Are stocks cheap? Not quite…but close.

Given the recent plunge in the stock market, are stocks cheap? That is the multi-trillion dollar question.

My base case is that we are part-way through a long term (or "secular") bear market that began in 2000. While inflation has masked a bit of the decline in the overall stock market, it is clear that we put in a generational valuation peak in early 2000 and have been grinding our way lower since. The bear market turned into a "Kondratiev Winter" or economic bear in 2008 with the collapse of the real estate and credit markets. Since that time we have been in a "deleveraging" phase, which would have been deflationary if not for the desperate money-pumping and fiscal stimulus that has occurred since that time. Interest rates have collapsed, yet demand for borrowing is weak as consumers and business focus on improving their balance sheets. Many lack the collateral to borrow even if they wanted to. In addition, the baby boomers are staring at retirement having under-saved. The brutal decline in their net worth and the proximity to retirement are pushing baby boomers toward safer investments like bonds, even while the Fed punishes these savers with super-low rates in a futile attempt to get people to shift back into real estate and stocks.

S&P 500 below trend

In addition, the high inflation of the last 50 years has actually made stocks look like a better investment than they really are. If we convert the value of the S&P to 2010 dollars (as measured by the CPI), we can see that its trend line has only gone up by about 2.5% per year in real terms since 1960.

Source: Standard and Poor's, economy.com, calculations by tylernewton.com

The good news is that the market is now below its trend line. The bad news is that in bear markets like the 1930s and 1970s (or in bull markets like the early 1960s and 1990s) the market can get very far from its trend line. The good news is that the double-digit deflation of the 1930s and the double-digit inflation of the 1970s are probably special cases. The bad news is that the 1990s bull market and the 2000s credit bubble were also of unprecedented magnitude and ought to be followed by a major bear market to undo the excess. The good news is that the bear market in stocks should bottom before the credit bear market (if that can be called good news).

Valuation based on trend earnings

So what about valuation? To smooth out the business cycle and to adjust for the effect of swings in inflation, I base my market valuation on inflation-adjusted trend earnings. A graph of inflation-adjusted (as-reported) earnings and the calculation of the trend line is shown below.

Source: Standard and Poor's, economy.com, calculations by tylernewton.com

Expected inflation-adjusted earnings for 2011 are near the peak of 2006. Trend earnings, however, are only $62.15 in mid 2011. If I take the historical dividend payout ratio of 42.8%, the 2.7% long term inflation assumption implied by today's treasury curve and the long term real earnings growth rate of 1.55% as calculated above, I calculate that someone buying the S&P 500 today can expect a long term return of 6.6%.

Of course, the implied return is highly sensitive to inflation. If the inflation assumption fell to 2.25% (near the Fed's long term target), the S&P 500 would need to fall another 100 points just to earn the same return.

The matrix below shows the different levels of the S&P 500 that would generate target returns ranging from 6.0% to 8.0%, assuming long term inflation of 2.7%. Many market prognosticators assume 8% to be the long term return on stocks (wrongly, in my view). I assume the equilibrium return is 6.8%. (I realize that is weirdly precise…there is no exact right answer). To reach an equilibrium return, we "only" need to see the S&P 500 fall another 5%.

The effect of inflation

I am on the record that I believe in the intermediate term, inflation is more likely to surprise the market on the downside than on the upside. The chart below shows the inflation assumptions for the next 5 years, for 5-10 years and for 10-30 years, according to today's nominal and inflation-protected treasury curves. (I also included the actual inflation rates for 2009 and 2010 for illustration).

Source: Bloomberg.com (for treasury prices), economy.com (for historical inflation), calculations by tylernewton.com

If we assume that long term inflation expectations fall to 2.25% sometime in the next year or two, we would need to see the market fall to under 1,000 (20% or so lower than today) to be comfortably earning a return of 6.8% or more.

Earnings yield on trend earnings

Another way to look at stock valuations is to look at the market's "earnings yield" using trend earnings (the inverse of the price-to-earnings or "PE" ratio).

Source: Standard and Poors, economy.com, calculations by tylernewton.com

Looking at the chart above, it appears that we can be reasonably comfortable that we will earn a strong long term return at earnings yields above 6% (a 16.7 PE or below on trend earnings). That would imply an S&P 500 of 1,036 at today's level of trend earnings.

