The narrative for positive equity returns remains intact. The U.S. economy continues to strengthen and should expand for at least a couple more years. We wrote last August,
…factors are in place that have positive impacts on equities, including an accommodating Fed, low interest rates, rising profits, a growing economy, recovering housing prices and construction, increasing auto sales...
That is still largely the case.
This environment of mild inflation, low interest rates, loose monetary policy, improving economic prospects, and record corporate profits (due largely to low tax rates and low interest costs as discussed in our October 2013 Letter) has done wonders for risk assets.
Interest rates of the bottom rung of investment grade debt haven't been this low since the 1960s. The high yield (junk) corporate bond market, the riskiest sort of business debt, is yielding just 5.50%, a rate you could earn with negligible risk on AAA-rated money markets prior to the last recession. Risk aversion is mostly absent and we suspect it will become more so.
The Standard and Poor's 500 Index (SPY IVV)is now trading for 1.67 times sales, a level higher than any other period in history except for the peak years of the technology bubble. From this data point alone, one can expect low-single-digit average annual future returns:
The mathematics of the above table is straightforward. S&P 500 revenues have historically grown 4% per year. Dividends have grown by 6% per year. Since 1992, the price-to-sales ratio has averaged 1.38 times. If valuations normalize over the next seven years (even while sales and dividends continue to grow), broad equity market returns will barely cover the historical rate of inflation. Index investors should take note.
The benefit of utilizing price-to-sales to review potential future returns is the fact that it isn't influenced by prevailing profit margins. This benefit is also its main fault, at least in the short-term. If margins are abnormally high, as they are today, price-to-sales would logically be higher than normal (as it is). But over longer periods, margins do mean-revert and thus using price-to-sales to estimate future returns makes economic sense.
While broad markets will likely generate poor average returns over the next seven years due to elevated valuations, a portfolio comprised of a small collection of world-class businesses with fair valuations and a higher aggregate yield (much like our own), it reasonably seems, would not be bound by the same dire impediments.
Importantly, one's investment approach should be designed to limit downside risks when the economic, monetary, and investment landscapes cease to be so favorable to risk assets.
As we have expressed in our other articles, we do not think peril is imminent, only inevitable. The above seven-year forecast of 3.4% returns does not factor in the likelihood of an economic recession. If returns are subpar assuming an expanding economy, what then will the likely return set be in the event the business cycle actually cycles? As they say in Australia, "rooster today, feather duster tomorrow."
Now is the time to prepare.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.