Tag Archives: stock market valuations

A string of worst evers

As the COVID19 deaths peak, in the first wave at least, across much of the developed world the narrative this week has moved to exit strategies. The medical situation remains highly uncertain, as the article in the Atlantic illustrated. A core unknown, due to the lack of extensive antibody testing, is the percentage of populations which have been infected and the degree of antibodies in those infected. What initially seemed to me to be a reasonable exit framework announced by the US has been fraught with execution uncertainty over the quantity and quality of the testing required, exasperated by the divisive ramblings of the man-child king (of the Orangeness variety).

The economic news has been dismal with a string of worst ever’s – including in retail sales, confidence indices, unemployment, energy and manufacturing. The number of turned over L shaped graphs is mind-blowing. And that’s only in the US! The exhibit below stuck me as telling, particularly for an economy fuelled by consumer demand.

In the words of the great Charlie Munger: “This thing is different. Everybody talks as if they know what’s going to happen, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.” The equally wise Martin Wolf of the FT, who penned an article this week called “The world economy is now collapsing” posted a video of his thoughts here. His article was based upon the release of the latest IMF economic forecasts, as below.

The IMF “baseline” assumes a broad economic reopening in the H2 2020. The IMF also details 3 alternative scenarios:

  • Lockdowns last 50% longer than in the baseline.
  • A second wave of the virus in 2021.
  • In the third, a combination of 1) and 2).

The resulting impacts on real GDP and debt levels for the advanced and emerging/developing countries respectively are shown below.

A few other interesting projections released this week include this one from Morgan Stanley.

And this one from UBS.

And this one from JP Morgan.

In terms of S&P500 EPS numbers, this week will provide some more clarity with nearly 100 firms reporting. Goldman’ estimates for 2020 compared to my previous guestimates (2020 operating EPS of $103 versus $130 and $115 in base and pessimistic) were interesting this week given the negative figure for Q2 before returning to over $50 for Q4. The “don’t fight the fed” and TINA merchants amongst the current bulls have yet to confront the reality of this recession for 2021 earnings where the fantasy of an EPS above $170 for 2021 will become ever apparent with time in my opinion. Even an optimistic forward multiple of 14 on a 2021 operating EPS of $150 implies a 25% fall in the S&P500. And I think that’s la la land given the numbers that are now emerging! We’ll see what this week brings…..

Stay safe.

Peak Uncertainty

As we face the peak weeks of the COVID19 virus in the major developed economies, one thing the current COVID19 outbreak should teach us is humility. As humans, we have become far too arrogant about our ability to shape the future. A new book by the economists John Kay and Mervyn King (a former Bank of England governor during the financial crisis) called “ Radical Uncertainty” argues that economists have forgotten the distinction between risk and uncertainty with an over-reliance on using numerical probabilities attached to possible outcomes as a substitute for admitting there are uncertainties we cannot know. How many one in a century events seem to be happening on a regular basis now? Their solution is to build more resilient systems and strategies to confront unpredictable events. Such an approach would have a profound impact on how we organise our societies and economies.

Currently, planning for events with a large impact multiplied by a small probability allows us to effectively continue as we have been after assigning the minimal amount of contingency. Imagine if sectors and industries were run based on been prepared for tail events. That would be a radical change. Very different from our just in time supply chains which minimise capital allocation and maximise return on investment. Our approach to climate change is an obvious case in point and how we have heretofore ignored the environmental externalities of our societies and economies. Given the financial costs this crisis is going to place on future generations, I would suspect that the needs of this cohort of our society will become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.

As many people grapple with the current uncertainties presented by this pandemic, we are currently at peak uncertainty in Europe and the US. We are only now getting a sense of how the outbreak is peaking in Europe given the lock down measures in place. How the virus reactions to the relaxation of current measures, how the outbreak will peak across the US and other continents, the economic impact of the outbreak, or the societal impact amongst many other issues are as yet unknown. We do know however that with time over the coming weeks some of these answers will become clearer. For example, as the graph below from the FT shows, we known the approximate path of the outbreak given the policies being pursued today.

A positive narrative could be that existing medications pass rushed COVID19 trials and prove they can blunt the impact of the virus thereby altering the shape of the curve. We can also speculate that once the first wave is contained, we will develop strategies on a combination of mitigation measures (e.g. reduced isolation methods, antibody and other testing to return sections of the population to work, immunity passports, etc) to slowly transition to the new normal. The logistics of such a phased return to normal will be complex and a nightmare to enforce, particularly if self-isolation measures are in force for lengthy periods and people believe any second wave can be well contained by battle hardened health systems. We can be confident that a vaccine will be developed, hopefully by early 2021, but it will take time to get the vaccine distributed and administered in bulk. Mid 2021 is likely the best we can realistically hope for.

