Based on valuation metrics that have demonstrated a near-90% correlation with subsequent 10-year S&P 500 total returns, not only historically but also in recent decades, we estimate that U.S. equities are more than 100% above the level that would be associated with historically normal future returns. We presently estimate 10-year nominal total returns for the S&P 500 averaging just 2.2% annually over the coming decade, with zero or negative nominal total returns on every horizon of less than 7 years. Regardless of very short-term market direction, it is urgent for investors to understand where the equity markets are positioned in the context of the full cycle.
Importantly, this expectation fully embeds projected nominal GDP growth averaging over 6% annually over the coming decade. To the extent that nominal economic growth persistently falls short of that level, we would expect U.S. stock market returns to fall short of 2.2% nominal total returns (including dividends) over this period. These are not welcome views, but they are evidence-based, and the associated metrics have dramatically higher historical correlation with actual subsequent returns than a variety of alternative approaches such as the “Fed Model” or various “equity risk premium” models. We implore investors (as well as FOMC officials) to examine and compare these historical relationships. It is not difficult – only uncomfortable.
The depressed level of short-term interest rates does not change the arithmetic here. It simply offers investors additional discomfort – the choice of accepting risk in equities that are already intolerably overvalued, or to instead accept the certain prospect of near-zero near-term returns. For our part, we expect dramatically better investment opportunities to emerge over the completion of the present market cycle. It is optimism, not pessimism, about those future opportunities that leads us to avoid reaching for low-return, high-risk equity exposure here. Investors should only expect meaningful total returns to the extent that they wish to speculate that long-term prospective returns will be driven even lower than 2.2% annually (on a 10-year horizon).
Of course, that’s really the story of the past few years – a persistent willingness of investors to drive long-term prospective returns lower, as they feel both encouraged and forced to do so by Federal Reserve policies. Just as the willingness of investors to accept lower long-term interest rates implies that a willingness to pay higher bond prices (and vice versa), the willingness of investors to accept lower long-term stock market returns implies a willingness to pay higher stock prices (and vice versa).
Objectively, there is no specific level at which investors can be told “no, stop, don’t” once the speculative bit is in their teeth. Historically, however, such periods have typically reached their extremes when a syndrome of overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yield conditions emerges. By the time one observes extreme conditions simultaneously – rich valuations, overbought market conditions, lopsided bullish sentiment, and rising 10-year yields – equity markets have generally been at precarious and climactic highs. Prior to the current market cycle, these points singularly include 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000, and 2007 (slightly broader criteria also would include 1937). In the uncompleted half-cycle since 2009, however, we’ve seen these conditions at the 2011 market peak (followed by a near 20% decline that was truncated by investor enthusiasm about fresh quantitative easing), and several instances over the past year – specifically, February 2013, May 2013, December 2013, and today.
It is the series of extreme instances over the past year that give investors the hope and delusion that historically reckless market conditions will lead only to further gains and greater highs. This is a mistake born of complacency in the face of a nearly uninterrupted, Fed-enabled 5-year market advance, and is the same mistake that was made in 2000 and again in 2007. By the time the present market cycle is completed, we expect the S&P 500 to be at least 40% lower than present levels. Only the reliance on historically unreliable valuation metrics, and what Galbraith called the “extreme brevity of financial memory” makes that assertion seem the least bit controversial.