Have stock prices lost touch with reality?

Robert Shiller’s cyclically-adjusted PE (or CAPE) is at a similar level to the 1929 peak before the greatest crash in US history. CAPE uses a 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings in order to smooth out fluctuations in earnings. The current reading of 29.2 is almost double the low during the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

S&P 500

We use a different approach. Rather than smoothing earnings with a moving average, we use highest trailing earnings as the best indication of future earnings potential. Earnings may fall during a recession but stock prices tend to fall by less, in expectation of a recovery. Our projected value for the end of Q4 is based on highest trailing 12 months earnings at Q1 of 2022. At 20.16, the PE is higher than 1929 and 1987 peaks, which preceded major crashes, but still much lower than the Dotcom bubble.

S&P 500

Forward price-earnings ratio is more reasonable at 17.91.

S&P 500

But S&P earnings forecasts seem optimistic, with no indication of a recession in 2023.

S&P 500 Historic Earnings & Forecast Earnings

Declining real sales growth, in the first half of 2022, suggests that profit margins will come under pressure, with both earnings and multiples declining in the next 12 months.

S&P 500 Real Sales Growth

Shifting from earnings to a wider perspective, price-to-sales for the S&P 500 avoids distortion caused by fluctuating profit margins. Projected to rise to 2.30 in Q4 (based on the current S&P price and Q3 sales), prices are similarly elevated compared to the long-term average of 1.68.

S&P 500/Sales

Price to book value, estimated at 4.01 for Q4, shows a similar rise compared to a long-term average of 3.07.

S&P 500/Book Value

Warren Buffett’s favorite indicator of market pricing compares stock market capitalization to GDP, eliminating distortions from fluctuating profit margins and stock buybacks. The Q3 value of 2.0 is way above the long-term average of 1.03, suggesting that stocks are way over-priced.

US Stock Market Capitalization/GDP


Data is a lot more difficult to obtain for the ASX, but the ratio of market cap to GDP (Buffett’s indicator) is a lot more modest, at 0.96, indicating prices are close to fair value.

ASX Stock Market Capitalization/GDP


The chart below shows how rising US liquidity (black) fueled rising stock prices as reflected by the ratio of market cap to GDP (blue). The steep rise in the money stock (M2 excluding time deposits) after the 2008 GFC, created a scarcity of investment-grade assets, driving down interest rates and driving up stock prices.

US Stock Market Capitalization & M2/GDP

Central banks are now shrinking liquidity, in an attempt to tame inflation, and stock prices are likely to fall.

We estimate that US stocks are likely to fall between 30% and 50% if there is a recession next year. Australian stock prices are a lot closer to fair value and only likely to fall 10% to 20% in the event of a recession.

In our view a recession is almost inevitable in 2023 as the Fed cannot inject liquidity to create a soft landing — as it has done repeatedly in recent times — because of the threat of inflation.


  • The graphs of Robert Shillers CAPE, S&P 500 real sales growth, and S&P 500 price-to-book value are from multpl.com
  • Sales and earnings for the S&P 500 are from spglobal.com
  • All other US data is from FRED at stlouisfed.org
  • Market cap for the ASX is from asx.com.au while GDP is from the RBA.

Buybacks, interest rates and declining growth

The Fed did a sharp about-turn on interest rates this week: a majority of FOMC members now expect no rate increases this year. Long-term treasury yields are falling, with the 10-Year breaking support at 2.55/2.60 percent. Expect a test of 2.0%.

10-Year Treasury Yields

While the initial reaction of stocks was typically bullish, the S&P 500 Volatility Index (21-day) turned up above 1.0%, indicating risk remains elevated.

S&P 500

The reason for the Fed reversal — anticipated lower growth rates — is also likely to weigh on the market.

Stocks are already over-priced, with an S&P 500 earnings multiple of 21.26, well above the October 1929 and 1987 peaks. With earnings growth expected to soften, there is little to justify current prices.

S&P 500 Price-earnings (PEmax)

The current rally is largely driven by stock buybacks ($286 billion YTD) which dwarf the paltry inflow from ETF investors into US equities ($18 billion YTD). We are also now entering the 4 to 6-week blackout period, prior to earnings releases, when stock repurchases are expected to dip.

Why do corporations continue to repurchase stock at high prices? Warren Buffett recently reminded investors that buybacks at above a stock’s intrinsic (fair) value erode shareholder wealth. If we look at the S&P 500 in the period 2004 to 2008, it is clear that corporations get carried away with stock buybacks during a boom and only cease when the market crashes. They support their stock price in the good times, then abandon it when the market falls.

S&P 500 Buybacks
source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

Shareholders would benefit if corporations did the exact opposite: refrain from buying stock during the boom, when valuations are high, and then pile into the stock when the market crashes and prices are low. Why doesn’t that happen?

The culprit is typically low interest rates. It is hard for management to resist when stock returns are more than double the cost of debt. Buybacks are an easy way of boosting stock performance (and executive bonuses).

Treasury Yields: 3-Month & 5-Year

Corporations are using every available cent to buy back stock. Dividends plus buybacks [purple line below] exceed reported earnings [green] in most quarters over the last five years.

S&P 500 Buybacks & Dividends compared to Earnings

That means that capital expenditure and acquisitions were funded either with new stock issues or, more likely, with debt.

Corporate debt has been growing as a percentage of GDP since the 1980s. The pace of debt growth slowed since 2017 (shown by a down-turn in the debt/GDP ratio) but continues to increase in nominal terms.

Corporate Debt/GDP

Low interest rates mean that stock buybacks are likely to continue — unless there is a fall in earnings. If earnings fall, buybacks shrink. Declining earnings mean there is less available cash flow to buy back stock and corporations become far more circumspect about using debt.

