Last week, the S&P 500 Index ascended to a Shiller P/E in excess of 24 (this "cyclically-adjusted P/E" or CAPE represents the ratio of the S&P 500 to 10-year average earnings, adjusted for inflation). Prior to the mid-1990's market bubble, a multiple in excess of 24 for the CAPE was briefly seen only once, between August and early-October 1929. Of course, we observed richer multiples at the heights of the late-1990's bubble, when investors got ahead of themselves in response to the introduction of transformative technologies such as the internet. After a market slide of more than 50%, investors again pushed the Shiller multiple beyond 24 during the housing bubble and cash-out financing free-for-all that ended in the recent mortgage collapse.
And here we are again. This is not to say that we can rule out yet higher valuations, but with no transformative technologies driving the economy, little expansion in capital investment, and ongoing retrenchment in consumer balance sheets, I can't help but think that the "virtuous cycle" rhetoric of Ben Bernanke is an awfully thin gruel by comparison. We should not deserve to be called "investors" if we fail to recognize that valuations are richer today than at any point in history, save for the few months before the 1929 crash, and a bubble period that has been rewarded by zero total return for the S&P 500 since 2000. Indeed, the stock market has lagged the return on low-yielding Treasury bills since August 1998. I am not sure that even members of my own profession have learned anything from this.
Based on our standard methodology (elaborated in numerous prior weekly comments), we presently estimate that the S&P 500 is priced to achieve an average total return over the coming decade of just 3.15% annually. Again, we've seen weaker projected returns over the past decade. But then again, the S&P 500 lost about 5% annually in the decade following the 2000 peak, and even including the recent advance, has achieved an annual total return since 2000 of almost exactly zero. So despite periodic speculative runs, rich valuations have an annoying way of ruining the fun. Equally important, even during extended speculative periods as we observed in the late-1990's, those advances have tended to suffer deep and abrupt intermediate-term corrections once elevated valuations are joined by overbought conditions, overbullish sentiment, and rising interest rates, as we observe today.
Though our standard methodology is less accurate at horizons shorter than about 7 years, the main sources of that reduced accuracy are those two "bubble" advances, one during the 1995-2000 period, and the other during the 2005-2007 period. Both of those were certainly encouraged by easy monetary policies, but both were also accompanied by strong expansion in debt-financed consumer and business spending. At present, investors rely on the emergence of yet another valuation bubble in order to perform better than the expected return of zero that is now priced into stocks for the coming 5-year period.