CAPE v PEMAX: How hot are market valuations?

Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio is currently at 32.17, the second-highest peak in recorded history. According to, prior to the Black Tuesday crash of 1929 CAPE had a reading of 30. The only peak with a higher reading is the Dotcom bubble at 44.

Shiller CAPE - click to enlarge

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Shiller’s CAPE, or Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio to give it its full name, compares the current S&P 500 index value to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings. The aim is to smooth out the earnings cycle and provide a stable assessment of long-term potential earnings.

But earnings have fluctuated wildly in the past 10 years, and a 10-year average which includes severe losses from 2009 may not be an accurate reflection of current earnings potential.

S&P 500 Earnings

The dark line plotted on the above chart reflects the highest earnings to-date, or maximum EPS. The market often references this as the current, long-term earnings potential, in place of cyclical earnings.

The chart below compares maximum EPS (the highest earnings to-date) to the S&P 500 index. The horizontal periods on max EPS reflect when cyclical earnings are falling.

S&P 500 and Peak Earnings

It is clear that the index falls in response to cyclical fluctuations in earnings (the flat periods on EPS max). But it is also clear that earnings quickly recover to new highs after the index has bottomed. In Q1 of 2004 after the Dotcom crash and in Q3 of 2011 after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The next chart plots the current index price divided by maximum earnings to-date. I call it PEMAX. When earnings are making new highs, as at present, PEMAX will reflect the same ratio as for trailing 12-month PE. When earnings are below the previous high, PEMAX is lower than the trailing PE.


What the chart shows is that, outside of the Dotcom bubble, prices are highest in the last 30 years relative to current earnings potential. The current value of 22.56 is higher than at any time other than the surge leading into the Dotcom crash.

The peak value during the Dotcom bubble was 30.19 in Q2 of 1999. The highest value in the lead-up to the GFC was 20.23 in Q4 of 2003.

Does the current value of 22.56 mean that the market is about to crash?

No. The Dotcom bubble went on for two more years after reaching 22.80 in Q3 of 1997. The present run may continue for a while longer.

But it does serve as a reminder to investors that they are paying top-dollar for stocks. And at some point values are going to fall to the point that sanity is restored.

The four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different.”

~ Sir John Templeton

Leading Index gives early warning

One of the better composite indicators in the US, the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed, points to a slow-down in the US economy. A dip below 1.0% is often early, as in July 2000 and May 2006, but serves as a reliable warning of an economic slow-down.

Leading Index for the United States

The Leading Index predicts the six-month growth rate of the Philadelphia Fed Coincident Index. In addition to the Coincident Index, it includes variables that lead the economy: housing permits (1 to 4 units), initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the ISM manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.

The Coincident Index combines four indicators: nonfarm payroll employment, the unemployment rate, average hours worked in manufacturing and wages and salaries.

Coincident Index for the United States

The Leading Index signal does seem early. Low corporate bond spreads and VIX near record lows continue to indicate low market risk, typical of a bull market.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Monetary policy remains accomodative, with money stock growing at close to 5% p.a. (MZM = cash in circulation, travelers checks, money market funds and deposits with zero maturity).

MZM and Yield Differential

The yield curve has flattened, with the spread between 10-year and 3-month Treasuries falling to 1.0% on the above graph. That is what one would expect when the Fed hikes interest rates in a low inflation environment: short-term rates will rise faster than long-term rates. But a negative yield curve, where short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, is a reliable predictor of recessions in the US economy. Each time the yield differential on the above graph crossed below zero in the last 50 years, a recession has followed within 12 months.

Underlying inflation remains low, with average hourly earnings growth below 2.5% p.a., and the Fed should be careful about single-mindedly raising interest rates without considering the yield curve.

Annual Growth in Average Hourly Earnings

The bull market continues but investors need to keep a weather eye on interest rates and the yield curve.

Should we Worry that Velocity of Money is plunging?

