Price & Earnings: The Race to the Top

Now that 93% of S&P 500 stocks have reported first quarter earnings we can look at price-earnings valuation with a fair degree of confidence. My favorite is what I call PEMax, which compares Price to Maximum Annual Earnings for current and past years. This removes distortions caused by periods when earnings fall faster than price, by focusing on earnings potential rather than necessarily the most recent earnings performance.

PE of Maximum Earnings

Valuations are still high, but PEMax has pulled back to 22.78 from 24.16 in the last quarter. Valuations remain at their highest over the last 100 years at any time other than during the Dotcom bubble. Even during the 1929 Wall Street crash (Black Friday) and Black Monday of October 1987, PEMax was below 20.

While that warns us to be cautious, as valuations are high, it does not warn of an imminent down-turn. Markets react more to earnings than to prices as the chart below illustrates.

S&P 500 Earnings per Share Growth

The last two market down-turns were both precipitated by falling earnings — the blue columns on the above chart — rather than valuations.

While it is concerning that prices have run ahead of EPS — as they did during the late 1990s — consolidation over the past quarter should allow earnings room to catch up.

Black Monday, October 1987

Cross-posted from Goldstocksforex.com:

What caused the Black Monday crash of 1987? Analysts are often unable to identify a single trigger or cause.

Sniper points to a sharp run-up in short-term interest rates in the 3 months prior to the crash.

3 Month Treasury Bill Rates

Valuations were also at extreme readings, with PEmax (price-earnings based on the highest earnings to-date) near 20, close to its Black Friday high from the crash of 1929.

S&P 500 PEmax 1919 - 1989

Often overlooked is the fact that the S&P 500 was testing resistance at its previous highs between 700 and 750 from the 1960s and 70s (chart from macrotrends).

S&P 500 1960 - 1990

A combination of these three factors may have been sufficient to tip the market into a dramatic reversal.

Are we facing a similar threat today?

Short-term rates are rising but at 40 basis points over the last 4 months, compared to 170 bp in 1987, there is not much cause for concern.

13-week T-Bill rates

PEmax, however, is now at a precipitous 26.8, second only to the Dotcom bubble of 1999/2000 and way above its October 1987 reading.

S&P 500 PEmax 1980 - 2017

While the index is in blue sky territory, with no resistance in sight, there is an important psychological barrier ahead at 3000.

S&P 500

Conclusion: This does not look like a repetition of 1987. But investors who ignore the extreme valuation warning may be surprised at how fast the market can reverse (as in 1987) from such extremes.

PEMAX second highest peak in 100 years

I published a chart of PEMAX for the last 30 years on Saturday. PEMAX eliminates the distortion caused by cyclical earnings fluctuations, using the highest earnings to-date rather than current earnings. The idea being that cyclical declines in earnings reflect a fall in capacity utilization rather than a long-term drop in earnings potential.

Since then I have obtained long-term data dating back to 1900 for the S&P 500 and its predecessors, from multpl.com.

PEMAX for November 2017 is 24.34, suggesting that stocks are over-valued.

S&P 500 PEMAX

Outside of the Dotcom bubble, at 32.88, the current value is higher than at any other time in the past century. PEMAX at 24.34 is higher than the peak of 20.19 prior to the 1929 Black Tuesday crash, and higher than the 19.8 peak before Black Monday in 1987.

This does not mean that a crash is imminent but it does warn that investors are paying top-dollar for stocks. And at some point values are going to fall to the point that sanity is restored.

Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio

Here is Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio for comparison. CAPE attempts to eliminate distortion from cyclical earnings fluctuations by comparing current index values to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings.

Shiller CAPE 10 Ratio

While this works reasonably well most of the time, average earnings may be distorted by the severity of losses in the prior 10 years.

You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.

~ Warren Buffett

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 multpl.com, 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

Click here to view at multpl.com.

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.

S&P 500 PEMAX

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