John Mauldin on the increasingly expensive S&P 500 using any or all metrics.
Let’s take the S&P 500 as an example. It returned roughly 42% from September 1, 2011, through August 1, 2013, as the VIX Index fell to its lowest levels since the global financial crisis. Over that time frame, real earnings declined slightly (down about 2% through Q1 2013 earnings season), while the trailing 12-month price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio jumped 44%, from 13.5x to 19.5x. That means the majority of the recent gains in US equity markets were driven by multiple expansion in spite of negative real earnings growth. This is a clear sign that sentiment, rather than fundamentals, is driving the markets higher.
Of course, the simple trailing 12-month P/E ratio can be misleading at critical turning points if you are trying to handicap the potential for long-term returns. For example, the collapse in real earnings during the global financial crisis sent the S&P 500’s trailing P/E multiple through the roof by March 2009. So, while trailing P/E is a useful tool for understanding what has already happened in the market, the “Shiller P/E” is far more useful for calculating a reasonable range of expected returns going forward. This approach won’t help you much with short-term market timing, but current valuations have historically proven extremely useful in forecasting long-term returns. In his book Irrational Exuberance(2005), Robert Shiller of Yale University shows how this approach “confirms that long-term investors – investors who commit their money to an investment for ten full years – did do well when prices were low rel ative to earnings at the beginning of the ten years. Long-term investors would be well-advised, individually, to lower their exposure to the stock market when it is high … and to get into the market when it is low.”
As you can see in Figure 6, compared to the more common trailing 12-month P/E ratio in Figure 5, the Shiller P/E metric essentially smooths out the series and helps us avoid false signals by dividing the market’s current price by the average inflation-adjusted earnings of the past ten years. Historically, this range has peaked and given way to major market declines at around 29x on average (or 26x excluding the dot-com bubble), and it has bottomed in the mid-single digits. Not only does today’s Shiller P/E of 24x suggest a seriously overvalued market, but the rapid multiple expansion of the last two years in the absence of earnings growth suggests that this market is also seriously overbought.
John Hussman helps us keep current valuations in historical perspective:
The Shiller P/E is now 24.4, about the same level as August 1929, higher than December 1972, higher than August 1987, but less extreme than the level of 43 that was reached in March 2000 (a level that has been followed by more than 13 years of market returns within a fraction of a percent of the return on Treasury bills – and even then only by revisiting significantly overvalued levels today). The Shiller P/E is presently moderately below the level of 27 at the October 2007 market peak. It’s worth noting that the 2000-2001 recession is already out of the Shiller calculation. Moreover, looking closely at the data, the implied profit margin embedded in today’s Shiller P/E is 6.3%, compared with a historical average of only about 5.3%. At normal profit margins, the current Shiller P/E would be 29.
While it may be impossible to accurately predict when this policy-driven market will break, history suggests it would be very reasonable for the secular bear to eventually bottom at a P/E multiple between 5x and 10x, opening up one of the rare wealth-creation opportunities to deploy capital at truly cheap prices. Some of these technical details are rather dry, but I hope you’ll focus on the main idea: We are not talking about the potential for a modest 20% to 30% drawdown in the S&P 500. If history is any indication, we are talking about the potential for a 50%+ peak-to-trough drawdown and ten-year average annual returns as bad as -4.4%, according to the chart above from Cliff Asness at AQR. Such a result would fall in line with somewhat similar deleveraging periods such as the United States experienced in the 1930s and Japan has experienced since 1989. There is no way to sugarcoat it: too much equity risk can be unproductive and even destructive in this kind of economic environment.
But where there is danger, there is also opportunity. This is a terrific time to take some profits and diversify away from the growth-oriented risk factors that dominate most investors’ portfolios. Instead of concentrating risk in one asset class or one country, investors can boost returns and achieve more balance by taking a global view, by broadening the mix of core asset classes, and by weighting those return streams to achieve balance across potential economic outcomes (rather than trying to predict the future). Since equities and credit are essentially a directional bet on positive economic growth and benign inflation, you have a lot to gain from diversifying into other core market risks: commodities, which thrive when inflation, or more specifically expected inflation, is rising; and nominal safe-haven government bonds, which thrive as inflation gives way to deflation and the oth er assets typically decline. While each group of asset classes responds to economic conditions differently and exhibits low correlations to the others, each of them tends to offer similar risk-adjusted returns over long periods of time, thus warranting constant inclusion in any core portfolio.
It also makes sense to embrace truly diversifying alternative strategies that are either less correlated or negatively correlated. When valuations are expensive across the board, momentum-based strategies like managed futures can be a fantastic addition to a portfolio. Aside from government bonds, momentum is the only easily accessible strategy that tends to become more negatively correlated with broader markets during times of extreme stress and tends to deliver outsized returns when your other investments are losing money.
Of course, combining the asset classes into one portfolio is the hard part, but research going back to the early 1970s suggests that broadening this mix of core assets – so that you have some element of your portfolio that responds positively to every potential economic season – and managing the relative allocations to each economic scenario may be your biggest opportunity to add value in the investing process.
You have a lot to gain from diversifying as broadly as possible, eliminating unrewarded costs, reducing your reliance on equity risk, and reining in the emotional mistakes that often lead investors to dramatically underperform. Remember, in a world characterized by deleveraging, changing demographics in aging populations, financial repression, and increasingly experimental monetary policy, every basis point counts and anything can happen.
With that, let’s end our discussion with a few words of advice from the world’s largest and arguably most successful hedge fund manager, Ray Dalio:
What I’m trying to say is that for the average investor, what I would encourage them to do is to understand that there’s inflation and growth. It can go higher and lower and to have four different portfolios essentially that make