At this stage, my rough guess at a base case scenario on the timing for European and US lockdown is 3 to 5 weeks with another 6 to 10 weeks to transition to a semi-new normal. That’s somewhere between mid-June and early August with Europe leading the way followed by the US. A more pessimistic case could be that discipline amongst the population gets more lax as the weeks drag on and a second wave gathers momentum with a second lockdown required over the summer followed by a more timid and gradual transition afterwards lasting until the end of the year. Obviously, these timings are pure guesses at this time and may, and hopefully will, prove way off base.

The economic impacts are highly uncertain but will become clearer as the weeks pass. For example, with just the first fiscal stimulus package passed in the US, the politicians are already listing their priorities for the second (and likely not to be the last either), Morgan Stanley expect the cyclically adjusted primary fiscal deficit to rise to 14% of GDP and the headline fiscal deficit at 18% of GDP in 2020, as per their graphic below. Given the unknown impact of the crisis on GDP numbers, these percentages could approach 15% to 20% with total debt of 110% to 120%. It’s depressing to note that prior to this crisis the IMF said the U.S. debt-to-GDP was already on an unsustainable path.

Although the euro zone comes into the crisis with less debt, last year it was 86% of GDP, Jefferies said in a ‘worse case’ outcome where nominal GDP falls 15% this year, the bloc’s budget gap would balloon to 17% of GDP from just 0.8% last year. They estimate in this scenario that the euro zone debt-GDP ratio could rise above 100% in 2021. As a percentage of GDP, Morgan Stanley estimated the G4+China cyclically adjusted primary deficit could rise to 8.5% of GDP in 2020, significantly higher than the 6.5% in 2009 immediately after the global financial crisis. Unemployment rates in the short term are projected to be mind boggling horrible at 20%+ in some countries. It seems to me that the austerity policies pursued after the financial crisis will not be as obvious an answer to repayment of this debt, not if we want western societies to survive. Addressing generational and structural income inequalities will have to be part of the solution. Hopefully, an acceleration of nationalism wouldn’t.

On the monetary side, the Fed’s balance sheet is now estimated to be an unprecedented $6 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion since the start of the Fed’s unprecedented bailout on the 13th of March. Bank of America estimates it could reach $9 trillion or 40% of GDP, as per the graphs below.

As to corporates and the stock market, dividends will undoubtably be under pressure as corporate delevering takes hold and without the crack cocaine of the bull market, share buybacks as the graph below shows, I fear there will be more pressure on valuations. The Q1 results season and forward guidance (or lack thereof), although it may have some surprises from certain firms in the communication, technology and consumer staples space, will likely only compound the negativity and uncertainty.

Using unscientific guesses on my part, I have estimated base and pessimistic operating EPS figures for the S&P500 as below. Based upon a forward PE (on a GAAP EPS) of 15 (approx. 12.75 on operating EPS basis), which is the level reached after the dot com bubble and the financial crisis, the resulting level for the S&P500 is 2,000 and 1,600 in the base and pessimistic scenarios respectively. That’s a further 20% and 35% drop from today’s levels respectively.

The coming weeks will likely be horrible in terms of human suffering and death across the developed world (one cannot even comprehend the potential suffering in the developing world if this insidious virus takes hold there). There is always hope and uncertainty will reduce over time. Major decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead on the future of our societies. Learning from this pandemic to build more resilient societies and economies will be a task that lasts many years, possibility even generations. Major changes are coming after this health crisis subsides, hopefully they will be for the better.

Stay safe.


As the first week of January progressed and markets tumbled, I was thinking about this post and couldn’t get away from the thought that 2016 feels very like 2015. The issues that were prominent in 2015 are those that will be so again in 2016 plus a few new ones. The UK vote on the EU and a US presidential race are just two new issues to go with China economic and political uncertainty, Middle East turmoil, Russian trouble making, a political crisis in Brazil, the insidious spread of terrorism, a move towards political extremes in developed countries and the on-going fault lines in Europe and the Euro. All of these macro factors together with earnings and the impact of rising interest rates are going to dominate 2016.

