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I am an independent investor writing at Scott's Investments (http://www.scottsinvestments.com). My site is dedicated to discussing and publicly tracking historically successful investments strategies and sharing free investment resources. I emphasize empirical, historical, and quantitative... More
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  • Tobin's Q: Explanation and Update 0 comments
    Jun 26, 2009 7:56 PM

    Originally posted on Scott's Investments:

     

    First, an explanation of Tobin's Q, compliments of Trader's Narrative:

    There are many different ways to value the stock market. We are waiting for the Coppock Guide to give us a signal by month’s end (just a few more days left). The usually reliable price earnings ratio has gone haywire, but the dividend yield ratio is still valid.

    But what if I told you there is an even better way to sum up the valuation of the stock market in just one number? A method that is both rational and comes with an astonishing track record, having identified every single generational buy opportunity?

    Tobin’s Q was created by the late James Tobin, a pre-eminent economist and professor at Yale. His work garnered him a Nobel prize “for his analysis of financial markets and their relations to expenditure decisions, employment, production and prices.” But he’s probably best known for his work on the stock market. Put simply, Tobin’s Q is a ratio of the current value of the market divided by the replacement value of those same assets.

    Think of a factory. It has a market price at which it would be bought and sold. And it also has a replacement cost - what one would have to spend to rebuild it from scratch. The ratio of the two is Tobin’s Q. Obviously, that would imply that when the ratio is greater than 1 the market is overpriced because one could theoretically ‘rebuild’ it for a cheaper price than it would take to purchase it. The Q ratio for US equities has fluctuated between 0.3 and 3 in the past 130 years.

    It has signaled all the great bear market lows: 1982, 1974, 1949, 1932, 1921. Tobin’s Q moves at such a glacial pace that other indicators - even the Coppock Curve - seem twitchy by comparison. But when it does approach an extreme, it pays to give it the respect it deserves.

    The best book on Tobin’s Q is Valuing Wall Street by Andrew Smithers (of Smithers & Co.). It came out at the same time as Shiller’s more famous Irrational Exuberance.

    Both books had the same message and both were published at the exact peak of the 2000 bubble, but Shiller’s work got more attention because it was written to be more accessible to the general public while Smithers is more targeted to educated traders and investors. Although both books are good Shiller’s book stole much of Smithers’ thunder. You can pick up a copy from Amazon for less than $4 - which is a steal really.

    As you might imagine, calculating the replacement value of such a diverse set of ever changing assets is mind bogglingly complex. Thankfully, the Federal Reserve does the heavy lifting. They provide the data in the Flow of Funds Report (pdf document). Look for the numerator on B.102 line 35: Market Value of Equities Outstanding (on page 103) and the denominator: Net Worth on line 32 (same page).

    So the ratio resolves to:

    9554.1 ÷ 15389.8 = 0.6208

    Due to the nature of the data, it is only available quarterly with a lag of a few months. The latest report was released March 12th, 2009 which means the above number is for the fourth quarter of 2008. We should be getting the release of data for the first quarter of 2009 soon. But some analysts also guesstimate the number ahead of time. John Mihaljevic, the former research assistant to Tobin says the current value of Q is around 0.43 - which would be extremely close to the historic low of ~0.30. Following the previous link, you can not only get further details but purchase his complete report.

    Obviously the market could fall more and take the Q ratio down with it. But this is further evidence that we are much, much closer to a generational buy point here rather than somewhere along the line of a continuing downtrend. Similar to the Coppock Curve, the Q ratio is not only setting up for a bullish signal but one of epic proportions.

    Here is a chart of the Q ratio (from 1952 onwards when Federal Reserve data is available):

     

    ==============================================================Next, an update from June 24th shows that the bear market still has not ended according to Tobin's Q:
     

    The Federal Reserve released its data for the first quarter of 2009 and unfortunately the estimate by John Mihaljevic was not borne out. This bear market is not finished - at least not according to Tobin’s Q ratio.

    I’m not really sure how the eggheads at the Fed actually crunch the numbers for the numerator and the denominator but adjustments are the norm. Each quarter we not only have new data but usually small adjustments are made to prior numbers.

    This most recent data release was no different with almost all previous data points changing slightly. For example, the 2008 fourth quarter data changed from 0.6208 to 0.6730. The only (thin) silver lining in this cloud is that we are continuing to head in the right direction: lower. But in order to give us a signal, the ratio has to fall precipitously to the 0.40 level. Which is not to say that it can’t do so.

    In the first quarter of 1974 the Q ratio was 0.58, not far from where we find it now. During the next few quarters, it fell so fast that by the fourth quarter of 1974 it was 0.33 - at an extreme historic low, signaling a generational opportunity in the equity markets. You can mouse over the chart below to see what I mean.

    By the way, if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Valuing Wall Street. It is the definitive book on this indicator and at only $10 even a cheap bastard like me can’t resist it. A little trivia: this book came out at the same time as “Irrational Exhuberance” but either because it had a useless publicist or because the concept was too dry, it never got the same traction as Prof. Shiller’s book - even though it argued correctly that the 2000 market was about to take a massive tumble.

    Themes: tobin's q
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