Conclusion

Using the methods above, we can say that the S&P 500 is fairly valued on a long term basis somewhere between 1,075 and 1,000 or so. We are currently at 1,121, so a drop of another 4-8% would put us in a good range. That said, from a trading perspective, the market could punch through to well below those levels if we have a deflation scare (which is certainly possible in this environment). We could also have one more big rally before the big bear market bottom is put in (also highly possible).

Given the monster rally in bonds, my investment strategy will be to average out of my bonds and gold into stocks over the next two years as long as the S&P is below 1,150. (Thankfully, I have been underweight stocks and overweight bonds for a long, long time.)

Good luck out there. These are not easy markets to navigate.

I am not your investment advisor. All opinions in www.tylernewton.com are solely my opinions and are written for my personal enjoyment only. Do not act on any advice given on this site without first consulting your own investment advisor.

Q3 Market Update: The Fed’s War on Savings

The Federal Reserve recently announced that it would purchase up to $600 billion of US Treasury bonds in a program known as "quantitative easing", which is a fancy way of saying "printing money". This is actually the second bout of quantitative easing since the financial crisis, and thus this round has earned the nickname "QE2". The policy of printing money is a blunt economic instrument, with wide range of consequences, known and unknown. The announcement of the policy has attracted no shortage of critics, from World Bank President Robert Zoellick, to Sarah Palin, to the leaders of Germany, Japan, China and Brazil. All deride it as inflationary currency manipulation.

The Fed's ultimate goal is to prevent a Japan-like malaise of falling prices and shrinking consumption from infecting the United States. With short-term interest rates at zero, the Fed can't lower short-term rates any further. By printing money to buy longer-dated treasury bonds, the Fed accomplishes two things. First, by increasing the supply of money, it decreases the value of the dollar which helps create positive inflation. Second, by reducing interest rates of "risk-free" investments like cash and treasuries to below the rate of inflation, those investments become money-losers in inflation-adjusted terms. The goal is to bribe savers to shift investments from cash and treasuries into "risky" investments like corporate debt, equities and real estate and also into near term consumption of goods and services.

Pushing on a string in the US

There are three major problems with this policy. Americans are unlikely to increase their consumption markedly, given that they are determined to rebuild their savings after years of under-saving. In addition, real estate suffers from a massive debt overhang and isn't likely to truly recover for years. Businesses will gradually increase their investment, but generally act in their own interest and can't be forced into making investments they wouldn't otherwise make. For these reasons, the Fed's war on domestic savings will not likely be successful. In economics parlance, the Fed is "pushing on a string". Instead, we are seeing a shift of savings from investments that have a negative real rate of return (like cash and bonds) and into those that are considered inflation hedges like precious metals and commodities like oil, wheat and cotton.

Taking the fight to China

The second front in the Fed's war on savings is against the biggest saver in the world: the Chinese government. The Chinese government has systematically manipulated the world trade markets by recycling its export earnings into US dollar-denominated assets instead of into US-dollar imports. By mathematical equation, this results in a trade surplus in China and a trade deficit in the US. In the past decade, China has accumulated over $2 trillion of US-dollar reserves. By increasing the supply of US Treasuries and by holding interest rates below the rate of inflation, the US is essentially taxing Chinese savings. The weak dollar also pushes up the currencies of countries that compete with China, not only those of emerging market economies, but also currencies like the Japanese Yen and the Euro. China, Japan, Brazil, Korea, etc. have all been using export promotion policies like currency suppression to enrich themselves at the expense of exporters from the United States. The Fed is finally saying "Two can play at that game".

The current long-term trend of artificially-suppressed interest rates, a weaker dollar and higher commodities will play out until the world cries "uncle!". No one knows when this will happen, but when it does, the current trends will be reversed.

Economic growth ahead

The Fed has clearly learned the lessons of the Great Depression and of Japan. The TARP and the first round of quantitative easing were designed to prevent a second Great Depression, and were successful. QE2 is designed to prevent a repeat of the past two decades of deflationary malaise in Japan from occurring in the United States. If the Fed is determined to prevent deflation, they will. The downside, because there is no "free lunch" in economics, is a weaker currency on a relative basis (next to other paper currencies), and on an absolute basis (relative to precious metals and commodities). The decline in the dollar pushes up the prices of imported consumer goods and commodity products like food and gas, even while overall inflation may be tame. This hurts low-to-middle income Americans most of all.

