuming constant earnings.

The second thing that’s been unexpected since our book came out is that U.S. growth has drastically slowed. Instead of the historic rate of 3 percent, or our projected rate of 2.5 percent, actual annual real GDP increases from the end of 1999 to the end of 2012 averaged just 1.8 percent. Inflation was lower than normal, too, so the nominal rate of growth was only about 4 percent, instead of about 6 percent.

I still think Glassman is wrong about why he was wrong. Nine years ago, I explained why the logic behind Dow 36,000 was off base, and it’s been largely ignored by everyone.

With some false modesty, I think I’m the only one who’s been able to explain why 36,000 doesn’t work. Here’s my original article:

Now that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has soared over 4,500 points since Alan Greenspan warned us of the market’s “irrational exuberance,” a mini-industry has evolved of publishing books that attempt to explain the “new market.” The latest addition to the genre is Dow 36,000 by James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett, both of the American Enterprise Institute. To give you an idea of how crowded the field is becoming, two other books are titled Dow 40,000 and Dow 100,000.

Unfazed by the Dow’s stunning climb, mega-bulls Glassman and Hassett have developed their own theory as to why the market has risen so much and why it will continue to rise. Their theory isn’t the usual litany one hears from Wall Street bulls (demographics, triumph of capitalism). Instead, their “36,000” theory goes right to the heart of investment analysis by questioning one of its elemental suppositions: namely, the idea that investments in stocks should demand a premium over investments in bonds due to the riskier nature of stocks. This isn’t split hairs they’re taking on.

Reciting historical data, Glassman and Hassett show that over the long haul, there is no difference between the risks of stocks and Treasury bonds. Therefore, they reason, there should be no risk premium at all. The authors claim that with the risk premium excised from the market, the perfectly reasonable price, or PRP as they call it, for the Dow is 36,000 (more on that later). Mind you, they’re not merely saying the Dow will eventually hit this magic number sometime in the future. Instead, Glassman and Hassett claim that 36,000 is where the Dow ought to be right now. Or more precisely, that’s where the Dow should have been early this year when they started writing the book. Could they be onto something? At the time, the Dow was at 9000.

The Dow very well may head to 36K, but it will have little to do with Glassman and Hassett’s theory. Their theory is seriously flawed due to major methodological errors.

First, Glassman and Hassett err in their selection of an appropriate measure of risk for their purpose. The free market prices risk, just like it prices everything else. That price is included in the price of stocks. In order to measure risk, Glassman and Hassett should use a measurement that isolates risk from the price of stocks. They don’t do this. Instead, they compare the standard deviation of stock returns to the standard deviation of risk-free-bond returns. That’s a different animal. Sure enough, with progressively longer holding periods, stock returns’ standard deviations gradually get smaller. Upon realizing that at long term, the standard deviation of stock returns is the same as bond returns’, actually slightly less, Glassman and Hassett conclude that stocks are “no more risky” than Treasury bonds.

That’s a faulty conclusion. Even if the standard deviations are the same size, it doesn’t say anything about the risk that they’re looking for. The point is that risk has still never been isolated: it’s inside those returns no matter how long-term you go. The variability of risk’s part of all these returns may be diminishing as well. That can happen even if risk stays exactly the same size. With Glassman and Hassett’s method, we have no idea how big the risk inherent in stock ownership is.

Without all the mumbo-jumbo, think of two houses, identical in every way except one has a great view of the river; the other does not. How much does the river view cost? Easy. Compare the prices of the two homes, and the difference must be the price of the view. The fact that the prices paid may deviate from their own respective averages the same way speaks nothing as to the price of the view. Glassman and Hassett are saying that since those deviations are the same, the river view is free.

Running with this assumption, Glassman and Hassett reason that since risk and reward are related, assets with the same risk will have the same return. Therefore, stocks and bonds will have the same returns. For this to happen, they claim, “the Dow should rise by a factor of four.” How do they get four?

Glassman and Hassett start with the “Old Paradigm” premise that bond returns plus a risk premium equals stock returns. With the risk premium “properly” removed, the yield on Treasuries—meaning their expected return—should be the same as the expected return for stocks. And that’s their dividend yield plus the dividend’s growth rate. So far, so good. Since the sum of these two is now about 1.5% above today’s Treasury yield, the yield on stocks needs to be adjusted downward in order to bring everything into balance. Specifically, it needs to drop from about 2% to 0.5%. With the yield dropping to one-fourth its previous level, stock prices will jump fourfold. Presto. That’s how we get from 9000 to 36000.

Not exactly. The authors have made another mistake. It’s impossible to have a one-time-only ratcheting down of the market’s dividend yield. The reason is that if long-term stock returns don’t change, as the authors do assume, a lower dividend yield will always create a commensurate increase in the dividend growth rate. As a result, there will always be a new higher dividend whose yield will always be in need of being notched back down. And as a result, the dividend growth rate will increase, and the cycle will continue ad infinitum. The correct conclusion from their model is not a one-time-only fourfold increase in stocks, but one-time-only infinite increase in stocks. This means the authors are actually insufficiently bullish and, moreover, they’ve mistitled their book.

Fortunately, the second half of the book is the more valuable by far. Once the authors stop making theories, they start making some sense. In this section, the authors discuss how investors can capitalize on the continuing market boom. The authors estimate the market has another three to five years perhaps before 36K is reached. In any case, their strategies are rather conservative: Buy and hold, diversify, don’t trade too much, don’t let market fluctuations rattle you, don’t time the market. All perfectly sound ideas and not specifically dependent on “Dow 36,000.”

Glassman and Hassett also give the names of stocks and mutual funds they like. There’s nothing wrong with their stocks in the realm of theory, but readers definitely ought to avoid the authors’ so-called Perfectly Reasonable Prices, which invite comparison to the famous description of the Holy Roman Empire—not holy, not Roman, not an empire.

I’m not familiar with Kevin Hassett’s former work, but I’ve always liked James Glassman’s investing articles for The Washington Post. His articles are consistently incisive and informative. This book, however, is nothing of the sort. Dow 36,000 contains egregious errors and fallacious reasoning.

Still, I do admire their ambition. With this book, Glassman and Hassett challenged a well-entrenched perception of reality. Being that this perception underwrites trillions of dollars, it’s a very, very, very, well-entrenched perception. Glassman and Hassett lost, and they lost badly. Old paradigms die hard, but they do die.

Posted by on March 7th, 2013 at 3:12 pm

The information in this blog post represents my own opinions and does not contain a recommendation for any particular security or investment. I or my affiliates may hold positions or other interests in securities mentioned in the Blog, please see my Disclaimer page for my full disclaimer.