I encourage you to go and read the latest John Mauldin weekly newsletter: Forecast 2014: “Mark Twain!”.
The S&P 500 Index returned 32% excluding dividends from January 1, 2012, through January 17, 2014. Over that time frame, real earnings grew by less than 8%…
… while the trailing 12-month price-to-earnings multiple has expanded by nearly 30%, from 12.8x to 17.3x.
That means most of the recent gains in US equity markets have been driven by multiple expansion, in spite of sluggish real earnings growth. Despite an improvement in the real earnings trend since I dug into US stock market valuations, multiple expansion, and earnings last August, the disproportionate amount of gains attributable to multiple expansion versus gains attributable to earnings is a clear sign that sentiment, rather than fundamentals, may be the dominant force driving the markets higher.
Not only does today’s Shiller P/E of 25.4x suggest a seriously overvalued market, but the rapid multiple expansion of the last few years, coupled with sluggish earnings growth, suggests that this market is also seriously overbought. Today’s markets are just slightly less expensive than the 27x level seen at the October 2007 market peak and are only modestly below the levels seen before the stock market crash in 1929. Although we are nowhere near the all-time “stupid” peak of 43x reached in March 2000, a powerful narrative drove the markets to clearly unsustainable levels then, and a powerful narrative is driving markets today. In many ways, faith in the Federal Reserve today is roughly equivalent to faith in the words dot com in 1999.
While it may be impossible to accurately predict when this policy-driven market will break, history suggests it would be very reasonable for the secular bear to eventually bottom at a P/E multiple between 5x and 10x, opening up one of the rare wealth-creation opportunities to deploy capital at truly cheap prices.
Sometimes we have to wade through what may seem like deceptively dry technical details to sort out compelling conclusions, but I hope you’ll focus on the main idea: We are not talking about the potential for a modest 20% to 30% drawdown in the US stock market. If the historical relationship between Shiller’s P/E and consequent returns is any indication, we are talking about the potential for a 50%+ peak-to-trough drawdown and ten-year average annual returns as bad as -6.1%, according to the chart below from Cliff Asness at AQR. Such a result would fall in line with somewhat similar deleveraging periods such as the United States experienced in the 1930s and Japan has experienced since 1989. There is no way to sugarcoat it: too much equity risk can be unproductive and even destructive in this kind of economic environment.
It is my opinion that the market is overvalued.