Some writers have attributed slow GDP growth in the US to the plunging velocity of money.

In layman’s terms, the velocity of money is the ratio between your bank balance and the amount you spend. For the economy as a whole, it is measured as the ratio of GDP (or national income) against the total stock of money (or money supply).

When the economy is hot, consumers have a higher propensity to spend — or invest in the latest hot stock — and the ratio normally rises. When the economy cools, the ratio falls.

If the ratio was fixed, the job of central bankers would be simple: print more money and GDP would rise.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

Unfortunately that is not the case. GDP growth has remained slow, post-2007, despite a sharp boost in the money supply.

M1 is a narrow definition of money: cash in circulation plus travelers checks, demand deposits (at call) and check account balances.

The ratio of GDP to M1 money (or M1 Velocity) has almost halved, from a 2007 high of 10.7 to a current low of 5.5.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

Does this mean that consumers are feverishly stuffing cash into mattresses as the economy goes into a death-dive or is there a more rational explanation?

Examine the above chart more closely and you will see a clear relationship until 1980 between the velocity of money and interest rates (in this case the Fed funds rate). When interest rates rise, the velocity of money rises. So when interest rates fall, as they have post-2007, to near zero, the velocity of money should fall. As it has done.

The anomaly is not the current fall in the velocity of money but the rise in velocity of money between 1990 and 2000, when interest rates were falling. There are two explanations that I can think of. One is the digital revolution, with the advent of online bank accounts and automated clearing of business checking accounts which enabled depositors to minimize balances in non-interest bearing accounts. Second, is the rapid growth of money market funds which fall outside the ambit of M1 and M2.

Velocity of money measured as GDP/MZM gives a clearer picture, with velocity rising when rates rise and falling when rates fall. MZM is M1 plus all savings deposits and money market funds that are redeemable (at par) on demand.

M1 Money Supply and GDP Growth

We should expect to see the velocity of money recover as interest rates rise. If that doesn’t happen, then it will be time to worry.

Strange as it may seem, we could witness something really unusual: if higher interest rates stimulate GDP.

Fed flunks econ 101?

Caroline Baum’s opinion on the Fed’s approach to inflation:

For all the sturm und drang about the Fed debasing the dollar and sowing the seeds of the next great inflation, the public’s demand for money has increased. The increased desire to hold cash and checkable deposits has risen to meet the increased supply. Velocity, or the rate at which money turns over, has plummeted.

The Fed has two choices. It can adopt the Dr. Strangelove approach and learn to stop worrying and live with low inflation and low unemployment. Or it can do something about it, which runs counter to its stated intention to raise the funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

Option #1 involves learning to live with a low, stable inflation rate about 0.5 percentage point below the Fed’s explicit 2% target.

Not only has the Fed has achieved price stability in objective terms, but it has also fulfilled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s subjective definition of price stability: a rate of inflation low enough that it is not a factor in business or household decision-making.

Option #2 means taking some additional actions to increase the money supply by lowering interest rates or resuming bond purchases. The Fed is taking the opposite approach. It began its balance sheet normalization this month, allowing $10 billion of securities to mature each month and gradually increasing the amount every quarter. And it has guided markets to expect another 25-basis-point rate increase in December….

The Fed faces a delicate balancing act. Unemployment is low but capacity utilization is also low, indicating an absence of inflationary pressure.

Capacity Utilization

Janet Yellen understandably wants to normalize interest rates ahead of the next recession but she can afford to take her time. The economy is unlikely to tip into recession unless the Fed hikes rates too quickly, causing a monetary contraction.

I believe the Fed chair is relying on the outflow from more than $2 trillion of excess reserves held by banks on deposit with the Fed to offset the contractionary effect of any rate hikes.

Capacity Utilization

If pushed, the Fed could lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to encourage banks to withdraw excess deposits. But so far this hasn’t been necessary. The attraction of higher interest rates in financial markets has been sufficient to encourage a steady outflow from excess reserves, keeping the monetary base (net of reserves) growing at a steady clip of close to 7.5% p.a. despite rate hikes so far.

