This article is taken from the Winter 2014 EPC Global Investor Newsletter.
At the end of 2013 Wall Street appeared to be convinced that the markets were enjoying the best of all possible worlds. In an interview with CNBC on Dec. 31 famed finance professor Jeremy Siegel stated that stocks would build on the great gains of 2013 with an additional 27% increase this year. So far 2014 hasn’t gone according to script. In contrast to the prevailing optimism I maintain a high degree of skepticism regarding the current rally in U.S. stocks. But opinions are cheap. To back up my gut feeling, here are six very diverse indicators that suggest U.S. stocks are overvalued.
1) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. LONG-TERM EARNINGS
Currently market bulls will tell you that price to earnings ratios are well within their historic range. But they fail to mention that this statement is based on projected 2014 those earnings that won’t be known exactly until 2015. More sophisticated investors tend to rely on the Shiller S&P 500 P/E Ratio which compares U.S. stock prices to average 10year inflation-adjusted earnings. This takes a lot of the guess work out of the equation. Today the Shiller S&P 500 PE Ratio is at 26.4. But going back 100+ years, the historic mean of the index is 16.5. This means the current ratio is 61% higher than its long term average.
Past performance does not guarantee future results.
There are only four occasions in the past 100+ years in which the Shiller S&P 500 PE Ratio was higher than it is now: 1929, 1999, 2002, and 2007. In 3 of these 4 instances, U.S. stock prices saw major declines over the ensuing two years.
But even if we were to agree with the bullish pundits who argue that today’s low interest rates have created a new plateau of valuations, (and therefore can’t be compared fairly to generations-old metrics) today’s short term P/E ratio is still high. Based on the most recent year’s trailing 12-month earnings, the S&P 500 PE Ratio is at 20.14.
At first glance, this does not appear to be extremely high. However, there is an important caveat. Currently, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are the highest they have ever been since the World War II era.
Currently profits are coming in at 11% of GDP, a level that is around 60% higher than the average of around 6% that has been seen since 1952. (It is even significantly higher than the average of the past 10 years – a period during which low interest rates pushed up financial ratios past their traditional levels). To return to a more normalized ratio either GDP would have to expand rapidly or profits would have to diminish. Given our view of the current economic prospects, we believe the latter outcome is more likely.
2) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. CORPORATE ASSETS: TOBIN’S Q RATIO
Maybe earnings just aren’t as important as they used to be. Given all the cash that is on company balance sheets, maybe assets are more detreminative. Tobin’s Q Ratio is a popular measure that compares a company’s market value (which is a function of share price) to the amount it would cost to replace the company’s assets.
So if a company owned a factory, and the market capitalization of the company was $1 million, but the factory would cost $2 million to build today, Tobin’s Q Ratio would be 0.5. The lower the ratio, the less the investor is theoretically paying for the company’s assets.
At greater than 1, Tobin’s Q Ratio implies that stocks are overvalued. From the chart above, you can see that the Tobin’s Q Ratio for the U.S corporate sector was at 1.05 at the end of last year, which is approaching the level associated with past market declines. The historic mean over more than 100 years for the ratio is just .68 and there are only a few occasions over that time when the ratio passed 1.0. The late 1990’s was the only instance in which the ratio passed 1.1. At that time it shot up to 1.63, before eventually plunging. But should we really hold up the dotcom mania as a benchmark for sound valuations?
3) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. GDP
The chart below compares the total market capitalization of all publicly traded U.S. companies with U.S. GDP.
Since 1950 the median figure of this ratio is .65, meaning that all public companies together were worth 65% of that year’s GDP. Currently, the ratio is nearly double that at 1.25. The only times U.S. stocks were valued higher relative to GDP were in 1999 and 2000.You know how that ended.
4) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. MARGIN DEBT
Just as it’s possible to buy houses with debt (mortgages), people can buy stocks with debt (it’s called margin). As stocks go higher, an increased number of investors may become tempted to use credit to buy appreciating assets. This is particularly true when low interest rates push down the cost of borrowing. Not surprisingly, the chart below from the New York Times shows that stock margin debt as a percentage of GDP is approaching the higher end of its historic range:
New York Times (5/31/2014)
As we have seen in so many of the other metrics, the chart shows large spikes in 1999 and 2007. And while it’s certainly possible that margin debt could go higher from current levels of 2.27% (it reached 2.85% in 1999), it is also possible that margin debt will decrease sharply soon thereafter. When margin equity falls below a certain percentage, many investors are forced to sell stock to repay the loans, which brings downward pressure on share prices. We have seen this movie before, and it’s not a comedy.
5) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. DIVIDEND YIELD
Of all the ways to measure stock valuations, dividend yield may be the most tangible. Dividends are what investors are paid directly to own stocks. By that metric, U.S. stocks are looking historically expensive.
As you can see in the chart above, the dividend yield on the S&P 500 at the end of 2013 was the lowest it’s ever been (with the exception of the period around 1999 – there’s that year again).
6) U.S. STOCK PRICES VS. INTEREST RATES
Low interest rates have been the Holy Grail of stock market bulls. By definition, the present value of stocks is higher when interest rates are anticipated to be lower in the future (meaning that investors are willing to pay more for well-established income streams today in anticipation of lower rates).
As seen in the chart above, yields on the 10-year Treasury bond were cut in half between 1981 and 1989They were halved again by 2002, and again by 2011. From there they decline another 25% before bottoming in May 2013, at 1.5%. These historic declines helped fuel an historic rally in stocks.
Low interest rates also tend to keep corporate costs down and profits up (low rates are one of the main factors in the current profit boom), and make stocks more attractive relative to bonds. The Fed’s current open-ended commitment to zero interest rates has inspired