Allison Nathan: What should investors do when so many assets look expensive?
Robert Shiller: I am not an investment advisor. But I would say that the main implication for most people is that they should save more because their portfolio probably won’t do as well as they imagined. And if they’re saving for some distant goal like retirement, they might be disappointed. People have learned about the power of compound interest. But what they don’t understand is that if interest rates are zero, you don’t get any compound interest. I think that there is complacency among investors today. People have seen how well the stock market has done over the last century. But the market might not do so well the next time. So you have to consider whether you are saving enough.
And as a general principle, I think people should diversify across assets and geographies because there is no way to predict what any one asset will do with any accuracy. I’ve been talking down US stocks because of their high valuation, but I would invest something into US stocks; I would just put a heavier contribution in stocks around the world, where CAPE ratios look lower. I keep coming back to the theme that there are lots of places outside of the US to invest. And I would also own bonds, real estate and commodities. Commodities are overlooked by many investors but they are an important part of an investing portfolio.
The reality is that people are not very good at diversifying. This has been documented in studies. They tend to be distracted, and focus too much on one sector or one thing that they have heard. They also tend to focus on their own country. There’s no reason why one should invest only in one’s own country. Quite the contrary, some people make the extreme statement you should short your own country and invest only elsewhere. I wouldn’t go to that extreme, but it is a plausible argument.
Allison Nathan: But is the strong US growth story relative to elsewhere enough to warrant buying US stocks?
Robert Shiller: The US looks pretty good and in some ways brilliant. The exciting news about technology seems to come largely from the US. For example, fracking, which is predominantly a US technology, transformed the energy market, and just within the last five years or so. And many electronics and IT advances are also coming from the US. So there is reason to believe in this country.
But I think that we also have to understand that we tend to be biased. One sees and appreciates one’s own country; that’s human nature that one has to correct for. Amazing things can happen elsewhere as well. You see that in much of the developing world; over the last half-century, there’s been remarkable economic progress and growth. And we’re going to see more and more advancement in those countries. So maybe the high US CAPE ratio is partly justified. But I think we have to nourish a healthy skepticism as investors and not get swayed too much by the idea that we’re living in a new era here.