S&P 500 tunnel vision

Stocks are growing increasingly bullish, after strong earnings results for the last quarter, with the S&P 500 closing above 5000 for the first time.

S&P 500

Even small caps are growing increasingly bullish, with the Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) testing resistance at 200. Breakout would signal that the current narrow advance is broadening.

iShares Russell 2000 Small Caps ETF (IWM)

The Price-to-Sales ratio remains elevated, at 2.56, warning of long-term reversion towards the mean at 1.70.

S&P 500 Price-to-Sales

Sales growth improved slightly to 5.2% for the December quarter, compared to December 2022. But this is before inflation; so real growth remains low.

S&P 500 Sales Growth

Operating margins shrunk to 10.7%, with 75.6% of corporations having reported, from earlier estimates of 11.0%.

S&P 500 Operating Margin

Treasury Market

Ten-year Treasury yields are testing resistance at 4.20%. Breakout would offer a target of 4.60% — a bear signal for stocks.

10-Year Treasury Yield

The 2-year Treasury yield — normally a reliable leading indicator of the Fed funds rate — is currently rising, warning that Fed rate cuts are likely to remain on pause for longer.

Fed Funds Rate & 2-Year Treasury Yield

The long-term challenge facing Treasury is the rising projected budget deficits, with debt likely to grow at a faster pace than GDP. CBO projections vastly understate the likely deficit as Brian Riedl explains below:

CBO Projected Deficits

Revised CBO Projected Deficits

Gold & the Dollar

The Dollar Index retraced to test support at 104 but is greatly influenced by the direction of the Fed funds rate and Treasury yields.

Dollar Index

Gold is ranging between $2000 and $2055 per ounce. The lower close at $2024 suggests another test of support at $2000.

Spot Gold

2023 is the first time that the gold price has kept rising while ETF gold holdings are falling. Cause of the divergence is believed to be strong central bank purchases over the past 12 months.

Gold ETF Tonnage


The S&P 500 is vastly overpriced when we compare the current price-to-sales ratio of 2.56 to its long-term average of 1.70. Sales growth is also falling, while operating margins are shrinking. Investors seem to have tunnel vision, focused on rising prices rather than underlying fundamentals.

Long-term yields are rising, with the Fed expected to postpone rate cuts until mid-year, which is bearish for stocks.

Federal deficits are expected to grow to $3.6 trillion by 2034, warning of rising inflationary pressure and higher Treasury yields. The Fed may suppress long-term yields but that is likely to increase inflationary pressure even more.

The short-term outlook for Gold is bearish — if long-term yields rise — but the long-term outlook is strongly bullish because of expected rising inflation and central bank purchases.


S&P 500 losing touch with reality

The S&P 500 climbed to a new high after breaking resistance at its January ’22 high of 4800. Rising Trend Index troughs warn of strong buying pressure. Pricing seems to be losing touch with reality.

S&P 500

The S&P 500 Price-Earnings ratio climbed to 24.2 on December 31st and is forecast to reach 24.9 at the end of the quarter (based on the current index price and forecast Q1 earnings). The chart below shows the pricing history of the index (and its predecessors) over the past 120 years. We use highest trailing earnings to eliminate distortion caused by sharp falls in earnings during past recessions. Prior to the Dotcom bubble, PE had never exceeded 20 times earnings — even during the heady booms preceding the Black Friday crash in 1929 and Black Monday in 1987. The long-term average PE of 16.5 (since 1973) suggests that the index is currently over-priced by close to 50%.

S&P 500 PE of Highest Trailing Earnings

The price-to-sales ratio of 2.57 shows a similar excess compared to the average of 1.70.

S&P 500 Price-sales Ratio

The operating margin of 11.0% in the December quarter has declined from its 2021 peak at 13.5% but is still above its 10-year average of 10.2%. We expect margins to revert to the mean over the next year or two.

