Are US stocks really over-valued?

Stock Market Capitalization

Let us start with Warren Buffet’s favorite market valuation ratio: stock market capitalization to GDP. I have modified this slightly, replacing GDP with GNP, because the former excludes offshore earnings — a significant factor for multinationals.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The ratio of stock market capitalization to GNP now exceeds the highs of 2005/2006, suggesting that stocks are over-valued — approaching the heady days of the Dotcom era.

Corporate Profits

If we dig a bit deeper, however, while the ratio of market cap to sales is also high, market cap to corporate profits remains low.

US stock market capitalization to Business Sales and Corporate Profits

Clearly profit margins have widened, with corporate profits increasing at a faster rate than sales. The critical question: is this sustainable?

Sustainability of Profits

At some point profit margins must narrow in response to rising costs. Increases in aggregate demand may lift employment and sales, but also drive up labor costs.

Profits and Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

The brown line above depicts labor costs as a percentage of net value added, compared to corporate profits (blue) as a percentage of net value added. There is a clear inverse relationship: when labor costs rise, profit margins fall (and vice versa). At first the effect of narrower margins is masked by rising sales, but eventually aggregate profits contract when sales growth slows (gray stripes indicate past recessions).

Interest Rates and Taxes

Other contributing factors to high corporate profits are interest rates and taxes. Corporate profits (% of GNP) have soared over the last 30 years as bond yields have fallen. The benefit is two-fold, with lower interest rates reducing the cost of corporate debt and lower finance costs boosting sales of consumer durables.

Corporate Profits as % of GNP and AAA Bond Yields

Lower effective corporate tax rates (gray) have also contributed to the surge in profits as a percentage of GNP.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The most enduring of these three factors (labor costs, interest rates, and tax rates) is likely to be taxes. Corporate tax rates have fallen in most jurisdictions and US rates are high by comparison. Even if a long-overdue overhaul of corporate taxation is achieved in the next decade (don’t hold your breath), the overall tax rate is likely to remain low.

If Not Now, When?

The other two factors (labor costs and interest rates) may not be sustainable in the long-term but it will take time for them to normalize.

Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year at 2.37 percent. Breakout above 3.0 percent still appears some way off, but would confirm the end of the 35-year secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yields Secular Trend

Interest rates are likely to remain low until rising labor costs force the Fed to adopt a restrictive stance.

Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

Labor markets have tightened to some extent, as indicated by the higher trough on the right of the above graph. But this is likely to be slowed by the low participation rate, with potential employees returning to the workforce, and a strong dollar enhancing the attraction of cheap labor in emerging markets.

Hourly earnings growth in the manufacturing sector remains comfortably below the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. Any breakout above this level, however, would be cause for concern. Not only would the Fed be likely to raise interest rates, but profit margins are likely to shrink.

Manufacturing: Hourly Earnings Growth

For the present

None of the macroeconomic and volatility filters that we monitor indicate elevated market risk. I expect them to rise over the next two to three years as the labor market tightens and interest rates increase, but for the present we maintain full exposure to equities.

Dearth of capital investment

Interesting graph from RBA governor Glenn Stevens.

A striking feature of the global economy, according to World Bank and OECD data, is the low rate of capital investment spending by businesses. In fact, the rate of investment to GDP seems to have had a downward trend for a long time.

One potential explanation is that there is a dearth of profitable investment opportunities. But another feature that catches one’s eye is that, post-crisis, the earnings yield on listed companies seems to have remained where it has historically been for a long time, even as the return on safe assets has collapsed to be close to zero …..

US Australia Yields

Perhaps this is partly explained by more sense of risk attached to future earnings, and/or a lower expected growth rate of future earnings.

Or it might be explained simply by stickiness in the sorts of “hurdle rates” that decision makers expect investments to clear. I cannot speak about US corporates, but this would seem to be consistent with the observation that we tend to hear from Australian liaison contacts that the hurdle rates of return that boards of directors apply to investment propositions have not shifted, despite the exceptionally low returns available on low-risk assets.

What this illustrates is the limits of monetary policy to restore economic growth.

Such [monetary] policies are, then, working through the channels available to them to support demand. But these channels are financial in nature. They don’t directly create demand in the way that, for example, government fiscal actions do……

Ray Dalio Explains The Rare Set Of Circumstances That’s Making Him Bearish On Markets | Business Insider

Joe Weisenthal reports on hedge fund guru Ray Dalio’s outlook:

His novel set of circumstances he sees is an economy that faces austerity (due to the Fiscal Cliff, etc.) coupled with a Fed that’s mostly blown its bazooka, and can’t get much more juice out of QE.