Capacity Utilization

Makes you wonder why Donald Trump would even consider replacing the Fed chair when she is doing a great job of managing the recovery.

Source: Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation – MarketWatch

How long will the bull market last?

US markets are clearly in a bull phase, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq making strong gains. A rising Freight Transport Index highlights the broad up-turn in economic activity.

Freight Transport Index

Low corporate bond spreads — lowest investment grade (Baa) minus 10-year Treasury yield — and VIX below 15 both reflect bull market conditions.

Bond Spreads

Real GDP is growing around a modest 2 percent a year. Low figures are likely to continue, with annual change in hours worked (total payroll * average weekly hours) falling to 1.2 percent in September.

Real GDP

Money supply (M1) growth recovered to a balmy 7 percent (p.a.) after a worrying dip below 5 in early 2016.

M1 Money Stock

The Fed may be reluctant to tighten monetary conditions but will be forced to act if inflation starts to accelerate. Annual growth in hourly wage rates turned above 2.5 percent in September, signaling underlying inflationary pressure.

Average Hourly Wage Rate - Annual Growth

Another dip in M1 below 5 percent growth would warn that monetary conditions are tightening. From there, it normally takes 12 months to impact on the broad market indices.

M1 Money Stock and Fed Funds Rate

At this stage it looks like another 2 years of sunshine before the storm. But one false tweet and we could face an early winter.

Australian banks under selling pressure

The ASX 300 Banks index are a major drag on the broad market index. Having respected resistance at 8500, a test of primary support at 8000 is likely. Twiggs Trend Index peaks below zero warn of strong selling pressure.

ASX 300 Banks

Return on equity is falling.

Australian Banks Return on Equity

A combination of narrow interest margins.

Bank Net Interest Margins

Soaring household debt.

Bank Net Interest Margins

And rising capital requirements as APRA desperately tries to protect their glass jaw.

Bank Capital Ratios

Don’t let the ratios fool you. They are based on risk-weighted assets. Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) leverage ratio for at least one of the majors is as low as 4.0 percent.

Structural Trends and Affected Industries

Discussion of major structural trends in the global economy and the impact they have on specific sectors or industries. A full list of identified trends is available at Structural Trends. I will focus each month on changes to existing trends, the latest statistics, and their impact on sectors or industries.

Cyber Security

Rapid growth of the Internet and online services has spawned a whole new array of threats to governments, corporations and private individuals. Data breaches and identity theft are growing.

Statistic: Annual number of data breaches and exposed records in the United States from 2005 to 2016 (in millions) | Statista

The type of cyber attacks has evolved from early blunt instrument, denial-of-service attacks — where co-opted servers are used to overload the target with bogus traffic — or destructive viruses, to more sophisticated penetration of security networks using phishing, worms and trojans.

Statistic: Types of cyber attacks experienced by companies in the United States as of August 2015 | Statista


Growth of cyber attacks and data breaches has established a niche for specialized security software and consultancies to protect client networks from external threats. First Trust have a Cybersecurity ETF (CIBR) that illustrates sector performance. Their top 10 holdings are not a comprehensive list of companies in the industry but offer a good start.


All industries are vulnerable but Trend Micro identifies the most targeted industries as:

  • Health Care
  • Education
  • Government
  • Retail
  • Financial

Serious security breaches are capable of destroying shareholder value as with the September 2017 Equifax (EFX) announcement of a major data breach. The credit reporting specialist recorded a 37% fall in stock value.

Equifax (EFX)

But at this stage security breaches are considered unlikely to blight an entire industry.

Social Media

Social media giant Facebook (FB) dominates social networks with three of the top five networks ranked by number of users: Facebook, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The other two are Youtube (Google) and China’s WeChat (Tencent).