Fixed Income

Looking at the interest rate complex, we can see that treasury rates are far below their equilibrium levels, with the exception of the 30-year treasury. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities are showing negative yields right now, which is a sign that investors expect the Fed to be successful at maintaining positive inflation. The 30-year, which is the least manipulated issue on the curve, is expecting inflation to average 2.6% over the next 30 years, which is over the Fed's target range.

Source: Vanguard Funds, Bloomberg Treasury Rate Data, tylernewton.com

These rates are even lower than what prevailed at the time of my last post on July 11, 2010 (when I declared that there was not much more fun to be had in the fixed income markets…oh well).

So while the treasury complex is artificially over-priced, risk assets like corporate bonds, high yield bonds, muni bonds and equities are priced at above-equilibrium "spreads" over treasury rates, even if nominal yields are below equilibrium levels. If you are a long-only investor, it would be better to keep your fixed income investments in less-volatile shorter term maturities. If you are the type of investor that can short the appropriate treasury while going long on corporate, high yield and municipal bonds, you can enjoy better-than-equilibrium returns.

Equities

The rise in long-term inflation expectations explains the rise in the equity market since July.

Implied market returns

7/11/10

11/8/10

The implied long term return on equities is 2.4 percentage points higher than the yield on the 30-year treasury, versus an equilibrium spread of 2.3 percentage points. (This equilibrium spread is based on an after-tax equilibrium spread of 4.5 percentage points above the after-tax return on the 30-year treasury. Because equities are more tax efficient than treasury debt, the nominal equilibrium spread shrinks to 2.4 percentage points.) Note that I use a lower spread than the 6% or so often used in valuation textbooks.

Equities are a decent buy at this point if you believe that the Federal Reserve's policy of quantitative easing will be successful at increasing long term inflation expectations, weakening the dollar and supporting economic growth. So far the price of the 30-year treasury bond and equities are telling you that the market thinks that quantitative easing will be successful.

The Dollar

The value of the dollar also shows that the market believes that quantitative easing will be successful.

Major Currencies Index (nominal)

Broad Currencies Index (real)

Source: economy.com

Both measures of the dollar index are trading at the bottom of their long term ranges, which means that further upside in foreign currency trades may be limited.

Gold and commodities

Source: economy.com

Both gold and commodities reflect the effects of quantitative easing.

On a relative basis, oil and other commodities are cheap relative to gold.

Source: economy.com, calculations by tylernewton.com

Conclusion: A crowded trade?

In the past week (November 8-12), the QE2 trade has been reversing itself. Treasury yields and the dollar have been rising and gold and stocks have been falling, reflecting a classic "buy the rumor, sell the news" situation. The QE2 rally reflected a liquidity-driven rally, where everything except the dollar (stocks, bonds, commodities, and foreign currencies) goes up, and since November 8, we've had a classic withdrawal of liquidity trade, with everything except the dollar going down. This is different from a crisis trade, during which treasury bonds would also rally.

Possible reasons for the break in the markets this week:

  • European debt – In the past week, we've had the glimmerings of a renewal of the European debt crisis, as the yields on bonds of Ireland, Greece, Spain, etc. have returned to records relative to German bonds. If a renewed sense of fear regarding Europe were driving the markets, then we would see treasuries rallying, which we are not.
  • China slowdown – Another possibility is fear that QE2-induced inflation in emerging markets, particularly China, is forcing them to take unpredictable actions to slow their economies, fight inflation and/or erect capital controls. This is a distinct possibility, although I would expect such a scenario to lead to a decline in the dollar, which we are not seeing.
  • QE2 letdown – The markets may have been disappointed with the size of the QE2 program ("only $600 billion versus $1 trillion or more). This could be true, which would also support the following scenario.
  • Just taking a breather – The markets are just taking a breather after a good run.

The balance of risks tells me that the markets are likely transitioning from a liquidity-driven phase to a phase that will discount moderate-to-strengthening economic growth. Such a scenario would favor equities and commodities and support the spreads of risk assets over treasuries. The valuation level of domestic equities is relatively high, however.

