Grantham: It's Not A Bubble — But It Probably Will Be

While some have been raising the notion that stocks are in a bubble, top strategist and noted bubble identifier Jeremy Grantham doesn’t seem to be seeing one — though he does think stocks are significantly overvalued.

“There are two good standards for a bubble,” Grantham tells Barron’s. “One is boring statistics, and the other is an exciting behavioral frenzy, on which so many good books have been written. And based on the boring statistics, the data is really very clear: We are not even that close to a bubble. … Using the standard definition, it has to go up another 30% from here to get to a bubble. But you don’t know when an ordinary market move is a bubble; you only know that in hindsight.” And the second “euphoria” test? “I like to joke that in 2000 here in Boston, Celtics replays were displaced at lunchtime at the greasy spoons by talking heads on TV,” Grantham says. “You would go to one, and they would be touting the latest Internet stock. But I’ve noticed recently that they are still playing the sports highlights on the televisions in the pubs here.”

Grantham also says that individual investors have remained skeptical of stocks, another sign we’re not in a bubble. “By the end of a real bubble, individuals are gung-ho, and they are not gung-ho yet,” he says. “That says a lot.”

But, while he doesn’t see a bubble right now, Grantham thinks the U.S. market is very overpriced — by 65%. And he thinks a bubble is likely to occur, given how the Federal Reserve has encouraged and enabled risk taking by institutional investors. “With the professionals getting reinforced by the Fed going back to 1994, it will be very surprising if they don’t keep on playing this game until the market at least hits a classic bubble definition,” he says. “Bubbles don’t usually stop until sensible investors, value investors, and prudent investors have been hung out to dry and kicked around the block. That hasn’t happened yet, so that tells you there is probably quite a bit left in this rally.”

Grantham says he is finding value in some parts of the equity markets. Emerging markets as a group are “selling at very close to fair value”, he says, adding that value stocks in most of Europe are “pretty close” to fair value and high-quality US stocks “are not nearly as bad as the rest of the market.”

Grantham also talks about the dangers of the bond market, and why food problems in Africa have been on his mind lately.