Friday, October 9, 2009

Manufacture of content versus the motley fool

Rosie via ZH

“V” stands for Valuation, because every basis point of this 60% rally in the U.S. equity market from the lows has been due to an unprecedented expansion in P/E ratios. In fact, by some measures, the S&P 500 is already trading at valuation levels that would ordinarily be consistent with an economic expansion that is five-years old as opposed to a recovery that, at best, is in its infancy stages.

There has been plenty of debate over whether equities are overvalued or not, and certainly we would assume that many investors know where we stand on the topic. Let’s look at the facts now that the September data are in.

On an operating (“scrubbed”) basis, the trailing P/E multiple on the S&P 500 has expanded a massive 10 points from the March lows, to stand at 27.6x. Historically, when the economy is taking the turn away from contraction towards expansion, which indeed was the case in Q3, the trailing P/E multiple is 15x or half what it is today (and that 15x is also calculated off depressed earnings level of prior recessions – we have more on the historical comparisons below). While we will not belabour the point, when all the write-downs are included, the trailing P/E on “reported” earnings just widened to its highest levels in recorded history of nearly 140x , which is three times the levels prevailing during the height of the tech bubble.

It is interesting to hear market bulls talk about how distorted it is to be using trailing multiples that include ‘recession earnings’ (even though using ‘forward’ earnings means relying on consensus forecasts on the future and these are rarely, if ever, correct).

It is also interesting that the last time the multiple was this high was back in March 2002, again after a huge countertrend rally that deployed ‘recession earnings’ from the 2001 downturn.

If memory serves us correctly, this was right around the time that the bear market rally started to roll over and in fact, six months later, the S&P 500 was hitting new lows and 34% lower than it was when the multiple had expanded to … today’s level!

But the point is well taken that if in fact we are at an inflection point, moving out of recession and into expansion, looking strictly at multiples on depressed trailing earnings could be misleading. So let’s take a look at what valuations looked like at previous turning points in the cycle. For example, when the recession ended in November 2001, the trailing multiple was 29.3x, much higher than today indeed, which may be a reason why the market did not bottom for nearly another year. It was too expensive.

At the end of the recession in March 1991, the trailing P/E multiple was 17.2x. In November 1982, it was 11.0x and in July 1980 it was 8.3x. When the recession ended in March 1975, the P/E ratio was 9.9x, and in November 1970, it was 17.0x. Now there is no doubt that the bulls would argue that the multiples troughed at unusually low levels because inflation was extremely high. Point taken.

But when we go back to the low-inflation periods of February 1961, the multiple at the recession trough was 20.5x, not 27.6x. At the April 1958 recession-end-point, the P/E was 14.8x, and in May 1954, it was 11.1x. The P/E was not 27.6x.

The next counterargument is that interest rates are lower today. Well, they aren’t really. Yes, government bill and bond yields are ultra-low, but since the P/E is a ‘real’ concept, it should be compared to a ‘real’ interest rate; and the appropriate interest rate for the stock market is the corporate interest rate. What we see is that real Baa corporate yield is north of 8.0% — normally, this real yield is closer to 2.5% when the economy makes its turn. And while Baa spreads have come in, at just below 300 basis points, they remain well above the traditional 230bp spread they are at when the economy is making the transition to a post-recession backdrop. (This is another way of saying that credit is still more appropriately priced than equities.)

Another argument for the run-up in the market today is that interest rates are low… well, they aren’t really. All that can really be said is that going back 60 years, there have only been 14 months when the trailing multiple was as high as it is today, and that covers 10 recessions. This implies that the market is in the top 2% expensive terrain historically, and those other times basically covered the tech mania of a decade ago.

For all the talk of how low interest rates are, look at the dividend yield. It is all the way back down to 2.0%! That is half of where it normally is when the recession is about to morph into expansion. In fact, only once, again in November 2001, has the dividend yield been this low to touch off a new bull market and business cycle.

Bullish analysts like to dismiss the actual earnings because they are “depressed” and include too many writeoffs, which, of course, will never occur again. Fine, on a one-year forward (operating) earning estimates, the P/E ratio is now 16.2x, the highest it has been in nearly five years.

