1. How to use GuruFocus - Tutorials
  2. What Is in the GuruFocus Premium Membership?
  3. A DIY Guide on How to Invest Using Guru Strategies
Vera Yuan
Vera Yuan
Articles (1063) 

Market Valuations and Expected Returns – Feb. 5, 2014

February 05, 2014 | About:

The U.S. stock market had an excellent 2013. The performance of all three major U.S. stock indexes was the best since the financial crisis in 2008. The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average continually hit historical highs. Yet the real reason for the bull market is nothing less than QE. Though some investors think the fundamentals of the U.S. economy continued to improve, for most Wall Street analysts, the Fed’s $85 billion monthly debt purchase plan is the real driving force behind the bull market.

As investors are happier with the higher balances in their account, they should never forget the word “RISK,” which is directly linked to the valuations of the assets they own. A higher current valuation always implies lower future returns.

In 2014, Wall Street has lowered the expectation of the market. Especially after the Fed announced a “taper” to its bond purchases, most of investors and traders have either become bearish or be more cautions to bullish the future stock market.

Up to Jan. 31, 2014, the stock market benchmark S&P 500 lost 3.36% in 2014.

In Third Point’s fourth quarter 2013 investor letter, Daniel Loeb believed still-improving global economic conditions would deliver better growth. Although “Street” sentiment has become more negative recently, he expects earnings to rise modestly and the economy overall to surprise to the upside from these increasingly pessimistic projections.

In Baron Funds’ fourth quarter report, Ronald Baron pointed out that stocks are at median values for the past century and should be higher. He mentioned, “Interest rates and nominal inflation are important determinants of stock multiples. At current interest rate levels and reported inflation rates, stock multiples should mathematically be meaningfully above the 15.4 times median valuations of U.S. markets for the past one hundred years. Multiples now approximate median valuations. The price to earnings multiple has generally ranged from 10-20. It would not be surprising to us to see the multiple on 2014 earnings increase above the median valuation for the past century. Coupled with expected U.S. GDP growth, that could produce an increase in stock prices of 15-20% during 2014.”

In John Hussman’s commentary on Feb. 3, 2014, “Pushing Luck,” he viewed present market conditions as dangerously speculative.

In Steven Romick's Q4 Commentary for FPA Crescent Fund, he mentioned, “Right now, there’s more of the latter so, as you’d expect, our equity exposure declined during 2013. The favorable market allowed us to sell sixteen long equity positions during the year, at an average gain of 64% from cost, with just one generating a loss. We initiated nine new positions. The byproduct of this – unfortunate if the market continues to rally – is that our net equity exposure declined to 51.8%, down from 61.3% a year ago. We will let valuation and risk/reward guide our exposure, not the stock market. If the market gives us tomorrow’s prices today and the risk/reward becomes unattractive, then we are unsurprisingly net sellers. Things aren’t cheap. Equity values, as a percentage of GDP, are near their peaks. The only time they were higher was at the apex of the dot com bubble.”

In Fairholme Fund 2013 Shareholder Letter, Bruce Berkowitz said, “On the macroeconomic front, U.S. fiscal responsibility and U.S. energy independence are on the horizon! Economic progress would eventually lift interest rates, which could depress asset valuations. However, out banks and insurers should more than counter this weight with a lifting of margins between earning assets and paying liabilities. Overall – a net positive.”

In T. Rowe Price Equity Income Fund Fourth Quarter Commentary, Brian Rogers said, “Balance sheets remain healthy, with low debt and high cash levels, but top-line growth is muted and profit margins are near their highest levels in decades. Stock valuations are slightly above their long-term averages. We would, therefore, not be surprised to see a correction sometime in 2014. However, we remain constructive on the outlook for equities over the long term, as generally sound fundamentals, improving economic data, and more confident consumers have set the stage for a continuation of the bull market.”

According to our last market valuation article, Buffett Indicator and Shiller P/E Both Imply Long Term Negative Market Returns; 2014 Market Valuation, the good news is that our account balance is higher, and investors are more bullish. The bad news is that we will see lower future returns.

GuruFocus hosts three pages about market valuations. The first is the market valuation based on the ratio of total market cap over GDP; the second is the measurement of the U.S. market valuation based on the Shiller P/E. These pages are for the U.S. market. We have also created a new page for international markets. You can check it out here. All pages are updated at least daily. Monthly data is displayed for the international market.

Why Is This Important?

As pointed out by Warren Buffett, the percentage of total market cap (TMC) relative to the U.S. GNP is “probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”

Knowing the overall market valuation and the expected market returns will give investors a clearer head on where we stand for future market returns. When the overall market is expensive and positioned for poor returns, the overall market risk is high. It is important for investors to be aware of this and take consideration of this in their asset allocation and investing strategies.

