CAPE Fears Miss the Point

With the recent wobbles in the market, scary headlines about stock bubbles are back in the spotlight. We think all this foreboding overlooks an important point: In today’s low-return world, where better than stocks to put your money?

We’re particularly reacting to a recent article in the New York Times, entitled “Time to Worry About Stock Market Bubbles”, featuring comments from Yale professor Robert Shiller, who shared the Nobel prize in economics last year for his work on asset prices. Shiller observes that, based on his cyclically adjusted price earnings (CAPE) ratio—which looks at current stock prices relative to an inflation-adjusted average of the past 10 years of earnings—stocks have been this expensive only thrice in the past: the 1920s (before the Great Crash of 1929), the late 1990s (the Internet bubble) and 2007 (the eve of the global financial crisis). Those are disturbing comparisons.

In a preemptive strike, the article notes that stock boosters always say, “It’s different this time,” and that they typically cite counterarguments about the muting of the business cycle or the advent of the Internet to justify exceptionally high valuations. As we all know, the stock boosters have been proved wrong time and again.

We offer another perspective. If you look behind the averages and into the historical drivers of earnings and the multiples that investors are willing to pay for those earnings, the picture looks less grim.

First, by our calculation, Shiller’s current CAPE multiple of 25 times implies adjusted earnings for the S&P 500 Index of about $75, a full 30% below the market’s current trailing earnings. A drop of that magnitude would take a recession-level collapse in revenues and margins. Is that a plausible expectation?

Much has also been made of the fact that profit margins are at record levels. But margins have been rising for nearly 25 years, and many of the factors levitating them—globalization, lower borrowing costs and lower debt balances—are unlikely to reverse any time soon.

Second, we point to a critical driver of earnings multiples: the discount rate used to value earnings.  Discount rates are related to the prevailing rate of interest. Today, rates are well below average, whether long term or recent. Lower rates argue for higher multiples.

Shiller isn’t completely wrong—stocks do look expensive relative to history. We simply believe that this point doesn’t matter nearly as much as most people think. We cannot go back and buy stocks in the past. So rather than asking “Are stocks attractively priced relative to history?” investors should be asking “Are stocks attractively priced relative to my other investment choices today?” And the answer to that question is yes. From that vantage point, we’d say that stocks remain the best game in town.

Our forecast for the 10-year return of global stocks is 7.1% a year, based on our proprietary forecasting model, which considers both historical and current economic, business and capital-market conditions.1  This is materially below our “normal” expectation of about 9.2% a year (Display 1). But returns are low everywhere. Our 10-year expected annual return from bonds is 2.8%, well below the “normal” expectation of 6%, reflecting today’s ultralow interest rates, the starting point of our investment horizon.

No one likes low returns. But in a world where returns are below normal across every asset class, stocks shine. We see this in the equity risk premium (ERP)—the extra compensation that investors demand for taking on the greater risks of owning equities over bonds. Based on our 10-year projections shown above, the spread is 4.3%, or roughly a third higher than the long-term average. Based on current 12-month forward earnings yields (a proxy for stock returns), the global ERP is 7.9%, or nearly double the long-term average of 4.3% (Display 2).

Low returns are a fact of investment life today. It’s important that investors adjust their perspective to accommodate this new reality and evaluate stocks relative to their alternatives—not simply relative to history—to improve the chances of meeting their long-term goals.

1The AllianceBernstein Capital Markets Engine is a Monte Carlo model that simulates 10,000 plausible paths of return for each asset class and rate of inflation, producing a probability distribution of outcomes; however, it goes beyond randomization by taking the prevailing market conditions into consideration and basing the forecasting on the building blocks of asset returns, such as inflation, yield spreads, stock earnings and price multiples. The analysis incorporates the linkages that exist among the returns of the various asset classes and factors in a reasonable degree of randomness and unpredictability. There is no guarantee that the returns presented will actually be realized.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AllianceBernstein portfolio-management teams.

MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations, and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein. The MSCI data may not be further redistributed or used as a basis for other indices or any securities or financial products. This report is not approved, reviewed or produced by MSCI.

Joseph Gerard Paul

Chief Investment Officer—US Value Equities
Joseph Gerard Paul was appointed Chief Investment Officer for US Value Equities in 2009. He has also served as CIO of the Advanced Value Fund since 1999. Paul was previously CIO of Small & Mid-Cap Value (2002–2008) and co-CIO of Real Estate Investments (2004–2008). For two years he served as director of research of the Advanced Value Fund, a leveraged hedge fund whose genesis he was instrumental in. Paul joined the firm in 1987 as a research analyst covering the automotive industry, and was named to the Institutional Investor All-America Research Team every year from 1991 through 1996. Before joining the firm, he worked at General Motors in marketing and product planning. Paul holds a BS from the University of Arizona and an MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Location: New York

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