Excerpt from the Hussman Funds' Weekly Market Comment (11/26/12):
In the day-to-day focus on the “fiscal cliff,” our own concern about a U.S. recession already in progress, and the inevitable flare-up of European banking and sovereign debt strains, it’s easy to overlook the primary reason that we are defensive here: stocks are overvalued, and market conditions have moved in a two-step sequence from overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising yield conditions (and an army of other hostile indicator syndromes) to a breakdown in market internals and trend-following measures. Once in place, that sequence has generally produced very negative outcomes, on average. In that context, even impressive surges in advances versus declines (as we saw last week) have not mitigated those outcomes, on average, unless they occur after stocks have declined precipitously from their highs. Our estimates of prospective stock market return/risk, on a blended horizon from 2-weeks to 18-months, remains among the most negative that we’ve observed in a century of market data.
On the valuation front, Wall Street has been lulled into complacency by record profit margins born of extreme fiscal deficits and depressed savings rates. Profits as a share of GDP are presently about 70% of their historical norm, and profit margins have historically been highly sensitive to cyclical fluctuations. So the seemingly benign ratio of “price to forward operating earnings” is benign only because those forward operating earnings are far out of line with what could reasonably expected on a sustained long-term basis.
It’s helpful to examine valuations that are based on “fundamentals” that don’t fluctuate strongly in response to temporary ups and downs of the business cycle. The chart below compares historical price/dividend, price/revenue, price/book and Shiller P/E (S&P 500 divided by the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings) to their respective historical norms prior to the late-1990’s market bubble - a reading of 1.0 means that valuations are at their pre-bubble norm.
Emphatically, the rule-of-thumb cannot be accurately used with fundamentals like “forward operating earnings” that are sensitive to expansions and recessions. When the denominator of your valuation multiple is affected by cyclical economic fluctuations, the multiple often says more about where you are in the business cycle than where you are in terms of valuation. Likewise, the proper historical “norm” for a valuation multiple is the level that is itself associated with “normal” subsequent returns. We sometimes see analysts using valuation “norms” where nearly half of the data represents bubble valuations since the mid-1990’s. We are now nearly 14-years into a period where the S&P 500 has underperformed Treasury bills. It is lunacy to consider the valuations that produced this outcome as the “norm.”
We remain convinced that stocks are richly valued here. A fairly run-of-the-mill normalization of valuations in the course of the present market cycle would imply bear market losses of about one-third of the market’s value, without even establishing significant undervaluation. Then again, there’s no assurance that valuations will normalize, or that stocks will experience a bear market here. Maybe Wall Street is correct that profit margins will remain forever elevated and The New Global Economy™ will never again witness “normal” valuations on these measures at all. There’s no shortage of analysts who effectively embrace that view by focusing only on forward-operating earnings.