Please keep in mind that the long-term valuations published here do not predict short-term market movement. But they have done a good job predicting the long-term market returns and risks.

Why Did We Develop These Pages?

We developed these pages because of the lessons we learned over the years of value investing. From the market crashes in 2001 to 2002 and 2008 to 2009, we learned that value investors should also keep an eye on overall market valuation. Many times value investors tend to find cheaper stocks in any market. But a lot of times the stocks they found are just cheaper, instead of cheap. Keeping an eye on the overall market valuation will help us to focus on absolute value instead of relative value.

The indicators we develop focus on the long term. They will provide a more objective view on the market.

Ratio of Total Market Cap over GDP - Market Valuation and Implied Returns


The information about the market valuation and the implied return based on the ratio of the total market cap over GDP is updated daily. The total market cap as measured by Wilshire 5000 index is now 109% of the US GDP. We can see the equity values as the percentage of GNP are near their peaks. The only time they were higher was at the apex of the dot-com bubble. The stock market is likely to return about 2.5% a year in the coming years. The stock market is modestly overvalued. As a comparison, at the beginning of 2013, the ratio of total market cap over GDP was 97.5%, and it was likely to return 4% a year from that level of valuation.

For details, please go to the daily updated page. In general, the returns of investing in an individual stock or in the entire stock market are determined by these three factors:

1. Business growth

If we look at a particular business, the value of the business is determined by how much money this business can make. The growth in the value of the business comes from the growth of the earnings of the business growth. This growth in the business value is reflected as the price appreciation of the company stock if the market recognizes the value, which it does, eventually.

If we look at the overall economy, the growth in the value of the entire stock market comes from the growth of corporate earnings. As we discussed above, over the long term, corporate earnings grow as fast as the economy itself.

2. Dividends

Dividends are an important portion of the investment return. Dividends come from the cash earning of a business. Everything equal, a higher dividend payout ratio, in principle, should result in a lower growth rate. Therefore, if a company pays out dividends while still growing earnings, the dividend is an additional return for the shareholders besides the appreciation of the business value.

3. Change in the market valuation

Although the value of a business does not change overnight, its stock price often does. The market valuation is usually measured by the well-known ratios such as P/E, P/S, P/B etc. These ratios can be applied to individual businesses, as well as the overall market. The ratio Warren Buffett uses for market valuation, TMC/GNP, is equivalent to the P/S ratio of the economy.

Putting all the three factors together, the return of an investment can be estimated by the following formula:

Investment Return (%) = Dividend Yield (%)+ Business Growth (%)+ Change of Valuation (%)

From the contributions we can get the predicted return of the market.

The Predicted and the Actual Stock Market Returns

This model has done a decent job in predicting the future market returns. You can see the predicted return and the actual return in the chart below.


The prediction from this approach is never an exact number. The return can be as high as 7.5% a year or as long as -5.5% a year, depending where the future market valuation will be. In general, investors need to be cautious when the expected return is low.

Shiller P/E - Market Valuation and Implied Returns

The GuruFocus Shiller P/E page indicates that the Shiller P/E is 24.3. This is 47.3% higher than the historical mean of 16.5. Implied future annual return is 1.6%.

The Shiller P/E chart is shown below:


Over the last decade, the Shiller P/E indicated that the best time to buy stocks was March 2009. However, the regular P/E was at its highest level ever. The Shiller P/E, similar to the ratio of the total market cap over GDP, has proven to be a better indication of market valuations.

Overall, the current market valuation is more expensive than in the most part of the last 130 years. It is cheaper than most of the time over the last 15 years.

To understand more, please go to GuruFocus' Shiller P/E page.

John Hussman’s Peak P/E:

John Hussman presently estimates prospective 10-year S&P 500 nominal total returns averaging just 2.7% annually, with negative expected total returns on every horizon shorter than seven years.

In his commentary on February 3, 2014, “Pushing Luck,” he said “The latest data from the NYSE shows equity margin debt at a new all-time high. Relative to GDP, the current 2.6% level was eclipsed only once – at the March 2000 market peak. In the context of the most extreme bullish sentiment in decades, and reliable valuation metrics about double their historical norms prior to the late-1990’s bubble (price/revenue, market cap/GDP, Tobin’s Q, properly normalized price/forward operating earnings, price to cyclically-adjusted earnings), we view present market conditions as dangerously speculative.”


In all the three approaches discussed above, the fluctuations of profit margin are eliminated by using GDP, the average of trailing 10-year inflation-adjusted earnings, and peak-P/E, revenue, or book value etc. Therefore they arrive at similar conclusions: The market is overvalued, and it is likely to return only 1.6-2.7% annually in the future years.