S&P 500 Operating Margins

While margins are still reasonably healthy, annual sales growth plunged to 4.0% in the December quarter. Core PCE inflation of 2.9% in 2023 means that real growth in sales was a paltry 1.1% last year.

S&P 500 Annual Sales Growth


The S&P 500 is over-priced relative to earnings and sales growth, with long-term intrinsic value estimated at  3200 — roughly two-thirds of the current price. If the Fed continues to inject liquidity to support financial markets ahead of the November elections, we do not expect a major correction in 2024 — bar a major geopolitical event that impacts on energy prices.

The following year is likely to prove more difficult, however, with the Fed draining liquidity to ease underlying inflationary pressure and Treasury increasing issuance of notes and bonds, driving up long-term yields.

Debt reduction, buybacks and S&P 500 P/E multiples

There is a rising trend — especially in the telecommunications, utilities, and REITs sectors — of selling off non-core assets and using the proceeds to reduce debt. Rising long-term interest rates are likely to accelerate this trend.

Debt reduction reduces funds available for stock buybacks. This chart from S&P Dow Jones Indices shows buybacks on the S&P 500 have been declining since Q2 of last year.

S&P 500 Buybacks

Without buybacks, S&P 500 earnings growth is expected to follow declining year-on-year sales growth, removing the justification for high earnings multiples.

S&P 500 Sales Growth

Price-earnings multiple for the S&P 500 is expected to decline towards its 50-year average of 16.4.

S&P 500 Price/Highest Trailing Earnings


Debt reduction is likely to accelerate the decline of stock buybacks, eroding support for elevated price-earnings multiples.

Declining sales growth is likely to reduce earnings growth and further erode the justification for high earnings multiples.

The price-earnings multiple for the S&P 500 is expected to decline towards its 50-year average of 16.4 (based on highest trailing earnings).


Is the S&P 500 way over-priced?

Robert Shiller’s CAPE (Price/10-year simple MA of inflation-adjusted earnings) is at 30.31, the second-highest peak (behind the Dotcom bubble) in 120 years.

S&P 500 CAPE

PEmax (Price/highest prior 12-month earnings) is far lower at 21.04. I prefer this as a more accurate measure of stock pricing than CAPE. But PEmax is still high relative to the peaks of Black Friday in October 1929 and Black Monday in October 1987.

S&P 500 PE of Maximum Prior Earnings

Forecast earnings for the remainder of 2019 may be slightly optimistic, given recent escalation of the US-China trade war, but the forward price-earnings multiple is lower, at 18.62. The sharp difference between forward and historic PE ratios (as in PEmax) is largely attributable to the earnings hiccup in Q4 of 2018 which is excluded from the forward ratio.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

Forecast earnings growth, on the chart below, shows a similar anomaly in Q4 of the current year, caused by comparison to the earnings dip in Q4 of 2018. Forecasts assume that earnings will grow between 7.1% and 7.8% for the rest of 2019, rising to above 11% in 2020.

S&P 500 Earnings Growth

Their projections seem optimistic.

Year-on-year sales growth is a modest 5.8% for Q1 of 2019 and is likely to continue between 4.0% and 6.0% for the foreseeable future. The spike in sales growth in 2017 – 2018 is a result of recovery from negative growth in 2015 and is unlikely to be repeated.

S&P 500 Quarterly Sales

Operating margins are just as important. Margins recovered to 11.25% for Q1 2019 (89.9% of stocks reported), after a sharp fall in Q4 2018, but it is questionable whether these are sustainable.

S&P 500 Quarterly Operating Margins


Earnings forecasts seem optimistic. With lower sales growth and downside risk in operating margins, long-term earnings growth of between 4.0% and 6.0% is likely. The 30-year average is 6.17% p.a. but low inflation (and a possible trade war) is likely to see us undershoot this.

Forward Price-Earnings ratio of 18.6 is on the high side for expected low earnings growth. A forward PE of 16.0 or less, however, should be viewed as a buy opportunity.