Bull Market & Option-Implied Volatility: Quicksilver Markets by Ted Berg, Office of Financial Research

One of the missions of the Office of Financial Research is to analyze asset market valuations and if there are excesses, explore the potential financial stability ramifications of a sharp correction. The author argues that U.S. stock prices today appear high by historical standards. Although he notes that the financial stability implications of a market correction could be moderate due to limited liquidity transformation in equity markets, he addresses other financial stability issues that may be more relevant, such as leverage, compressed pricing of risk, interconnectedness, and complexity.

Option-implied volatility is quite low today, but markets can change rapidly and unpredictably, a phenomenondescribed here as “quicksilver markets.” The volatility spikes in late 2014 and early 2015 may foreshadow more turbulent times ahead. Although no one can predict the timing of market shocks, we can identify periods when asset prices appear abnormally high, and we can address the potential implications for financial stability.

The bull market achieved an important milestone in March: its six-year anniversary. From the market bottom in March 2009 through the end of 2014, U.S. equity prices tripled. This gain has been largely driven by the recovery in corporate earnings, which have increased by a similar magnitude over this period. Although the positive trend could continue, the upturn has persisted much longer and prices have risen much higher than most historical bull markets, despite a weaker-than-normal macroeconomic recovery (see Figure 1).

Bull Market

This bull market has also benefited from unusually low interest rates. Some argue that the market’s price-to-earnings (PE) ratio is justifiably higher than the historical average given that interest rates are at historic lows. After all, the intrinsic value of a stock is the present value of its discounted future cash flows. And interest rates are a key factor in determining the discount rate. The lower the discount rate, the higher a stock’s present value. However, the relationship between interest rates and stock prices is more complex; a lower interest rate environment may portend a lower long-term growth rate for corporate earnings and cash flows. When estimating intrinsic value, it is naïve to simply reduce the estimated discount rate without also considering the potential adverse consequences for the growth rate of cash flows.

Many expect the Federal Reserve to begin increasing short-term rates later this year. This will have important implications for stock prices if longer-term rates begin to increase as well. Under one scenario, a slow and gradual increase in long-term rates would be bullish, reflecting investors’ positive expectations for higher U.S. economic and corporate earnings growth. In an alternative scenario, however, interest rates would increase dramatically and unexpectedly, which would adversely affect stock prices.

In light of this interest rate backdrop, the question is whether stock prices have run too far ahead of fundamentals. Although certain traditional valuation metrics, such as the market’s forward PE ratio, do not appear alarmingly high relative to historical averages, other metrics to be discussed — the cyclically adjusted PE ratio (“CAPE”), the Q-ratio, and the Buffett Indicator — are nearing extreme levels, defined as two standard deviations (or two-sigma) above historical means.1

Historically, periods of extreme valuations are eventually followed by large market price declines, some of which have contributed to systemic crises. On the other hand, extreme valuations have been known to persist for extended periods. For example, in a December 1996 speech, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan famously used the phrase “irrational exuberance” to describe investor enthusiasm for stocks. At that time, the forward PE ratio — the ratio of the market price to analysts’ consensus earnings forecasts for the next 12 months — was approximately 16 times. Although this was above the historical average, it was not alarmingly high. However, the CAPE ratio was much higher at 28 times. The S&P 500 more than doubled over the next three years, with valuations reaching all-time highs in March 2000, driven by the boom in technology stocks. The tech bubble eventually burst; the S&P 500 index decreased almost 50 percent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq index dropped nearly 80 percent from peak to trough.

Bull Market

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