"I am definitely concerned. When was [the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio or CAPE] higher than it is now? I can tell you: 1929, 2000 and 2007;" warned Bob Shiller this week, adding that "it's likely to turn down again, just like it did the last two times."
As John Hussman explains,
The central thesis among investors at present is that they are “forced” to hold stocks, given the alternative of zero short-term interest rates and long-term interest rates well below the level of recent decades (though yields were regularly at or below current levels prior to the 1960s, which didn’t stop equities from being regularly priced to achieve long-term returns well above 10% annually). The corollary is that investors seem to believe that as long as interest rates are held near zero, stocks will continue to advance at a positive or even average or above-average rate.
It’s certainly true that from a psychological standpoint, the Federal Reserve has induced the same sort of yield-seeking speculation that drove investors into mortgage securities (in hopes of a “pickup” over depressed Treasury-bill yields), fueled the housing bubble, and resulted in the deepest economic and financial collapse since the Great Depression. This yield-seeking has clearly been a factor in encouraging investors to forget everything they ever learned from finance, history, or even two successive 50% market plunges in little more than a decade.
But the finance of all of this – the relationship between prices, valuations and subsequent investment returns – hasn’t been altered at all. As the price investors pay for a given stream of future cash flows increases, the long-term rate of return that they will achieve on their investment declines. Zero short-term interest rates may “justify” the purchase of stocks at higher valuations so that stocks promise equally dismal future returns. But once stocks reach that point, investors should understand that those dismal future returns will still arrive.
Let me say that again. The Federal Reserve’s promise to hold safe interest rates at zero for a very long period of time has not created a perpetual motion machine for stocks. No – it has simply created an environment where investors have felt forced to speculate, to the point where stocks are now also priced to deliver zero total returns for a very long period of time. Put simply, we are already here.
The ratio of non-financial equity market capitalization to GDP (which has maintained a tight correlation with subsequent 10-year S&P 500 total returns even in recent times) is now about 134%, compared with a pre-bubble norm of 55%.
The median price/revenue ratio S&P 500 components easily exceeds, and the average rivals, the levels observed at the 2000 peak.
All of this suggests that investors may not appreciate the extent of present overvaluation, lulled once again by the assumption that cyclically-elevated earnings are permanent. Benjamin Graham warned long ago that this assumption is probably the chief source of losses to investors:
“The purchasers view the good current earnings as equivalent to ‘earning power’ and assume that prosperity is equivalent to safety.”
Meanwhile, Fed Governor James Bullard observed last week that even the Fed is not inclined to maintain zero interest rate policy indefinitely: “Investors should be listening to the Committee. Of course, you can do what you want.”
Stock valuations now reflect not only the absence of any interest-competitive component of expected returns, but the absence of any expected compensation for the greater risk of stocks, which is not insignificant – as investors might remember from 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 plunges, despite aggressive easing by the Federal Reserve throughout both episodes. We expect the compensation for taking equity risk to be negative over the coming 7-year horizon. Market crashes are always and everywhere a reflection of an abrupt upward shift in the risk premiums demanded by investors, and that piece of investor psychology is less under Fed control than investors seem to believe. We expect many years of poor market returns, but we don’t know the precise path the market will take to arrive at nowhere. We aren’t forecasting or relying on a crash, but we certainly have no basis to rule out that possibility – particularly if we observe any upward pressure at all in risk-premiums on corporate and junk debt, or any material breakdown in market internals from here.
Investment decisions driven primarily by the question “What other choice do I have?” are likely to prove regrettable. What we now have is a market that has been driven to one of the four most extreme points of overvaluation in history. We know how three of them ended.