During the last cycle, at the peak of the S&P 500 — October 2007 — the forward P/E was 14.3x and the highest it ever got was 15.4x. So hello? In just six short months, we have managed to take the multiple above the peak of the last cycle when the economic expansion was five years old, not five weeks old (and we may be a tad charitable on that assessment). It is hard to believe, but the S&P 500 is actually trading at peak multiples.

Now, about forward multiples. The consensus is usually overly-optimistic, which is why so many analysts love to do their analysis on “forward” earnings since the market almost always looks “attractively priced” on that basis. The reality is that the forward P/E multiple is now at 16.2x after bottoming at 11.7x at the market lows. The multiple has not been this high since February 2005 when the economic expansion was already nearly four-years old! Today’s stock market, on this basis, is now being priced as if we are late in the cycle — forget this mid-cycle valuation stuff.

At the end of a given recession, the forward P/E multiple is closer to 14x or a good 15% lower than what we have on our hands today. As an aside, the forward multiple on the eve of the 1987 stock market collapse was 14x and one of the explanations for the steep correction was that equities were so overvalued and overbought that it was vulnerable to any shock (in that case, it came out of the U.S. dollar market). It certainly was not the economy because that sharp 30% slide took place even with an economy that was humming along at a 7.0% clip and corporate profits were rising at over a 50% YoY pace.

At the October 2007 market highs, the forward P/E multiple was 15x compared to 16.2x today, so you can understand why it is that:
1. We think investors are paying too high a price to participate, and;
2. We think that valuations are closer to levels more befitting an economy in its more mature stages of expansion than in its infancy.

As we said, trailing earnings per share (EPS) is criticized because it includes unsustainably depressed recession earnings and is not a barometer of the future but rather the past. Fine. But forward estimates are based on consensus earnings forecasts by analysts who are hardly ever correct, and for nearly four years now, the consensus has been way too optimistic on the one-year earnings outlook 100% of the time.

Maybe the consensus will get it right this time around but let’s just go back 12-months ago and see what it was suggesting:

The bottom-up consensus for operating EPS for the coming year back in October 2008 was $89.46 – and this was after Lehman collapsed and recession reality set in. What are we likely to see? Something closer to $50 or more than 40% below that projection.

On a forward basis, didn’t you know, equities were trading at only a 12x multiple a year ago and hence must have been viewed as a raving buy! Did you know back then that the market was really trading at a forward multiple — with perfect hindsight of course — of nearly 30x?

Valuation may not be the best timing device, but it still pays to know whether you are getting into the market at acceptable prices. If the S&P 500 was in a 700-750 range, de facto pricing in zero to 1% GDP growth, we would certainly be interested in boosting our allocations towards equities. But at 1,070 and over 4% GDP growth effectively being discounted, we will be spectators as opposed to participants, understanding that the key to success is to NOT buy at the peaks. So the strategy is to sit on the sidelines, be selective in our equity choices, and wait for the correction to come or for the fundamentals to catch up with this overvalued, overbought, overextended market. Remember, the reason why the tortoise won the race was because the hare got tired.

One more thing — when people look back at this period, they are very likely going to ask themselves why it was that they never paid attention to the volume data, which, like the bond and money market, never confirmed the veracity of this very flashy bear market rally. Keep in mind that Japan enjoyed four of these 50% power surges in the context of a market that is still down nearly 75% from its highs of two-decades ago. So remember, rallies in a bear market are to be rented; never owned.

The price-to-book ratio for the S&P 500 is currently at 2.4x, which is exactly in line with the average of the past four decades. However, at the end of recession, the market is normally trading closer to 1.5x book. Moreover, as the FT recently highlighted, a fair-value price for the S&P 500, based on ROEs, P/Es and price-to-book ratios, would place the “equilibrium” level for the S&P 500 right now at 867, which means we do have potential for a 20% correction here.

You can look at percent reversals if you like, or at the price action itself, but the reality is that never before have we bounced off any low at a time when the economy is losing nearly 3 million jobs.

This is the new paradigm — a job-shrinking bull market.

It may be true that nearly 50% of U.S. corporate revenues are being derived outside of the country; however, even outside the country, things have improved but are hardly booming; and the 50% that is local and mainly geared to the consumer is extremely vulnerable to this ongoing contraction in credit, wages and employment.

All we can say is that never before have we seen the S&P 500 rally 60% over an interval in which there were 2.7 million job losses as is now the case. What is normal is that we see more than 2 million jobs being created during a rally as large as this.

