Half Truths, Lies and Equity Valuations
Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.
“When one side of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly” - George Washington
Daughter: Can I go out with friends?
Father: Have you asked your mother?
Daughter: Of course I have.
Father: Okay, have fun.
In the plot above, the daughter only tells her father half of the truth. She fails to disclose that her mother said “no.”
Like the daughter's craftiness, many markets are surging on narratives built on just one side of a story. For speculators and gamblers, that seems to suffice. For investors aiming to build and preserve long-term wealth, I suggest understanding every side of a story.
Of the many tales being told to justify record equity valuations, low interest rates are among the more popular. Low interest rates benefit stock prices. However, that is only half the story. I present the other half of the story that few tell.
There is a popular narrative that says stocks should do well because bond yields are pitifully low. The basis behind the argument is math comparing historical stock returns to current bond yields. But historical average returns and expected stock returns are often quite different.
Calculating expected returns is primarily a function of the price of an asset. The higher the price paid, the lower your expected returns and vice versa.
As I presented in, “You’ve Got To Ask Yourself One Question. Do You Feel Lucky?” expected equity returns are near zero, as valuations are extreme. Statistically based expected returns are vastly different than the “we hope for” expected returns spewed by cheerleaders in the financial and social media outlets.
The article shared four popular valuations methods and the expected returns based on the historical relationship between valuations and 10-year forward returns. In each case, the current valuation has a strong statistical correlation with the coming 10 years of returns.
I extend that analysis by comparing those return expectations to yields on Treasury and corporate bonds.
The intersection between the same color vertical and trend line denotes the expected return for the respective valuation method. Ten-year U.S. Treasury yields and BBB-rated corporate bond yields are marked with the dotted horizontal lines.
The table below the graph summarizes my findings.
Bonds, even with their paltry yields, have higher expected returns than stocks over the next 10 years in three of the four studies.
The story does not end there. Risk is an essential factor when comparing the expected returns of different assets. Traditionally, stocks have more than twice as much risk as measured by standard deviation than bonds. As such, the expected returns per unit of risk greatly favor bonds, even bonds with near-zero yields. Bonds may be rich, but stocks are richer.
The four graphs below, courtesy of Crescat Capital, further highlight that equities valuations are well above historical norms versus bond yields.
I compared the S&P 500 price-to-sales ratio to 10-year Treasury yields below in the same vein. Based on this statistically robust measure (R2 = .7109), the S&P 500 is 20% overvalued relative to 10-year Treasury yields. If we assume 10-year yields go to zero, it is still 10% overvalued.
Earnings and GDP
Another popular narrative tells us that a lower discount rate applied to expected earnings improves the present value of said earnings. This is another half-truth.
Mathematically, a lower discount rate, with everything else equal, boosts the present value of expected cash flows. Unfortunately, everything is not equal.
The discount rate is based on risk-free yields, which are highly correlated to economic growth. Yields and economic growth rates have been in decline for the last 35 years. Not surprisingly, the growth rate of corporate earnings follows the same trends. The graph below compares the secular growth trends of yields, GDP, and profits. While corporate profits are much more volatile, the trends are in sync.
A lower discount rate applied to future earnings boosts valuations. However, one must also assume a slower growth rate for earnings projections. When both growth rates are appropriately adjusted, a lower discount rate's benefits are largely offset by a slower expected earnings growth rate.
The blue dots in the graph below show the present value of a stream of future cash flows growing at 5% at selected discount rates. The orange line is similar, but it assumes a 4% cash flow growth rate.
As highlighted in the box with the red arrow, if the discount rate is reduced by 1% with no change to expected earnings growth, the present value rises by 18%. However, if we reduce expected earnings and the discount rate by 1%, the black arrow shows that the present value increases by a mere 1%.
A lower discount rate is only bullish if forecasted earnings growth is not altered. The problem is yields, discount rates, and corporate earnings are directly tied to the economy.
The story is not as compelling when facts are applied.
Walk down the cereal aisle in any grocery store and read about the nutritional benefits. The boxes are partially correct. Most breakfast cereals have an assortment of beneficial vitamins and fiber. Many also have unhealthy amounts of sugar.
The aisle for stocks is similar. As investors, we are continually told half-truths. Most investors are lazy and do not want to research the veracity of claims or what might not be exposed.
Half-truths sell, and in a bullish market, that is all investors want to hear.
Michael Lebowitz is the founding partner of 720 Global and partner with Real Investment Advice. We assist our clients in differentiating themselves from the crowd with a focus on value, performance and a clear, lucid assessment of global market and economic dynamics. For more information about our upcoming subscription service RIA Pro, please contact us at 301.466.1204 or email [email protected].