"As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance.... We’re still dancing."
- Chuck Prince, July 2007
Late last night the music may have just skipped a major beat after Goldman released a Friday evening note that is perhaps the most bearish thing to come out of Goldman's chief strategist David Kostin in over a year, (and who incidentally just repeated what we said most recently a week ago in "Stocks Are More Expensive Now Than At Their 2007 Peak"). To wit:
S&P 500 valuation is lofty by almost any measure, both for the aggregate market (15.9x) as well as the median stock (16.8x). We believe S&P 500 trades close to fair value and the forward path will depend on profit growth rather than P/E expansion. However, many clients argue that the P/E multiple will continue to rise in 2014 with 17x or 18x often cited, with some investors arguing for 20x. We explore valuation using various approaches. We conclude that further P/E expansion will be difficult to achieve. Of course, it is possible. It is just not probable based on history.
The current valuation of the S&P 500 is lofty by almost any measure, both for the aggregate market as well as the median stock: (1) The P/E ratio; (2) the current P/E expansion cycle; (3) EV/Sales; (4) EV/EBITDA; (5) Free Cash Flow yield; (6) Price/Book as well as the ROE and P/B relationship; and compared with the levels of (6) inflation; (7)
nominal 10-year Treasury yields; and (8) real interest rates. Furthermore, the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio suggests the S&P 500 is currently 30% overvalued in terms of (9) Operating EPS and (10) about 45% overvalued using As Reported earnings.
Cue David Tepper to bring out even bigger greater fools who do believe in his 20x PE multiple "thesis." Cause if 20x works, why not 40x, or 60x, or moar?
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Kostin's full "market is now overvalued" note:
We believe S&P 500 currently trades close to fair value and the forward path of the market will depend on the trajectory of profits rather than further expansion of the forward P/E multiple from the current 15.9x. We forecast a modest price gain of roughly 3% to our year-end 2014 target of 1900. We expect S&P 500 will climb to 2100 by the end of 2015 and reach 2200 by the end of 2016 representing a gain of 20% over the next three years.
However, many clients argue that the multiple will continue to expand in 2014 leading to another year of strong US equity returns. A forward multiple of 17x or 18x is often cited, with others suggesting 20x is reasonable given the strengthening US economy and low interest rates. Many on the buy-side have year-end 2014 targets between 2000 and 2200 reflecting a price gain of 9% to 20%, well above our more modest projection.
The current valuation of the S&P 500 is lofty by almost any measure, both for the aggregate market as well as the median stock: (1) The P/E ratio; (2) the current P/E expansion cycle; (3) EV/Sales; (4) EV/EBITDA; (5) Free Cash Flow yield; (6) Price/Book as well as the ROE and P/B relationship; and compared with the levels of (6) inflation; (7) nominal 10-year Treasury yields; and (8) real interest rates. Furthermore, the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio suggests the S&P 500 is currently 30% overvalued in terms of (9) Operating EPS and (10) about 45% overvalued using As Reported earnings.
Reflecting on our recent client visits and conversations, the biggest surprise is how many investors expect the forward P/E multiple to expand to 17x or 18x. For some reason, many market participants believe the P/E multiple has a long-term average of 15x and therefore expansion to 17-18x seems reasonable. But the common perception is wrong. The forward P/E ratio for the S&P 500 during the past 5-year, 10-year, and 35- year periods has averaged 13.2x, 14.1x, and 13.0x, respectively. At 15.9x, the current aggregate forward P/E multiple is high by historical standards.
Most investors are surprised to learn that since 1976 the S&P 500 P/E multiple has only exceeded 17x during the 1997-2000 Tech Bubble and a brief four-month period in 2003-04 (see Exhibit 1). Other than those two episodes, the US stock market has never traded at a P/E of 17x or above.
A graph of the historical distribution of P/E ratios clearly highlights that outside of the Tech Bubble, the market has only rarely (5% of the time) traded at the current forward multiple of 16x (see Exhibit 2).
The elevated market multiple is even more apparent when viewed on a median basis. At 16.8x, the current multiple is at the high end of its historical distribution (see Exhibit 3).
The multiple expansion cycle provides another lens through which we view equity valuation. There have been nine multiple expansion cycles during the past 30 years. The P/E troughed at a median value of 10.5x and peaked at a median value of 15.0x, an increase of roughly 50%. The current expansion cycle began in September 2011 when the market traded at 10.6x forward EPS and it currently trades at 15.9x, an expansion of 50%. However, during most (7 of the 9) of the cycles the backdrop included falling bond yields and declining inflation. In contrast, bond yields are now increasing and inflation is low but expected to rise.
We addressed equity valuation using the Fed model and interest rate sensitivity in our December 6th US Weekly Kickstart. Simply put, the earnings yield gap between the S&P 500 and ten-year Treasury yields currently equals about 325 bp. Goldman Sachs Economics forecasts bond yields will creep higher to 3.25% by year-end 2014, a rise of just 25 bp. If the earnings yield gap remains unchanged, then the ‘fair value’ multiple according to the Fed model would be 15.2x at year-end 2014. The implied index level would be 1900 assuming our 2015 EPS forecast of $125. However, bond yields could rise by more than we expect and hit 3.75% while the yield gap could narrow to perhaps 275 bp. The resulting EPS yield of 6.5% represents a forward P/E of 15.4x implying a S&P 500 level of 1923. Exhibit 4 of the Dec 6th Kickstart shows valuation using various yields and yield gaps.
Incorporating inflation into our valuation analysis suggests S&P 500 is slightly overvalued. When real interest rates have been in the 1%-2% band, the P/E has averaged 15.0x. Nominal rates of 3%-4% have been associated with P/E multiples averaging 14.2x, nearly two points below today. As noted earlier, S&P 500 is overvalued on both an aggregate and median basis on many classic metrics, including EV/EBITDA, FCF, and P/B (see Exhibits 5-8).
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Then again, this is Goldman, where dodecatuple reverse psychology in recos is the norm. If Goldman has just gone bearish, it would logically suggest it is very short and is hoping for a crash. But it could also mean it is hoping its clients panic and dump so collapsing trade volumes finally soar and Goldman makes at least some money on commissions, or is waiting for a plunge in stocks so it can put its massive cash hoard to use, or simply planting the seeds of the next Lehman-like event (now over 5 years later), which would serve as the periodic reset of what once used to be a business cycle? We are sure to find out soon because whatever happens, there will be volatility.