I’ve written a fair number of posts highlighting the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street (far more than I can remember, in fact). But even if you ignore what is happening in the real economy (you know, like Wall Street usually does), share prices are out of whack — with their own history. In "Clarity and Valuation," John P. Hussman, President of Hussman Investment Trust, discusses that very issue in this week’s edition of Hussman Funds’ Weekly Market Comment:
Last week, the dividend yield on the S&P 500 dropped below 2%, versus a historical average closer to double that level. While part of the reason for the paucity of yield in the current market can be explained by the 20% plunge in dividend payouts over the past year, as financial companies have cut or halted dividends to conserve cash, the fact is that current payouts are not at all out of line with their historical relationship to revenues, and even a full recovery of the past year’s dividend cuts would still leave the yield at a paltry 2.5%. The October 1987 crash occurred from a yield of 2.65%, which was, at the time, the lowest yield observed in history, matched only by the 1972 peak prior to the brutal 1973-74 bear market.
Those two periods had a few other things in common. In the weeks immediately preceding the market downturn, stocks were overbought, had advanced significantly over prior weeks, bond yields were creeping higher, and investment advisory bearishness had dropped below 19%. All of those features should be familiar, because we observed them at the 1987 and 1972 peaks, and we observe them now.
On the basis of normalized profit margins, the average price/earnings ratio for the S&P 500, prior to 1995, was only about 13. Higher historical “norms” reflect the addition into that average of extremely high “recession P/Es,” based on dividing the S&P 500 by extremely low, but temporarily depressed earnings. For example, the P/E for the S&P 500 currently is 86, because earnings have been devastated, but it would be foolish to take that figure at face value, and equally foolish to work it into a historical “average” P/E. The pre-1995 norm of 13 for price-to-normalized earnings is important, because at present – and again, we are not using current depressed earnings, but properly normalized values – the S&P 500 P/E would currently be over 20. That’s higher than 1987 and 1972, and about even with 1929. Of course, valuations have been regularly higher in the period since the late 1990’s (and not surprisingly, subsequent returns, even after the recent advance, have been dismal overall, with the S&P 500 posting a negative total return for the past decade).
So overvalued, check. Overbought, check. Overbullish, check. Upward pressure on yields, check. Market internals? – certainly mixed, but not bad – and there’s the wild card. Historically, markets featuring a combination of these other risks have been vulnerable even without clear deterioration of internals. What the mixed internals (rather than clearly negative) buy you is variability in the timing of subsequent weakness. Sometimes the market plunges immediately, but often it bounces around for a while and continues to make marginal new highs. More often than not, what the syndrome produces is an abrupt plunge within a window of about 10-12 weeks. Not a forecast, just a regularity. This time might be different, but we wouldn’t risk a great deal hoping it will be.
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