As we go to press (said no one in the digital age, ever!), the S&P 500 was moving to within a couple percentage points of its February 19th all-time high. Given still-high valuations for the blue chips and increasingly frothy sentiment, we think any break above that high will be underwhelming, if not a potentially historic “trap.”
How does one value a stock market in which 12-month forward EPS estimates show their widest dispersion in history? A good start might be with methods we use when forward estimates show practically no dispersion (like three months ago). In either case, we place little weight on such estimates; each revision usually has only marginal impact on our 5-Year Normalized EPS.
With May Day marches and demonstrations cancelled, the workers of the world have one less opportunity to remind us of the ever-widening wealth gap and the evils of the “Top 1%.” It’s a shame, because this was the year that we active managers would have stood shoulder to shoulder with those protesters voicing our own contempt for the “Top 1%”… of the S&P 500.
There’s no question that it’s been a rough couple of years for stock market technicians. We noted earlier that if February 19th stands as the final high of the bull market, it would be only the third time in the last 100 years that the NYSE Daily Advance/Decline Line failed to provide at least a few months’ advance notice of the oncoming bear.
The massive performance dispersion of the past two years makes it difficult (if not hazardous) to draw a simple conclusion about U.S. stock market valuations. But it’s safe to say that cap-weighted indexes like the S&P 500 and S&P Industrial Index remained significantly overvalued at the low point of the February correction.
Market momentum now seems to outweigh simple math in the minds of most investors, and we are not entirely immune. Today our tactical funds are positioned with net equity exposure of 50%, the midpoint of the normal 30-70% range. That’s a higher allocation than if we considered only business cycle dynamics and equity valuations.
It’s no surprise that U.S. Large Caps were the #1 asset class performer in 2019. We were surprised that last year was the only one of the decade in which the S&P 500 won the annual performance derby. Here we review the annual performance of “Bridesmaid” asset class and sector, “Perfect Foresight,” and Lowest P/E sector.
With 2020 representing The Leuthold Group’s 40th year of publishing Perception For The Professional, we perused the first few Green Books for relevant nuggets from 1981, but the backdrop could not have been more different. Therefore, we instead turned the clock back 20 years, thinking it might yield insights more resonant with today’s environment.
An occasional critique of our valuation work is that we consider “too much” market history to form a judgment as to what constitutes “high” or “low.” This type of feedback declined during and after the financial crisis (when historic valuation thresholds were temporarily revisited), but it has become more pointed as the U.S. market has soared to new highs.
The relative domination of Mega Caps might leave the impression that valuation of the “typical” (or median) Large Cap stock is reasonable. It’s not. The fall rally leaves all major valuation ratios for the median S&P 500 stock in the top decile of the 30-year history, and above the levels prevailing at the September 2018 market high.
The bull market took out another old record last month when the S&P 500 topped the cumulative total return of the 1949-56 upswing. The total return since March 9, 2009, is now 468%. Since the highs of March 2000, the S&P 500 cumulative total return is actually a few basis points behind U.S. 10-year Treasury bonds.
With promised breakthroughs on Brexit and the trade war miraculously occurring on the same day, few pundits now believe the market is anywhere close to an important peak. (A peak in the S&P 500, that is, since peaks occurred long ago in the ACWI, MSCI Emerging Markets, NYSE Composite, Value Line Arithmetic, S&P MidCap 400, and the Russell 2000.)
On October 3rd, the S&P 500 briefly traded below the high it made in January 2018 before reversing to close the day higher.
A recent theme in our valuation work is that we no longer need to assume a full-blown “reversion to the mean” to illustrate current U.S. stock market risks: Even a reversion to “old” bull market highs in ratios like S&P 500 Price/Sales, Price/Cash Flow, and Normalized P/E would result in bear-sized losses.