2015 joins two other years, 2011 and 1994, in being a -1% year for the S&P500 in recent times, as the graph below shows. In fact, the movements of the S&P500 in 2015 show remarkable similarity with 2011. However, there the similarities end. 2011 was the year of the Euro crisis, the Arab spring and the Japan quake. Interest rates were falling, earnings stable, and PE multiples were around 15. 1994 was even more different than 2015. In 1994, the economy was taking off and the Fed was aggressively raising rates, earnings were stable and PE multiples fell to around 15. Interesting the next 5 years after 1994 on the stock market were each 20%+ years! With 2015 around a 20 PE and earnings falling, the comparisons are not favourable and may even suggest we got off lightly with just a -1% fall.

click to enlargeS&P500 Years Down -1%

A recent article in the FT does point to the influence of a limited number of stocks on the 2015 performance with the top 10 stocks in the S&P500 up 14% in 2015 and the remaining 490 stocks down 5.8% collectively. The performance of the so-called nifty nine is shown below. The article highlights that “dominance by a few big companies – or a “narrowing” market – is a symptom of the end of a bull run, as it was in the early 1970s (dominated by the “Nifty Fifty”) or the late 1990s (dominated by the dot-coms).”

click to enlargeS&P500 vrs Nifty Nine

Bears have long questioned valuations. The impact of continuing falls in oil prices on energy earnings and a fall off in operating margins are signalling a renewed focus on valuations, as the events of this past week dramatically illustrate. A graph of the PE10 (aka Shiller CAPE) as at year end from the ever insightful Doug Short shows one measure of overvaluation (after this week’s fall the overvaluation on a PE10 basis is approx 30%).

click to enlargeS&P500 Valuation PE10 Doug Short

One of the longstanding bears, John Hussman, had an article out this week called “The Next Big Short”, in honour of the movie on the last big short. Hussman again cites his favourite metrics of the ratio of nonfinancial market capitalization to corporate gross value added (GVA) and the ratio of nonfinancial corporate debt to corporate GVA (right scale) as proof that “the financial markets are presently at a speculative extreme”.

click to enlargeHussman Market Cap to GVA

Many commentators are predicting a flat year for 2016 with some highlighting the likelihood of a meaningful correction. Whether the first week in January is the beginning of such a correction or just a blip along the path of a continually nervous market has yet to be seen. Analysts and their predictions for 2016 have been predictably un-inspiring as the graph below shows (particularly when compared to their 2015 targets).

click to enlarge2016 S&P500 Analyst Targets

Some, such as Goldman Sachs, have already started to reduce their EPS estimates, particularly for energy stocks given the increasingly negative opinions on oil prices through 2016. The 12 month forward PEs by sector, according to Factset Earning Insight dated the 8th of January as reproduced below, show the different multiples explicit in current estimates with the overall S&P500 at 15.7.

click to enlargeS&P500 Sector Forward PE Factset 08012016

Current earnings estimates for 2016 as per the latest Yardeni report (EPS growth graph is reproduced below), look to me to be too optimistic compared to the trends in 2015 and given the overall global economic outlook. Future downward revisions will further challenge multiples, particularly for sectors where earnings margins are stagnating or even decreasing.

click to enlargeS&P500 Earnings Growth 2016 Yardeni

To further illustrate the experts’ views on EPS estimates, using S&P data this time, I looked at the evolution in actual operating EPS figures and the 2015 and 2016 estimates by sector, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeS&P500 Operating EPS by sector

With US interest rates rising (albeit only marginally off generational lows), the dollar will likely continue its strength and higher borrowing costs will influence the environment for corporate profits. Pent up labour costs as slack in the US economy reduces may also start to impact corporate profits. In this context, the EPS estimates above look aggressive to me (whilst accepting that I do not have detailed knowledge on the reasoning behind the EPS increases in individual sectors such as health care or materials), particularly when global macro issues such as China are added into the mix.

So, as I stated at the start of this post, the outlook for 2016 is looking much like 2015. And perhaps even a tad worse.

September bear party?

With stock valuations high and the market chatter nervously fixated on the great tapering debate, the bears claimed victory today with the S&P off 1.6% and the Dow down 170 points.

The impact of Central Bank liquidity has undeniably resulted in lofty stock valuations given the economic backdrop, as the graph of the historical Shiller PE ratio below illustrates.

Click to enlargeShiller PE S&P500 August 2013

September is commonly viewed as the month when investors and traders, upon their return from sunning themselves, get nervous about year end results (read bonuses) and start to take money off the table. The statistics back this up as the graphs below on historical S&P 500 monthly returns illustrates.

Click to enlargeS&P500 Monthly ChangesS&P500 Monthly Volatility

So, today looks to me like the possible opening salvo for a September bear party.  I wouldn’t get too worried though, despite the musings from Jackson Hole there is always a Central Bank around to scare the naughty bears away if they overstay their welcome.