Given the extent and maturity of the recent advance, it’s very odd that analysts are now beginning to toss around the idea that stocks have entered a secular bull market. These notions are based not on the level of valuation, nor on the duration of the secular bear since 2000, but instead on the idea that stocks have gone nowhere for a long time and the recent advance might be enough to break the downtrend we’ve seen in the inflation-adjusted S&P 500 since 2000.
Unfortunately, secular bull markets do not begin simply because stocks have gone nowhere for a long while. They begin at the point that valuations become so depressed - again, about 7 on the Shiller P/E - that strong and sustained long-term returns are baked in the cake. Similarly, secular bears tend to begin at the point where valuations are so extreme - about 24 or higher on a Shiller P/E - that weak and ephemeral long-term returns are baked in the cake. The intervening secular moves simply take the market from one extreme to another over the course of something on the order of 15-20 years.
We can show this with basic arithmetic. Historically, nominal GDP growth, corporate revenues, and even cyclically-adjusted earnings (filtering out short-run variations in profit margins) have grown at about 6% annually over time. Excluding the bubble period since mid-1995, the average historical Shiller P/E has actually been less than 15. Therefore, it is simple to estimate the 10-year market return by combining three components: 6% growth in fundamentals, reversion in the Shiller P/E toward 15 over a 10-year period, and the current dividend yield. It’s not an ideal model of 10-year returns, but it’s as simple as one should get, and it still has a correlation of more than 80% with actual subsequent total returns for the S&P 500:
Shorthand 10-year total return estimate = 1.06 * (15/ShillerPE)^(1/10) – 1 + dividend yield(decimal)
For example, at the 1942 market low, the Shiller P/E was 7.5 and the dividend yield was 8.7%. The shorthand estimate of 10-year nominal returns works out to 1.06*(15/7.5)^(1/10)-1+.087 = 22% annually. In fact, the S&P 500 went on to achieve a total return over the following decade of about 23% annually.
Conversely, at the 1965 valuation peak that is typically used to mark the beginning of the 1965-1982 secular bear market, the Shiller P/E reached 24, with a dividend yield of 2.9%. The shorthand 10-year return estimate would be 1.06*(15/24)^(1/10)+.029 = 4%, which was followed by an actual 10-year total return on the S&P 500 of … 4%.
Let’s keep this up. At the 1982 secular bear low, the Shiller P/E was 6.5 and the dividend yield was 6.6%. The shorthand estimate of 10-year returns works out to 22%, which was followed by an actual 10-year total return on the S&P 500 of … 22%. Not every point works out so precisely, but hopefully the relationship between valuations and subsequent returns is clear.
Now take the 2000 secular bull market peak. The Shiller P/E reached a stunning 43, with a dividend yield of just 1.1%. The shorthand estimate of 10-year returns would have been -3% at the time, and anybody suggesting a negative return on stocks over the decade ahead would have been mercilessly ridiculed (ah, memories). But that’s exactly what investors experienced.
The problem today is that the recent half-cycle has taken valuations back to historically rich levels. Presently, the Shiller P/E is 22.7, with a dividend yield of 2.2%. Do the math. A plausible, and historically reliable estimate of 10-year nominal total returns here works out to only 1.06*(15/22.7)^(.10)-1+.022 = 3.9% annually, which is roughly the same estimate that we obtain from a much more robust set of fundamental measures and methods.
Simply put, secular bull markets begin at valuations that are associated with subsequent 10-year market returns near 20% annually. By contrast, secular bear markets begin at valuations like we observe at present. It may seem implausible that stocks could have gone this long with near-zero returns, and yet still be at valuations where other secular bear markets have started – but that is the unfortunate result of the extreme valuations that stocks achieved in 2000. It is lunacy to view those extreme valuations as some benchmark that should be recovered before investors need to worry.