Current Market Move Is Third Biggest PE Multiple Expansion Recorded In Shortest Time Ever

Some historical observations: while readers may continue scratching their heads over just what the causes may have been for the torrid 5 month rally we have witnessed, two main things distinguish it among the last ten recessions stretching all the way back to 1953:

  • While the S&P has increased by 50% to the (to date) peak, it has done so on a -6% decline in actual EPS, implying the rally has been one of PE expansion, 66% to be precise. As the chart below demonstrates this is the third largest recorded PE expansion in history, with only the 72% PE expansion recorded in 1982 and the 78% in 1974 surpassing the current market.
  • Yet, what is unique about this market, is that while both 1974 and 1982 achieved their move higher in about a year (11 months for the trough to peak PE move in 1982, 16 for 1974), the S&P has hit its current PE peak a mere 5 months after the trough. This is an unprecedented record in the history of US recessions, and demonstrates just how much of a push influence Obama's stimulus and Bernanke's QE have had on the PE multiple alone, if not on actual EPS.

Another observation is that at a 19.9x PE through the current market peak, the market is almost 3x turns more expensive compared to the historical peak PE average of 17.1x, and was cheaper at the peak than just the recessions of 1961 (22.7x), and 1990 (21.6x). Any claims that the market is cheap at current earnings are outright lies.

At this point hope is exhausted (in the form of the PE multiple having plateaued), and any further gains will all have to come from an actual improvement in earnings. Yet for that to happen, more than just overhead will have to be cut: actual revenues will need to increase. However, with the record amount of slack still in the system, and the under investment in corporate CapEx, the probability of revenue growth at this point (and this EPS growth) is slim to none.

The graph below provides a convenient way to illustrate this. The past 5 recessions all attained their PE peak at 17x within a yea, at which point it was the Earnings turn to pick up. However, this is precisely where the risk of a double dip occurs: all the growth so far has been one-time in nature, due to various stimuli and subsidies. There is no continuous upward trendline that will encourage EPS growth as discussed above. This likely means that the market will exhaust its "hope" promptly  and the current PE of 20x will collapse long before the EPS growth phase is initiated, resulting in either a double dip, a W, or whatever other soundbiting definition one wants to attribute to what the market will look like over the next 6 months.

Data from Morgan Stanley