Jeremy Grantham’s 7-Year Projection:

Jeremy Grantham’s firm GMO publishes a monthly 7-year market forecast. According to Ben Inker and James Montier’s 3Q letter Breaking News! U.S. Equity Market Overvalued! and Ignoble Prizes and Appointments, Jeremy Grantham (Trades, Portfolio) believed “investors should be aware that the U.S. market is already badly overpriced – indeed, we believe it is priced to deliver negative real returns over seven years [GMO estimates fair value for the S&P 500 at 1100]. In our view, prudent investors should already be reducing their equity bets and their risk level in general. One of the more painful lessons in investing is that the prudent investor (or “value investor” if you prefer) almost invariably must forego plenty of fun at the top end of markets. This market is already no exception, but speculation can hurt prudence much more and probably will. Be prudent and you’ll probably forego gains. Be risky and you’ll probably make some more money, but you may be bushwhacked and if you are, your excuses will look thin. My personal view is that the path of least resistance for the market will be up.”

As of December 31, 2013, GMO’s 7-year forecast is below:


US Large


Intl Large


US Small


Intl Small


US High Quality





US Bonds


Inflation Linked Bonds


Intl Bonds Hedged




Emerging Debt







GMO expected US large cap real return is -1.7%. This number does not agree with what we find out with market/GDP ratio and Shiller P/E ratio. The US high quality’s return is expected to be 2.1% a year.

Insider Trends

As indicated by the three different approaches discussed above, the best buying opportunities over the last five years appeared when the projected returns were at their highest level from October 2008 to April 2009, when investors could expect 10% a year from the U.S. market.

If average investors missed this opportunity, corporate insiders such as CEOs, CFOs and directors did not. As a whole they purchased their own company shares at more than double the normal rate from October 2008 to April 2009. Many of these purchases resulted in multi-bagger gains. This confirmed again the conclusions of earlier studies: The aggregated activities of insiders can serve as a good indicator for locating the market bottoms. Insiders as a whole are smart investors of their own companies. They tend to sell more when the market is high, and buy more when the market is low.

This is the current insider trend for S&P 500 companies:


The latest trends of insider buying are updated daily at GuruFocus' Insider Trend page. Data is updated hourly on this page. The insider trends of different sectors are also displayed in this page. The latest insider buying peak is at this page: September of 2011, when the market was at recent lows.

Conclusion: The stock market is not cheap as measured by long term valuation ratios. It is positioned for about 1.6-2.7% of annual returns for the next decade. By watching the overall market valuations and the insider buying trends investors will have a better understanding of the risk and the opportunities. The best time to buy is when the market valuation is low, and insiders are enthusiastic about their own company's stocks.

Investment Strategies at Different Market Levels

The Shiller P/E and the ratio of total market cap over GDP can serve as good guidance for investors in deciding their investment strategies at different market valuations. Historical market returns prove that when the market is fair or overvalued, it pays to be defensive. Companies with high quality business and strong balance sheet will provide better returns in this environment. When the market is cheap, beaten down companies with strong balance sheets can provide outsized returns.

To summarize:

1. When the market is fair valued or overvalued, buy high-quality companies such as those in the Buffett-Munger Screener.
2. When the market is undervalued, buy low-risk beaten-down companies like those in the Ben Graham Net-Net Screener. Buy a basket of them and be diversified.
3. If market is way over valued, stay in cash. You may consider hedging or short.

If you are not a Premium Member, we invite you for a 7-day Free Trial.

Rating: 4.4/5 (18 votes)


Traderatwork - 3 years ago    Report SPAM
“Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future.” Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio)

Investing is simple - Buy when you find something is cheap compare to your valuation and don't if you think it's expensive.

AlbertaSunwapta - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

^Buffett has said much, much more. Note his 'understanding' of macro market conditions in his articles from 1977 (below) and in his articles in the late 1990s. He clearly keeps an eye on the aggregate equity and bond markets and looks at the return probabilities they create. I think we should praise Gurufocus for providing market level ratios, etc. so readers can understand where in a cycle they may be sitting. (If to do nothing else but highlight where it has been luck generating our returns and not our inate skills.)

I'd really recommend the reading this article by Buffett (How Inflation Swindles the Equity Investor link below) and pay close attention to his knowledge of the overall market and how it generates returns. (Buffett knew where luck / probabliity was on his side.)

Also keep in mind that Buffett has praised index investing as long as one buys at a resaonble price. That said, how does one determine a reasonable price? My view is that if I own stocks that are even modestly overvalued but have predictable long-term potential that I could realize and maybe even enhance (eg in a down market I'll be able to buy more and hopefully not be forced to sell due to health, job loss, retirement needs, etc.) then for those stocks I'll be able to ignore the aggregate market conditions. That said, we all forecast. We do it by forecasting the long term potential of the intrinsically cheap companies we buy.