  • Yields can’t go down anymore.
  • Austerity is coming.
  • Economy is running out of steam.
  • QE is losing its efficacy.
  • Rate turn probably finally coming late in 2013.

Read more at Ray Dalio Explains The Rare Set Of Circumstances That's Making Him Bearish On Markets – Business Insider.

Australia: Hard or soft landing?

Browsing the latest charts from the RBA.

Despite record low 10-year bond yields…..

Housing Finances

Credit growth is subdued and likely to remain so for some time.

Credit Growth by Sector

After a massive credit bubble lasting more than a decade.

Housing Finances

Households are saving close to 10 percent of Disposable Income in anticipation of a contraction.

Housing Finances

While banks are reluctant to lend when their margins are being squeezed.

Housing Finances

Borrowing offshore is not an option. That is how we got into such a fix in the first place.

Housing Finances

Makes me believe we are unlikely to see another housing boom for some time.

There are two possible outcomes: a soft landing and a hard landing.

It all depends on whether Wayne Swan and the RBA know their jobs.

On Investment Time Horizons – Seeking Alpha

David Merkel observes that Shiller’s CAPE10 ratio and Tobin’s Q-ratio both “indicate that stocks are not likely to return a lot over the next 10 years”.

The CAPE10 ratio is a long-term, smoothed PE-ratio first popularized by Yale Professor Robert Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance. CAPE10 compares the current S&P 500 index value to the average of the last 10-years annual earnings. James Tobin’s Q-ratio compares current price to net worth (total company assets minus liabilities).

Merkel points out, however, that “the same is true of most high-quality bond investments …. and high-yield investments when expected losses are netted out…..I am not crazy about buying bonds here. The risk-reward is awkward, but the same is true of stocks.”

Bottom line is investors are being starved of yield by the Fed’s Twist and QE3 operations. Investors may be forced to take on additional risk in order to boost yields, but that could end in disaster, with capital losses if yields rise or earnings fall. Where possible, the safest strategy would be to tighten your belt and sit this out.

via On Investment Time Horizons – Seeking Alpha.

Yield Is The Last Refuge Of Scoundrels – Seeking Alpha

By David Merkel:

What’s that I see? We’re at a 50-year low for yields on low investment-grade-rated bonds. Surely the economy should be booming. What, like the Great Depression, we are in a liquidity trap? Seems that way…….

Baa Corporate Bond Yield WBAA

via Yield Is The Last Refuge Of Scoundrels – Seeking Alpha.

Stocks Out of Fashion Amid a Bonding With Bonds –

Since the start of 2007, a cumulative $350 billion has flowed out of stock funds and a little over $1 trillion has moved into bond funds….. In 2011, 45% was in stock funds and 25% in bonds; in 2005, the mix was 55% for stocks and 15% in bonds…..

via AHEAD OF THE TAPE: Stocks Out of Fashion Amid a Bonding With Bonds –

Comment:~ Low bond yields and higher risk premiums on stocks (stock earnings yield minus bond yield) highlight investors flight to safety. But this is no guarantee that bonds will continue to out-perform stocks. Bond yields must be close to hitting a “floor” and, with no further capital gains, investor returns will be meagre — while stocks grow increasingly attractive.

Australia: The safe haven –

Yields on the 10-year Commonwealth bond hit a record intraday low of 3.78 percentage points yesterday…….CPI inflation for the September quarter was still running at 3.5%. That means investors are close to giving the Australian government money for free.

On top of that….. Investors seem happy to park their money with the Australian government despite the large risk that the dollar will take a serious tumble (though of course they are themselves mitigating that risk somewhat through their own purchases). If investors are separately hedging, which, frankly, they’re mad if they’re not, that will add further cost to the transaction, enough surely, to push the return negative.

via Australia: The safe haven – |

Italy 3-yr auction yield jumps to record 7.89 pct | Reuters

The yield on a new three-year BTP soared to euro lifetime high of 7.89 percent at the closely watched auction which allowed Rome to raise 7.5 billion euros…..Only a month ago, Italy had paid a 4.93 yield to sell three-year paper.

via Italy 3-yr auction yield jumps to record 7.89 pct | Reuters.

