The bullish case for the economy (and, by extension, the stock market) is getting stronger. Here are some charts using recent data releases that tell the story. Manufacturing activity has definitely picked up, and corporate profits are not only strong but rising, leaving equity valuations only moderately above average. All of this is symptomatic of an economy that is slowly but surely ramping up its growth engines, and an equity market that is cautiously pricing all of this in.
Chart #1 compares the ISM manufacturing index with the quarterly annualized growth of GDP. The manufacturing index is about as strong as it has ever been, and in the past, numbers like this have been consistent with GDP growth of at least 4-5%. Expect Q3/18 to be at least 4%, which in turn would make year-over-year growth in GDP the strongest in 13 years. Meanwhile, Chart #2 shows that the service sector remains quite healthy as well, more so than in the eurozone.
Chart #3 shows the ISM new orders index, which is also rather strong. The October 2016 reading was 53.3 (just before the November '16 elections), and it has since jumped to 65.1. This is a good sign that business confidence has surged and that businesses are ramping up spending on new plant and equipment. This is the seed corn of future productivity growth and an excellent portent of a stronger economy to come.
Chart #4 compares the ISM manufacturing index to its eurozone counterpart. Things aren't looking so good overseas of late, which is unfortunate. But this could simply be a reflection of the fact that with the big drop in corporate tax rates in the U.S., businesses are pouring resources into the US at the expense of Europe, where tax rates are still high.
Chart #5 shows the ratio of after-tax corporate profits (as measured by the National Income and Product Accounts, which in turn are based on data submitted by corporations to the IRS) to nominal GDP. By this measure, corporate profits have rarely been so strong. This is, of course, due in large part to the reduction in corporate tax rates. Skeptics will say that lower tax rates have simply lined the pockets of the fat cats, and that little or none of this will trickle down to the little guy. I think this is a very short-sighted way of looking at things. What is the first thing that corporations do when they find that their profits are growing? From my experience, having known and worked with many senior corporate executives, increased profits are the trigger for increased investment. No one wants to leave profitable activities unexploited.
Chart #6 compares the yield on BAA corporate bonds, which I use as a proxy for the overall yield on all corporate debt, to the earnings yield (the inverse of the P/E ratio) of the S&P 500, which I use as a proxy for the earnings yield of all corporations (i.e., the rate of return on a dollar's worth of investment in US corporations). As the chart shows, the past decade or so has a lot in common with the late 1970s - during both of those periods, corporate bond yields and equity yields were very similar. During the boom times of the '80s and '90s, however, the earnings yield on stocks was much less than the yield on corporate bonds.
If the economy was humming along and confidence was high, you would expect the earnings yields on stocks to be less than the yield on corporate bonds. Why? Because corporate bonds have the first claim on corporate earnings - it's safer to own bonds than it is to own equity. Equity investors have a subordinate claim on earnings, but they are generally willing to give up current yield in exchange for greater total returns.
The fact that earnings yields and corporate bond yields are roughly equal these days tells me that investors aren't too confident that corporate profits will remain as strong as they have been for much longer. That's a sign of risk aversion, and risk aversion has been one of the hallmarks of the current business cycle expansion. I've been arguing for a while that risk aversion is slowly on the decline, and I expect that to continue.
Looking ahead, earnings yields will probably stay flat or decline (i.e., P/E ratios will probably remain steady or rise), while the yield on corporate debt should rise in line with rising Treasury yields, which in turn will be driven by more confidence and less risk aversion.
Chart #7 shows the current P/E ratio of the S&P 500. This is calculated by Bloomberg using 12-month trailing earnings from continuing operations. At just under 21 today, P/E ratios are somewhat higher than their long-term average.
Chart #8 shows the P/E ratio of the S&P 500, but using the NIPA measure of all corporate profits instead of reported GAAP earnings. Here we see that equity valuations are only slightly higher than average, and far less today than they were during the "bubble" of 2000.
Chart #9 shows the difference between the earnings yield on equities and the yield on 10-year Treasuries. That's a measure of how much extra yield investors demand to bear the risk of equities instead of the safety of long-term Treasuries. In the boom times of the '80s and '90s, investors were so confident in the value of equities that they were willing to accept an earnings yield that was substantially below the interest rate on Treasuries. For the duration of the current recovery, however, that has not been the case at all. That's another way of appreciating just how risk-averse this recovery has been.
Chart #10 shows the P/E ratio of the S&P 500 using NIPA profits (instead of GAAP profits) and Shiller's CAPE (cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio) method of calculation. (Current prices divided by a 10-year trailing average of after-tax quarterly profits.) Here we see that P/E ratios are only slightly above their long-term average. That's another way of saying that equities are far from being overvalued.