So, since I also buy index funds, keeping an eye on overall market values and probable returns seems reasonable to me. I also prefer positive absolute returns to relative, and possibly very negative, shorter terrm (under 15 yrs) returns and I prefer have a focus on preservation of my capital than tracking the indexes. (In otherwords, I'd rather forego some upside return to staying in a market that is, by most historical measures, overvalued - or at some sort of systemic risk (as was the market increasongly appeared going into 2008).

Buffett: How inflation swindles the equity investor (Fortune Classics, 1977)


Buffett also pretty much walk away from the market at one point - to avoid having "mediocre results."

Look At All Those Beautiful, Scantily Clad Girls Out There!,” Forbes, November 1, 1974


"He quit essentially because he found the game no longer worth playing. Multiples on good stocks were sky-high, the go-go boys were “performing” and the list was so picked over that the kind of solid bargains that Buffett likes were not to be had. He told his clients that they might do better in tax-exempt bonds than in playing the market. “When I got started,” he says, “the bargains were flowing like the Johnstown flood; by 1969 it was like a leaky toilet in Altoona.” Pretty cagey, this Buffett. When all the sharp MBAs were crowding into the investment business, Buffett was quietly walking away."...

“Swing, You Bum!

Buffett is like the legendary guy who sold his stocks in 1928 and went fishing until 1933. That guy probably didn’t exist… But Buffett did kick the habit. He did “go fishing” from 1969 to 1974. If he had stuck around, he concedes, he would have had mediocre results.”…


AlbertaSunwapta - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

Per Greenblatt in the CNBC video linked below (it's VERY short so just watch it):

large-caps - stocks 1 - 1000 in their sample are in the 38th historic percentile towards expensive over the decades he's studied while the small caps - stocks 1001-3000 - have been cheaper 95% of the time.


AlbertaSunwapta - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

duplicate post

Traderatwork - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

@AlbertaSunwapta Good post.

AlbertaSunwapta - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

One thing that always seems to be missing is the size of the market for the products represented by the S&P 500, or for all 'western' indices for that matter. Looking at historic market ratios is somewhat driving by the rear view mirror causing both underestimates and overestimates in past behavior.

For instance, at some point China began to integrate with western distribution systems and so, it would seem to me, that the market potential suddenly expanded exponentially, and that sudden and truly massive increased potential could not have been fully recognized in measure of growth. (Thus PVs of future sales etc. would have been understated. At some point the risk is that long-term outlooks then become overestiamted unless one can keep adding China's to the mix.)

AS such, these market expansions don't seem linear to me - they seem like a form of punctuated evolution to me. Though I may be wrong and growth may be fairly linear. Maybe just a slow evolution of the product nature takes place as demand changes from staples to discretionary items.

How did market expansion perform in the 60s and 70s compared to the 90s and 00s? With China coming on-board, did the market suddenly add 1 billion consmers. Next is India. It its potential already factored into past and current growth assumptins or will its consumption somewhow leap ahead and suddenly draw on the S&P's product mix thus somehow adding another billion unexpected consumers to the market.

Vgm - 3 years ago    Report SPAM
While I agree it's important to have an idea of whether the market is high or low - what Howard Marks (Trades, Portfolio) calls "the temperature of the market" - it's critical to clearly understand the valuations on individual stocks in our portfolios and on our buy list. (I think this was Trader's point)

True value investors of the caliber of Weschler, Mandel, Simpson, Berkowitz, Nygren et al will not be limited to overall market performance because of their superior stock-picking abilities, unless a situation of extreme overvaluation happens - the situation that Buffett refers to where "Multiples on good stocks were sky-high" in the famous Fortune article referenced by AS above.

That's not the case at present. Greenblatt's commentary (AS above) tells us what we roughly already know, namely that markets are quite fully valued in general and in part on the expensive side. But he finishes by saying that his comments refered to the indices, and that "obviously there are opportunities within each index". Finding and seizing those opportunities is the road to outperformance by superior value investors.

Regarding market prognosticators (Greenblatt is not one), we should be careful who and what we believe. Recently our friend John Hussman (Trades, Portfolio) wrote that the markets were "obscenely overvalued" based on his 'analysis' while Buffett was simultaneously saying that in his view the markets were "in a zone of reasonableness", a view supported by Howard Marks (Trades, Portfolio) at the time. Caveat emptor!

Please leave your comment:

More than 500,000 people have already joined GuruFocus to track the stocks they follow and exchange investment ideas.

Performances of the stocks mentioned by Vera Yuan

User Generated Screeners

pbarker46F Score and P/TBV
star1907Good company's
star1907Best dividends charlie
cspunarSpunar Div
patelmhMY VALUE
rael2222prova dcf
liuzishuoverwrite 'Dividend Initiation
liuzishuDividend Initiation
Get WordPress Plugins for easy affiliate links on Stock Tickers and Guru Names | Earn affiliate commissions by embedding GuruFocus Charts
GuruFocus Affiliate Program: Earn up to $400 per referral. ( Learn More)

GF Chat