Statistic: Most famous social network sites worldwide as of August 2017, ranked by number of active users (in millions) | Statista

Social media is dominated by mobile users. Approximately 90% of active users connect via mobile, according to We Are Social global stats for January 2017, and mobile social network users grew 30% over the previous 12 months.


Statistic: Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 2nd quarter 2017 (in millions) | Statista

Social media growth is expected to continue over the next three years but is then expected to slow as saturation increases. Mobile usage growth has already slowed to 5% (Asia-Pacific: 4%) and should act as a constraint on long-term social media growth.

Statistic: Annual social network user growth worldwide from 2014 to 2020 | Statista


Proliferation of fake news and misinformation threatens the industry.  The motto of early Internet adopters was “Information is free” according to Mike Elgan at Computerworld, but it has now become “Information is fake”.

He explains:

The rise of false information online is caused by five factors:

1. The Internet allows anyone anywhere to publish anything everywhere.

2. Digital content is easy to counterfeit or modify.

3. Many people have powerful incentives to spread false information.

4. It’s easier for social network algorithms to favor emotionally reactive content than true content.

5. The public increasingly relies upon digital internet content for “knowledge.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google claim that they’re taking active measures against the rise of fake information. But previous efforts have failed.

Reaction from major advertisers and governments is likely to impose greater responsibility on online media to restrict publication of misleading information on their platforms, or face onerous penalties.

Online Retail

E-Commerce retail sales are growing rapidly and now exceed 9% of total retail sales or $110 billion on a quarterly basis.

Online as a percentage of Total Retail Sales

US online retail giant Amazon has announced plans to open its first major Australian warehouse in suburban Melbourne, according to ABC News.

Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, played down the threat (to Wesfarmers and Woolworths) saying traders had been planning for Amazon’s arrival.

But Amazon operates on a lower cost structure than traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers and their margins are bound to come under pressure.


Online retail is expected to grow significantly as a percentage of total retail sales over the next few decades.


Medium-term: Bricks-and-mortar retail margins are likely to shrink.
Medium-term: Shopping center vacancies are expected to rise.

Electric Motor Vehicles

Adoption of electric battery-powered vehicles is accelerating in Europe, with several countries targeting zero sales of internal combustion engines in the next decade.


Huge amounts of money are being poured into battery research and development but there are no clear winners as yet. The rewards will be massive.


Australia lags far behind in the adoption of electric vehicles but the long-term threat to automotive groups is diminishing revenue. Not only from new vehicle sales, with manufacturers like Tesla selling direct to the consumer, but also falling service revenue as electric vehicles have far lower service requirements.


The telecommunications industry typically requires massive capital investment to deliver low marginal costs, whether that be for mobile phone calls or Internet connections. It is dominated by a few large players, whose size delivers cost advantages over competitors.


In Australia, the natural order has been disrupted by the government-funded National Broadband Network (NBN) which delivers fiber-to-the-home in some areas of the country and fiber-to-the-node to the rest where fixed line copper or co-axial cable (Foxtel) is used to bridge the last 500 meters to the home. The NBN supplies broadband Internet connections at the same basic cost to large and small telcos alike, allowing smaller players to undercut large competitors such as Telstra, who have traditionally dominated fixed line and broadband, eroding industry profit margins.


Growth in numbers of broadband subscribers has slowed but download volumes are growing exponentially.

ABS broadband usage

Already there are complaints of slow download speeds on NBN as telcos overload purchased bandwidth to compensate for narrow margins.

Telstra and Optus have announced plans to commence the roll-out of 5G mobile broadband in 2018. At 10 Gigabits per second, speeds are expected to be up to 100 times faster than the existing 4G network and 10 times quicker than the fastest NBN plans.


Growth in the number of mobile handset subscribers (26.3 million) in Australia has slowed, to 3.4% for the six months to June 2017. But download volumes increased 44.5% for the year ended 30 June 2017.