In fact, what’s normal is for the market to rally 20% from the trough to the time the recession ends. By the time we are up 60%, the economy is typically well into the third year of recovery; we aren’t usually engaged in a debate as to what month the recession ended. The ISM, for example, is close to 60 at this point, not 50; and consumer confidence is close to 100, not 53 as is now the case with the Conference Board survey. In other words, we are witnessing a market event that is outside the distribution curve.

(Mr. Speaker they own the microphone. -AM)

Some pundits will boil it down to abundant liquidity, a term they can seldom adequately define. But if it’s a case of an endless stream of cheap money, remember in Japan rates have been microscopic for years, and while the Nikkei certainly did enjoy no fewer than four 50% rallies and over 420,000 rally points, it is still more than 70% lower today than it was two decades ago. So, liquidity and technicals can certainly touch off whippy tradable rallies, but they don’t take you all the way to a sustainable bull market. Only positive economic and balance sheet fundamentals can do that.

Another way to look at the situation is that when you hear and read about “liquidity” driving the market, it is usually a catch-all phrase for “we have no clue” but it sounds good.

(Pay the man Shirley. -AM)

When we don’t have a reasonable explanation for what is driving prices, our strategy is to watch from the sidelines and express whatever positive views we have in the credit market and our other income and hedge fund strategies.

What do we know from 60 years of historical data? We know that the market typically faces serious valuation constraints once it breaches the 25x P/E multiple threshold. The average total return a year out for the S&P 500 is -0.3% and the median is -6.2%. The total return is negative a year later 60% of the time, so when we say that there is too much growth and too much risk embedded in the equity market right now, we like to think that we have history on our side.

Well let’s consider that from our lens, the S&P 500 is now priced for $83 in operating EPS (we come to that conclusion by backing out the earnings yield that would match the current inflation-adjusted Baa corporate bond yield). That earnings stream is nearly double from the most recent four-quarter trend — it normally takes around FIVE years for earnings to double from a recession low; it could be longer this time around given the lack of top-line pricing power in this deflationary cycle.

Indeed, according to S&P, revenues are set to decline 14.4% YoY in Q3 and that would represent an unprecedented fourth double-digit decline in a row!

From our lens, the S&P 500 is now priced for $83 earnings … nearly double the current four-quarter trend.

Not only that, but the top-down estimates on operating EPS for 2009 is $48, $53 for 2010, $63 for 2011, and $81 for 2012. The bottom-up consensus forecasts only go to 2010 and even for this usually bullish bunch, operating EPS is seen at $73, which means that $83 is likely a 2011 story. Either way, the market is basically discounting an earnings stream that even the consensus does not see for another two-to-three years. In other words, this is more than just a fully priced market at this point.

What about market sentiment? Well, here it is less clear. To be sure, bullish sentiment has risen sharply, to 52% as per the latest Market Vane barometer from 32% when the market was plumbing the depths at the lows last March. We are normally two years past the recession — not two weeks or two months — by the time these bullish readings cross above 50% on any sustained basis. That said, the levels would really cause us concern over a “bubble” forming if (when?) this metric hits 70%, which is right where it was when the “fun” began in October 2007.

As for liquidity, we hear this all time about the $3.5 trillion sitting in money market funds ready to be put to work in the stock market. But frankly, this is the same size as they were in October 2007, so we never find this statistic anything more than amusing. The Fed’s balance sheet has stopped expanding this year, and in fact, the money supply data are now contracting right across the board as credit in the private sector contracts and the banks deploy their record level of excess reserves into government bonds.

That said the big risk for those of us in the not-so-bullish camp is that the retail investor does begin to chase performance and switch into equities because since the lows, retail investors have plowed $200 billion into bond funds, hybrids and growth & income funds and just $17 billion into pure capital appreciation equity funds.

So far, it would appear that the “buying” has come more from program trading, short-covering and institutional portfolio managers putting cash to work. This is the big risk for the bears — what if Ma and Pa Kettle capitulate?

Of course, the second major risk is what happens if in fact we get a V-shaped earnings recovery because an $80 earnings stream, even on a more compressed 15x multiple, would inevitably take the market up to a new post-Lehman collapse high. It’s not our view, but a risk to our view.

(Federales manufacture of content versus the motley fool. -AM)

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