The equity market remains valued at nearly double its historical norms on reliable measures of valuation (though numerous unreliable alternatives can be sought if one seeks comfort rather than reliability). The same measures that indicated that the S&P 500 was priced in 2009 to achieve 10-14% annual total returns over the next decade presently indicate estimated 10-year nominal total returns of only about 2.7% annually. That’s up from about 2.3% annually last week, which is about the impact that a 4% market decline would be expected to have on 10-year expected returns. I should note that sentiment remains wildly bullish (55% bulls to 19% bears, record margin debt, heavy IPO issuance, record “covenant lite” debt issuance), and fear as measured by option volatilities is still quite contained, but “tail risk” as measured by option skew remains elevated. In all, the recent pullback is nowhere near the scale that should be considered material. What’s material is the extent of present market overvaluation, and the continuing breakdown in market internals we’re observing. Remember – most market tops are not a moment but a process. Plunges and spikes of several percent in either direction are typically forgettable and irrelevant in the context of the fluctuations that occur over the complete cycle.
The Iron Law of Valuation is that every security is a claim on an expected stream of future cash flows, and given that expected stream of future cash flows, the current price of the security moves opposite to theexpected future return on that security. Particularly at market peaks, investors seem to believe that regardless of the extent of the preceding advance, future returns remain entirely unaffected. The repeated eagerness of investors to extrapolate returns and ignore the Iron Law of Valuation has been the source of the deepest losses in history.
A corollary to the Iron Law of Valuation is that one can only reliably use a “price/X” multiple to value stocks if “X” is a sufficient statistic for the very long-term stream of cash flows that stocks are likely to deliver into the hands of investors for decades to come. Not just next year, not just 10 years from now, but as long as the security is likely to exist. Now, X doesn’t have to be equal to those long-term cash flows – only proportional to them over time (every constant-growth rate valuation model relies on that quality). If X is a sufficient statistic for the stream of future cash flows, then the price/X ratio becomes informative about future returns. A good way to test a valuation measure is to check whether variations in the price/X multiple are closely related toactual subsequent returns in the security over a horizon of 7-10 years.
This is very easy to do for bonds, especially those that are default-free. Given the stream of cash flows that the bond will deliver over time, the future return can be calculated by observing the current price (the only variation from actual returns being the interest rate on reinvested coupon payments). Conversely, the current price can be explicitly calculated for every given yield-to-maturity. Because the stream of payments is fixed, par value (or any other arbitrary constant for that matter) is a sufficient statistic for that stream of cash flows. One can closely approximate future returns knowing nothing more than the following “valuation ratio:” price/100. The chart below illustrates this point.
[Geek's Note: the estimate above technically uses logarithms (as doubling the bond price and a halving it are “symmetrical” events). Doing so allows other relevant features of the bond such as the maturity and the coupon rate to be largely captured as a linear relationship between log(price/100) and yield-to-maturity].
Put simply, every security is a claim on some future expected stream of cash flows. For any given set of expected future cash flows, a higher price implies a lower future investment return, and vice versa. Given the price, one can estimate the expected future return that is consistent with that price. Given an expected future return, one can calculate the price that is consistent with that return. A valuation "multiple" like Price/X can be used as a shorthand for more careful and tedious valuation work, but only if X is a sufficient statistic for the long-term stream of future cash flows.
Margins and Multiples
The Iron Law of Valuation is equally important in the stock market, as is the need for representative measures of future cash flows when investors consider questions about valuation. It’s striking how eager Wall Street analysts become – particularly in already elevated markets – to use current earnings as a sufficient statistic for long-term cash flows. They fall all over themselves to ignore the level of profit margins (which have alwaysreverted in a cyclical fashion over the course of every economic cycle, including the two cycles in the past decade). They fall all over themselves to focus on price/earnings multiples alone, without considering whether those earnings are representative. Yet they seem completely surprised when the market cycle is completed by a bear market that wipes out more than half of the preceding bull market gain (which is the standard, run-of-the-mill outcome).
The latest iteration of this effort is the argument that stock market returns are not closely correlated with profit margins, so concerns about margins can be safely ignored. As it happens, it’s true that margins aren’t closely correlated with market returns. But to use this as an argument to ignore profit margins is to demonstrate that one has not thought clearly about the problem of valuation. To see this, suppose that someone tells you that the length of a rectangle is only weakly correlated with the area of a rectangle. A moment’s thought should prompt you to respond, “of course not – you have to know the height as well.” The fact is that length is not a good sufficient statistic, nor is height, but the product of the two is identical to the area in every case.
Similarly, suppose someone tells you that the size of a tire is only weakly correlated with the number of molecules of air inside. A moment’s thought should make it clear that this statement is correct, but incomplete. Once you know both the size of the tire and the pressure, you know that the amount of air inside is proportional to the product of the two (Boyle’s Law, and yes, we need to assume constant temperature and an ideal gas).
The same principle holds remarkably well for equities. What matters is both the multiple and the margin.
Wall Street – You want the truth? You can't handle the truth! The truth is that in the valuation of broad equity market indices, and in the estimation of probable future returns from those indices, revenues are a better sufficient statistic than year-to-year earnings (whether trailing, forward, or cyclically-adjusted). Don’t misunderstand – what ultimately drives the value of stocks is the stream of cash that is actually delivered into the hands of investors over time, and that requires earnings. It’s just that profit margins are so variable over the economic cycle, and so mean-reverting over time, that year-to-year earnings, however defined, are flawed sufficient statistics of the long-term stream of cash flows that determine the value of the stock market at the index level.