Are Equities Overvalued?

by Michael Spence

Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Next Convergence – The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World.

MILAN – Since the global economic crisis, sharp divergences in economic performance have contributed to considerable stock-market volatility. Now, equity prices are reaching relatively high levels by conventional measures – and investors are starting to get nervous.

The question is whether stock valuations are excessive relative to future earnings potential. The answer depends on two key variables: the discount rate and future earnings growth. A lower discount rate and/or a higher rate of expected earnings growth would justify higher equity valuations.

The S&P’s price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the trailing 12 months is close to 20, compared to a long-run mean of 15.53 and a median of 14.57. The Shiller P/E ratio – based on average real (inflation-adjusted) earnings from the last ten years – is at 27.08, with a mean and median of 16.59 and 15.96, respectively. And, in February, the forward 12-month earnings P/E ratio, which uses managers’ future earnings guidance, reached an 11-year high of 17.1, with the five- and ten-year averages standing at about 14 and the 15-year average at 16.

The stock market’s recent performance often is attributed to the unconventional monetary policies that many central banks have been pursuing. These policies, by design, lowered the return on sovereign bonds, forcing investors to seek yield in markets for higher-risk assets like equities, lower-rated bonds, and foreign securities.

According to the standard formulation, stock prices tend to revert toward the present value of estimated future earnings (including growth in those earnings), discounted at the so-called “risk-free rate,” augmented by an equity risk premium. More precisely, the forward earnings yield – that is, the inverse of the P/E ratio – is equal to the risk-free rate plus the equity premium, minus the growth rate of earnings. (Of course, markets take detours along the way, driven by, say, irrational exuberance, temporary declines in the impact of value investors, or mistimed contrarian trades.)

Monetary policy may have bolstered stock prices in two ways, either lowering the discount rate by compressing the equity risk premium, or simply reducing risk-free rates for long enough to raise the present value of stocks. In either case, equity prices should level off at some point, allowing earnings to catch up, or even correct downward.

But the monetary-policy story, while plausible, is not ironclad. Indeed, other factors may explain – or at least contribute to – current stock-market trends.

A key factor is earnings growth. In the long run, it is reasonable to expect that revenue growth would be broadly consistent with economic growth – and, as it stands, there is little acceleration on this front. Earnings can grow faster than revenues for a prolonged (though not indefinite) period, if companies cut costs or reduce investment – a trend that would, over time, lower depreciation charges. In theory, corporate-tax cuts could have the same effect.

Furthermore, the economy’s equilibrium conditions could change, so that aggregate earnings would capture a larger share of national income. There is some evidence that this is now occurring in advanced economies, with the proliferation of labor-saving digital technologies and the globalization of supply chains suppressing income growth.

That said, some trends may be having the opposite effect on expectations for earnings growth. More than two-fifths of the S&P 500’s earnings come from external markets, some of which, like Europe and Japan, are barely growing, while others, like China, are slowing.

The appreciation of the dollar exacerbates the situation for US markets, because it creates headwinds for exporters and causes companies’ foreign earnings, reported in dollars, to decline. And a slowdown in productivity growth, together with excessive leverage and persistent public-sector underinvestment, may be undermining medium-term potential economic growth.

While expectations of faster earnings growth may well be contributing to elevated P/E levels, the current situation is complicated, to say the least. What is certain is that expectations of high earnings growth would have a more durable positive effect on P/E levels than the suppression of the equity risk premium.

The other important factor affecting P/E is the risk-free rate. As monetary policy normalizes – a process that has already begun in the United States – the risk-free rate is expected to rise to a level that is consistent with stable 2% inflation, which, in turn, corresponds with a level of unemployment. What precisely that rate is, however, remains uncertain – and extremely difficult to determine, given that it is affected by virtually every aspect of the unfolding growth patterns.

Nonetheless, several features of current growth patterns stand out: excess productive capacity, persistent high leverage, declining labor content in goods-and-services production, and an increasingly unequal distribution of income both between labor and capital, and across labor-income segments, with their differential savings rates. Together, these patterns could lead to an extended period in which aggregate demand limits growth. With growth not constrained on the supply side, there would be little inflationary pressure, and the neutral interest rate that is consistent with non-inflationary full employment could simply be lower than it used to be for an extended period.

Where does this leave us? In my view, it is difficult to make a strong case for a significant sustained increase in earnings growth in this environment, meaning that growth alone would not justify current equity valuations. But the lower-discount-rate argument is more persuasive, and is consistent with underlying economic conditions and central banks’ mandates.

That said, in such a complex environment, investors can be expected to reach widely disparate conclusions, which will sustain – if not increase – market volatility.


Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Next Convergence – The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Added 12.06.2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Added 11.06.2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Added 08.06.2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Added 07.06.2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Added 05.06.2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Added 04.06.2018
 

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
Added 30.05.2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
Added 30.05.2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
Added 29.05.2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
Added 28.05.2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.
Added 19.05.2018
The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.
Added 16.05.2018
Many knowledgeable people dismiss the prospect of advanced AGI [=Artificial General Intelligence]. Some, ..........,argue that it is impossible for AI to outsmart humanity........Yet other distinguished scholars........do worry that AGI could pose a serious or even existential threat to humanity. With experts lining up on both sides of the debate, the rest of us should keep an open mind.
Added 15.05.2018
The world’s most important bilateral relationship – between the United States and China – is also one of its most inscrutable. Bedeviled by paradoxes, misperceptions, and mistrust, it is a relationship that has become a source of considerable uncertainty and, potentially, severe instability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brewing bilateral trade war.
Added 15.05.2018
Viewed from Palestine, it’s hard to disagree that we’ve perhaps seen one of the most inflammatory weeks in recent memory. In just a few days, several extremely sensitive events have coincided to devastating effect: the culmination of weekly protests in the Gaza Strip, the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba (from the Arabic, “Immense Catastrophe”) and the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Throw in for good measure Israel and Iran’s recent clash over the occupied Golan Heights and it seems that more than ever, the region is something of a tinderbox.