There is no longer a central mechanism for investors to vote with their feet on an individual stock. Taking Coca-Cola (KO), as an example, during the decade of the 1970s, the company generated about 13% annualized earnings growth, some years approaching 20%. For the first 5 years of the ‘70s, the P/E ratio ranged between about 30x and 40x earnings. Few would argue that it wasn’t overvalued. And, as the reversion to the mean principle would dictate, despite a decade of earnings growth that strong, the P/E contracted to 13.6x by 1978 and, over the course of an entire decade, the shares declined by over 45%.
Today, Coca-Cola trades at a P/E of 21x, not 30x or 40x. On the other hand, it is now a mature company: its products are everywhere, there is a limit to how much more Coca-Cola per-capita the world’s residents will drink, even if they don’t develop a preference to less sugary drinks. In fact, Coca-Cola has lost revenue in the last two years. With that understanding, at 21x earnings, is Coca-Cola any less overvalued than it was in 1973? It might be more overvalued. This is the type of unhealthy growth (slowing/declining) and valuation (high/rising) pairing that is more and more representative of the major stock indexes. That they have risen of late is no more a sign that one should be invested that way than that one should have been invested in the notorious Nifty Fifty during the early 1970s or in the favored stocks during the 1999 Internet Bubble. Continue Reading »