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103 of 110 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not a slam dunk argument, December 21, 2010
This review is from: The Age of Deleveraging: Investment Strategies for a Decade of Slow Growth and Deflation (Hardcover)
I have mixed feelings about this book. I suspect that you will either love it or hate it if you have strong predictions of deflation or inflation, respectively. For the rest of us who aren't sure and are reading around, this is a good read but isn't entirely convincing.

Let me just start by saying that Shilling points out in a number of places in the book that he is a top-down economist, predicting first the macroeconomic environment with interest rates, and then moving down to their effects on individual sectors. My trouble with this approach is that top-down theories are interesting to read about, as they lay out a framework for thinking about the economy and "what-if" scenarios... but they're known to be unreliable at predicting what will happen. This is probably why Shilling spends so much time at the beginning of the book tooting his own horn about his past predictions. Nonetheless, I hear that he has made a number of gravely inaccurate predictions as well - see for example his book on deflation from the late 90s, I believe. Anyway, past performance, even if perfect, is no guarantee of future results. (As an aside, the top-down, as opposed to the fundamental bottom-up, approach introduces many data points that can significantly skew the end result by compounding small errors along the way. Consider that many good investors - people who actually intend to make money, as opposed to economists and academics -, like the Buffet clan, continually reiterate that no one can predict the markets, even with perfect economic information.)

Which brings me to my point: it seems to me that the case Shilling lays out isn't as strong as it may seem, even if there is a lot of supporting "evidence." I feel much of this evidence is circumstantial; it's all good in isolation, but taken together it doesn't really give strong proof that the world is in a deflationary mode. Here's how he lays out the book. In general, he devotes much of the book to a history of the market and various economic environments. Now I admit it's a truly fascinating read for economic history buffs. He then launches into a very good conversation about P/E ratio compression. He makes the common argument, which I entirely buy, that bear markets are often bear because P/Es continually compress more than earnings can grow, putting pressure on the market. Fair enough. He incorporates various comments about interest rate regimes, the earnings yield on bonds vs stocks over the last 30 yrs, and a broad conversation about what that means. He also talks about foreign countries and their economic policies, notably China and the Chinese growth myth. His conclusion, then, due to compressing P/Es and various macroeconomic factors, including low interest rates, is that deflation will rein supreme over the next 10 yrs. He then makes some investment recommendations.

All this data and analysis makes for very interesting reading, but the sum does not necessarily add up to deflation. Possibly, it adds up to a bunch of stagflation, maybe some low growth, and some p/e compression. But he somehow continually ends up with a number of 2-3% deflation per annum over 10 years that seems unjustifed by the large amount of "evidence." Along these lines, he is obsessed with the long bond and is predicting much further appreciation in bonds, stating for example that the 3.x% yield can still go down to 2.x%, for an almost 20% appreciation. However, just recently, and shortly after publication of the book, the yields on the long bond rose substantially after QE2, and there is great argument in the community about what this rise means. He ends the book by issuing some investment recommendations that seem very reasonable given his deflation hypothesis.

As someone who is on the fence and looking for more info with an open mind, this book did not convince me about the future of deflation - not even whether deflation exists now or not. I think I would have liked to have seen some more specific analysis of how QE is working (or not working) and why it's doing what it's doing compared to other inflationary or deflationary periods. But providing me with general scenarios of history and a jump to a conclusion of deflation is, while highly interesting from an academic perspective, not good enough for me to put money on, which is ultimately the point of the book.

All in all, this was an interesting read, a good history, and good theory; but an amalgam of lots of data does not necessarily end in a cogent, well-constructed argument, and it left me questioning his argument.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 30, 2012 6:56:34 PM PDT
I like this review, in particular its caveats regarding prediction. Note that Shilling's prediction that the long bond yield would decrease from 3.x% to 2.x% - in particular, his more recent prediction that it would hit 2.5% - was fulfilled this summer (2012). It will be interesting to see if his current prediction that it will go even lower will be met!
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