Threat & Opportunity

The telecommunication industry faces a profit squeeze in the medium-term (say 3 to 5 years) as the NBN disrupts profit margins but the long-term future looks bright as data downloads in both broadband and mobile are expected to grow exponentially.

The big shrink commences

“The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged and said Wednesday that it would begin to withdraw some of the trillions of dollars that it invested in the US economy after the 2008 financial crisis.” ~ Binyamin Applebaum

The Federal Reserve balance sheet ballooned in the last decade to current holdings of $2.5 trillion of US Treasury securities and $1.8 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.

Hourly Wage Growth

Fed total assets of $4.5 trillion (the red line on the above chart) does not give the full picture. Of the cash injected into the economy, $2.2 trillion found its way back to the Fed by way of excess reserves deposited by banks (the blue line). These deposits earn interest at the rate of 1.25% p.a., providing a secure return on surplus funds. What this means is that the net effect of the balance sheet expansion is the difference between the two lines, or $2.3 trillion.

Even $2.3 trillion is a big number and any meaningful sale of securities by the Fed would contract the supply of money, tipping the economy into recession. So how does the Fed propose to manage “normalization of its balance sheet” without disrupting the economy?

Firstly, the Fed does not intend to sell securities. It will simply decrease the “reinvestment of principal repayments it receives from securities held” according to its June 2017 Normalization Plan.

The amount withheld from reinvestment will commence at $10 billion per month ($6bn US Treasuries and $4bn MBS) and step up by $10 billion each quarter until it reaches a total of $50 billion per quarter.

That means that $100 billion will be withheld in the first year and $200 billion in each year thereafter….”so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.”

Second, the Fed will reduce the level of excess reserves by an appreciable amount in order to soften the impact of the first step. So a $100 billion reduction in investments may only result in a net reduction of say half that figure, after taking into account the decline in reserves.

Third, the federal funds rate will remain the primary tool of monetary policy and will be used to fine tune monetary policy to fit economic conditions.

It appears that the Fed will start quite tentatively, withholding only $30 billion in the first quarter, but the longer term targets seem ambitious.

With currency in circulation now growing at an annual rate of $100 billion, even a $50 billion reduction in the first year (net of excess reserves) could leave a big hole.

Currency in Circulation

This is bound to take some of the heat out of the stock market. The plus side is it may restore some sanity to market valuations, but any sudden moves could cause an overreaction.

Added later:

Even if we compare the reduction to the annual change in M1 money supply, it takes a big bite.

M1 money supply

M1 consists of: (1) currency outside the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve Banks, and the vaults of depository institutions; (2) traveler’s checks of nonbank issuers; (3) demand deposits; and (4) other checkable deposits (OCDs), which consist primarily of negotiable order of withdrawal (NOW) accounts at depository institutions and credit union share draft accounts.

Reform universities by cutting their bureaucracies

Insight into the growth of bureaucracy in universities from The Conversation:

In earlier times, Oxford dons received all tuition revenue from their students and it’s been suggested that they paid between 15% and 20% for their rooms and administration. Subsequent central collection of tuition fees removed incentives for teachers to teach and led to the rise of the university bureaucracy.

Today, the bureaucracy is very large in Australian universities and only one third of university spending is allocated to academic salaries.

Across all the universities in Australia, the average proportion of full-time non-academic staff is 55%……….Australia is not alone as data for the United Kingdom shows a similar staffing profile with 48% classed as academics.

This is a fine example of Parkinson’s Law, first proposed by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a light-hearted essay in The Economist in 1955:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson cited the British Colonial Office as an example: the number of staff continued to grow even when Britain had divested itself of most of its colonies. He explained the growth as due to two factors in a bureaucracy:

  1. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and
  2. Officials make work for each other.

He noted that bureaucracies tended to grow by between 5% and 7% a year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done” — even if the amount of work is declining.

Read more at Reform Australian universities by cutting their bureaucracies .