German Bond Auction Spurs Worries –

A German government debt auction drew some of the weakest demand since the introduction of the euro, signaling diminishing investor appetite for even the safest euro-zone assets amid Europe’s worsening debt crisis….The German government was able to sell only €3.644 billion $4.92 billion of the €6 billion in 10-year bunds on auction for an average yield of 1.98%. Interest rates on Germany’s 10-year bonds rose sharply after the auction to 2.09%, their highest level in three weeks, leapfrogging the yield on the U.S. 10-year note.

via German Bond Auction Spurs Worries –

ECB Fights to Put Lid on European Bond Yields –

Markets largely shrugged off the ECB, as long-term investors continued to dump everything but German bonds—considered the market’s safe harbor—and it became increasingly difficult to find private buyers for bonds issued by the large, indebted countries such as Italy and Spain…..The ECB fought a running battle throughout the day, traders said, in an attempt to drive the yield on the 10-year Italian note below 7%. The trading session started with price rally that drove the closely watched rate down to 6.84%. Then, as ECB buying lightened, private sellers took over, driving the yield—which moves in the opposite direction of price—up to 7.22%, according to Tradeweb data. Prices then rallied in the afternoon, with some market participants citing more ECB buying as well as comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicating German support for more fiscal integration in the euro zone.

via ECB Fights to Put Lid on European Bond Yields –

Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – Outside the Box Investment Newsletter – John Mauldin

Italy is running a primary surplus. The only thing sending her over the edge is the simple fact that the Italian government cannot borrow at low-enough rates. At 4% (where rates were a year ago), they can gradually begin to adjust their debt ratios and still finance their borrowing – it will not be easy, but they, unlike their spendthrift cousins in the Aegean, have one of the highest savings rates in the OECD…..

via Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – Outside the Box Investment Newsletter – John Mauldin.

Italy Nears Tipping Point as Bond Yields Spike –

Less than two weeks after European leaders unveiled an agreement that was designed to bolster confidence in the region, the yield on Italy’s 10-year debt drew close to the 7% mark, a line in the sand of both practical and psychological importance to the market. Psychologically, 7% has become a beacon due to the fact that Greece, Portugal and Ireland each sought bailouts soon after their debt reached these levels. While analysts said it is too simplistic to say that Italy will be forced to ask for support if its 10-year debt yields 7%, they said the recent selloff is taking the country to the tipping point.

via Italy Nears Tipping Point as Bond Yields Spike –

Say What? In 30-Year Race, Bonds Beat Stocks – Bloomberg

Long-term government bonds have gained 11.5 percent a year on average over the past three decades, beating the 10.8 percent increase in the S&P 500, said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.

The combination of a core U.S. inflation rate that has averaged 1.5 percent this year, the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks near zero through 2013, slower economic growth and the highest savings rate since the global credit crisis have made bonds the best assets to own this year.

via Say What? In 30-Year Race, Bonds Beat Stocks – Bloomberg.

Does this mean we should all rush out and buy 10-year Treasury Notes yielding less than 2.20 percent? I think not. The potential for further capital gains from lower yields is far outweighed by the risk of capital losses from future rate rises. And there are plenty of low-to-medium risk alternatives that will perform better than 2.20 percent.

The Problem With Your Bond Fund –

Twenty years ago the average bond fund cost $100 in sales charges and yearly expenses for each $10,000 invested, according to the Investment Company Institute. At the time, $10,000 was enough to produce a yearly income of $825 in 10-year Treasury bonds and $1,050 in corporate bonds rates Baa (“moderate credit risk”) by Moody’s.

The good news: last year, bond fund fees averaged $70 per $10,000 invested. The bad: $10,000 put in the same Treasurys or corporate bonds now provides only $220 or $540 in yearly income, respectively.

via The Problem With Your Bond Fund –

Struggling with a great contraction –

Many ask whether high-income countries are at risk of a “double dip” recession. My answer is: no, because the first one did not end. The question is, rather, how much deeper and longer this recession or “contraction” might become.

…… the dire consequences of soaring risk aversion, against the background of such economic fragility. In the long journey to becoming ever more like Japan, the yields on 10-year US and German government bonds are now down to where Japan’s had fallen in October 1997, at close to 2 per cent. Does deflation lie ahead in these countries, too? One big recession could surely bring about just that. That seems to me to be a more plausible danger than the hyperinflation that those fixated on fiscal deficits and central bank balance sheet find so terrifying.

via Martin Wolf|Struggling with a great contraction –