QE2 will continue to drive investors into emerging markets, which will likely to blow a bubble in emerging markets stocks and commodities. I don't think emerging markets stocks are cheap, but the "story" will likely stay favorable for some time.

Action plan

As the current market pullback runs its course, I will likely trim a few of my precious metals (gold and silver) positions and add other commodities (a net neutral change in the commodity weighting for the whole portfolio). I will trim a bit of my foreign bond positions (which I added last quarter) and add foreign stocks. I remain neutral/underweight domestic equities at levels above $1,000 on the S&P 500. I remain neutral on bond duration in the US.

Waiting for "regime change"

I suspect we are in the last phase of "casino capitalism" in the international capital markets. While the leaders of the G-20 couldn't agree to anything last week, it is only a matter of time before the international currency and trade system slams into a wall of nationalism. At that point, international regulation of currencies, trade flows, bank leverage and hedge funds will become widely accepted to save the real economy from the whims of the financial economy. The financial system is meant to serve the real economy, not the other way around. The transition to the new system will be messy, so stay on guard in the meantime. Be conservative in your investment decisions, don't be afraid to hold cash and don't be a hero. I still have a strong suspicion that the best investment opportunity still lies ahead.

I am not a financial advisor, and write these columns for personal enjoyment only. Please consult your own investment advisor before acting on any recommendations you find on the internet.

Q2 Market Update: Sometimes cash is the “least bad” option

The S&P 500 has fallen 9.2% since my last update on April 16. The decline has been driven by a large shift in long-term inflation expectations, which have declined from 2.7% to 2.3% today (as determined by the 30-year spread between treasury rates and 30-year inflation-protected securities, or TIPS). This is consistent with the news coverage surrounding the European debt crisis, which has been raising deflation fears in the markets. As a result, the 10-year treasury yield has fallen from 3.8% to 3.1%. The dollar has risen, gold has been steady and commodities have fallen, all consistent with the global slowdown scenario.

Equities

With the decline in the assumed inflation rate, stocks are pricing in a 6.4% long term return, based on long term trend earnings of $58.40.

This return is below the target return of 6.8%. To produce a 6.8% return for today's assumed level of inflation (which coincides with what the Fed targets, so it's a good equilibrium assumption), you would need to see a S&P 500 level of 945.

Fixed Income

There's not much more fun to be had on the fixed income side of the house.

Unfortunately, everything is overvalued with the exception of long term munis, which are roughly fairly priced. The only way to get excited about bonds right now is to have conviction that we're headed into a deflationary double-dip recession.

I don't have that conviction. I'm more in the camp expecting that we'll stumble through a subpar recovery, with the economy weighed down by deleveraging in the consumer and real estate markets. If I had to put new money to work in the US, I would either keep it safe in cash or short term bonds for deployment later or I would buy stocks out of a lack of better options, where we could see a bit of a rebound as people realize the world isn't relapsing into recession.

The dollar

Major currency index – nominal

The dollar has rallied against the Euro and other major currencies recently, trading to the top of its long-term (downward-trending) trading range. This creates an opportunity to cycle some money out of US fixed income (like corporate debt or TIPS) and into foreign stocks and bonds.

Commodities

I'm not sure what to make of commodities. Commodities, as represented by the CRB futures index, are cheap relative to gold but expensive relative to consumer prices.

For all we know, gold could be overvalued, so I'm not enthusiastic about recommending buying commodities.

Housing

Housing prices are still a bit higher than their long-run, inflation-adjusted equilibrium level of about 100. Given how high prices were away from equilibrium during the boom, and that prices and sales are being actively propped up by the government currently, there is a great danger that prices can overshoot to the downside if the market relapses, which it easily could. My hunch is that commercial real estate is in even worse shape than residential.

Conclusion

Outside of taking advantage of the strong dollar to allocate some money into foreign stocks and bonds, I'm at a loss to get excited about any particular asset class. Not a bad time to take some bond profits and build up some cash. Cash may pay zero percent right now, but that's better than losing money.

This column is written purely for the author's pleasure. I am not a financial advisor. Please consult your own financial advisor before acting on any investment recommendations.