Central bankers in the US have long fixated on the equilibrium real interest rate (ERIR) as their lodestar, an obsession that GMO’s James Montier, in The Idolatry of Interest Rates, bemoans as “a massive exercise in navel gazing.” According to Montier, the broad acceptance of the theoretically dubious ERIR — the real interest rate consistent with full employment of labor and capital resources—is not an example of the wisdom of crowds, but rather “groupthink extraordinaire.” Further, investors’ collective preoccupation with interest rates as an economic “cure-all” and their “deification of central bankers” are equally misguided, says Montier.
The burgeoning market for mergers is reflective of a lack of organic growth opportunities, cheap capital, and flush corporate coffers. Additionally, elevated stock prices provide buyers with a strong currency and sellers with a reason to cash in, which helps explain why M&A activity has tended to peak around market tops, most recently in 2007, and before that in 2000. So while the pace of deals may be a sign that CEOs and their boards are more confident about their prospects for growth, investors should be aware that their timing of late has been less than prescient. For those investors tempted to pick the next takeover target, the safer bet may be on the Wall Street bankers who are doing the matchmaking and financing. They always get paid.
Since bottoming in 2009, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP have rebounded sharply and currently stand at about 11%, or approximately 70% above the long-term average. Warren Buffett once said, “You have to be wildly optimistic to believe that corporate profits as a percent of GDP can, for any sustained period, hold much above 6%.” And Jeremy Grantham has called profits margins “the most mean-reverting series in finance.”
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