S&P forecasts that earnings will rise through 2019.

S&P 500 Earnings

But forecasts can change. Expected year-on-year earnings growth for the March 2019 quarter has been revised down to 3.5%. Forecasts for June and September remain at 12.0% and 11.4% (YoY growth) respectively.

S&P 500 Year-on-Year Earnings Growth Forecast

If nominal GDP continues to grow at around 5% (5.34% in Q4 2018) and the S&P 500 buyback yield increases to 3.0% (2.93% at Q3 2019 according to Yardeni Research) then earnings growth, by my calculation* should fall to around 8.2%.

*1.05/0.97 -1.

With an expected dividend yield of 2%, investors in the S&P 500 can expect a return of just over 10% p.a. (dividend yield plus growth).

But the Fed now expects growth rates to fall by about 1.1% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2020, which should bring investor returns down to around 9% p.a. Not a lot to get excited about.

I knew something was wrong somewhere, but I couldn’t spot it exactly. But if something was coming and I didn’t know where from, I couldn’t be on my guard against it. That being the case I’d better be out of the market.
~ Jesse Livermore

S&P 500 earnings rise while stocks fall

96% of S&P 500 component stocks have reported earnings for Q3 2018. Including estimates for stocks that have not yet reported points to a 29% increase over earnings for Q3 in the previous year. What is more interesting is that S&P are projecting a further 2% increase for the next quarter (Q4) and 12% by Q3 2019.

S&P 500 Quarterly Earnings

Now these forecasts could be wrong but what they show is that the market expects further increases in earnings in the year ahead. Compare that to the sharp fall in earnings in Q4 2000 and in Q3 2007, before the last two major market down-turns.

Earnings growth may be slowing — it is hard to top a 29% increase —  but why the sharp downgrade?

The perceived level of risk is rising. Primarily because of the threat of a trade war with China, but also problems in the EU with Brexit and Italy. Earnings multiples are being adjusted downwards to compensate for higher risk.

S&P 500 PE of Previous Maximum Earnings

Even after the recent sell-off (orange on the above chart) the earnings multiple for S&P 500 stocks remains elevated. I use maximum 12 month earnings to-date, rather than current earnings, to remove distortions caused by temporary setbacks. The current P/E is still above the peaks prior to the October 1987 and October 1929 crashes.

The difference is that here, earnings are rising. While we cannot rule out further falls, they are unlikely to be as severe as 1987 and our expected worst case scenario is a P/E of 15. While that is harsh, it is a worst case and not the most likely outcome.

If you are a long-term investor, the sell-off should present opportunities to accumulate quality growth stocks. But patience is required. Rather get in too late than too early.

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.

Bob Doll: First quarter corporate earnings highly impressive

Bob Doll

Bob Doll reports positive first quarter results so far in his weekly newsletter:

First quarter corporate earnings have been highly impressive. With approximately 20% of companies reporting, 81% have exceeded expectations by an average of 6.4%2. This compares to an average beat of 4.7% over the last three years, which underlies the strength of this quarter2. Much of the strength has come from reduced tax burdens: Earnings-per-share is on track to grow 23%, but would only be 16% were it not for the effects of lower taxes2.

Prices tend to follow earnings and a solid reporting season would likely see stocks posting new highs after the recent correction.

2 Data from Credit Suisse.

S&P 500 Price-Earnings suggest time to buy

The forward Price-Earnings (PE) Ratio for the S&P 500, depicted by the blue line on the chart below, recently dipped below 20. In 2014 to 2105, PEs above 20 warned that stocks were overpriced.

We can see from the green and orange bars on the chart that the primary reason for the dip in forward PE is more optimistic earnings forecasts for 2017.

S&P500 Earnings Per Share and Forward PE Ratio

We can also see, from an examination of the past history, that each time forward PE dipped below 20 it was an opportune time to buy.

History also shows that each time the forward PE crossed to above 20 it was an opportune time to stop buying. Not necessarily a sell signal but a warning to investors to tighten their stops.

Sector Performance

Quarterly sales figures are only available to June 2016 but there are two stand-out sectors that achieved quarterly year-on-year sales growth in excess of 10 percent: Consumer Discretionary and Health Care.

S&P500 Quarterly Sales Growth

Interestingly, apart from Energy where there has been a sharp drop in earnings, sectors with the highest forward PE (based on estimated operating earnings) are the defensive sectors: Consumer Staples and Utilities. While Consumer Discretionary and Health Care are more middle-of-the-pack at 16.7 and 15.4 respectively.

S&P500 Forward PE Ratio by Sector

Phoney recovery?

First signs of recovery after a recession are normally rising earnings, initially from corporate cost-cutting but followed up with rising revenues.

With massive central bank pump priming — referred to by Mark Mobius here — this time may be different. Flows of new money from central bank balance sheet expansion are likely to find their way into the stock market — and even the housing market — driving up prices. But consumption is lagging with slow growth in employment and average wages. With lackluster sales growth, earnings are likely to remain sluggish. Which means inflated stock market valuations and high price-earnings ratios as stocks are driven into over-bought territory. Not a solid foundation for a sustained recovery but another rung up the ladder of risk.

Australia: Stocks may be fully priced

Christopher Joye from the AFR suggests that Australia’s sharemarket may be “fully priced”:

New analysis from UBS poses an interesting puzzle: we have yet to see ASX earnings per share recover to pre-crisis levels. Top-rated UBS strategists Matthew Johnson and Andrew Lilley find that “aggregate equity market data shows declining earnings and weakening corporate balance sheets” in 2012…..

via Sting in inflation surprise.