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Cheap or Not? Stocks Still Look Attractive

Long-term investors will be rewarded, even if we can't call the market cheap.

Michael Rawson, CFA, 09/07/2011

The long-run performance of stocks has been far superior to bonds. But there is no free lunch in the markets; that excess return from stocks comes at a high cost in the form of gut-wrenching volatility, which can make investors turn their backs on equities. The past decade taught many of us the painful lesson that we can't just buy stocks at any price and expect to beat bonds--valuation matters. While it's impossible to time the market in the short run, valuation measures give us a decent way to calibrate return expectations over a decade or more. Looking at the U.S. market through the lens of price/earnings, dividend yields, and our equity analysts' projections, we see a mixed bag. Stocks aren't cheap, but they seem poised to offer a decent return.

According to data from Ibbotson Associates, the inflation equity-risk premium, which is the excess return on stocks over inflation, has averaged 6.7% per year over the last 85 years. That handily beat the 2.4% inflation-adjusted return of long-term bonds. A dollar invested in stocks would have grown to an inflation-adjusted $243.85 compared with just $7.60 in bonds. The case for stocks would be slam-dunk if it weren't for the extreme volatility. The 20.4% standard deviation of stock returns dwarfs the equity-risk premium, so returns can turn negative--as it did in 2008 when the S&P 500 lost 37%. The risk in stocks is more than twice the risk of government bonds, so the possibility of large losses is much greater in stocks. Even over periods as long as a decade or more, we cannot rule out the possibility of losses as investors who bought the S&P 500 in August of 2000 are currently still waiting for gains.

How could investors have predicted that the last decade would have been so bad for stocks? Well, they could have used a valuation perspective. Stocks in August 2000 were wildly overvalued as pointed out by a number of market observers and in several publications, including Irrational Exuberance by Yale professor Robert Shiller. That book popularized the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, CAPE or PE10, valuation measure for stocks, which is based on 10-year average earnings. CAPE hit an all-time high of 44 times in 1999. The subsequent decade was one of the worst for stocks in living memory. At least in hindsight, it is clear that stocks were in a bubble. Earnings have now had more than 10 years to catch up to those lofty valuations. In the meantime, whipsawing stock markets and elevated volatility may have soured many investors from holding stocks. Over the past three years, fund flows into U.S. stocks have been negative, while both bonds and commodities have positive flows. This has less to do with valuation and more to do with risk-aversion and the perceived safety of those asset classes relative to stocks. While the current CAPE of about 20.5 is well below the high of 44 times hit during the bubble, it is still above the long-term average of about 16. So, by this measure, stocks do not look particularly cheap, but they don't foretell of a fleecing either.

Using 10 years of earnings data helps smooth the effects of the business cycle and mute the impact of unusually high or low earnings. But there is nothing magical about using 10 years of earnings, and the most recent decade includes two deep recessions in which earnings declines were unusually severe. If we remove the effect of the first recession by using seven years instead of 10, the long-term CAPE is still about 16, but the current CAPE drops to 18.5, making the markets appear more attractive, but still overvalued. But even that may not go far enough to smooth out the effects of the recent earnings declines. Peak-to-trough earnings during the recent recession declined by a whopping 92%, a much more severe decline than ever before experienced, even more severe than during the 1929 market crash when earnings declined by 67%. That severe drop results from using as reported earnings, including write-downs of an unprecedented magnitude. While analyst estimates of operating earnings are notoriously optimistic, using the current estimate of about $113 for the S&P 500 results in a price/earnings ratio of about 10.5 times.

Dividend Yield
The current 2.2% dividend yield on the S&P 500 may not sound very promising in absolute terms, but that yield is about the same as the yield on the 10-year bond. The difference between the dividend yield on stocks and the yield on bonds, known as the "yield gap," can be used as an indicator of the attractiveness of stocks relative to bonds. While the yield gap was slightly more attractive in March 2009 during the financial crisis, stocks are at their most attractive point since 1958. Buying stocks at that point paid off, as they returned an inflation-adjusted 8% per year over the next 10 years compared with less than 2% for bonds.

The current dividend yield understates the attractiveness of stocks as companies have moved away from using dividends and opted instead to hold cash or implement share buybacks. Between 1950 and 1990, the dividend payout ratio averaged about 53%, but since 1990, it has dropped to about 41%. In an efficient market, investors should be indifferent between dividends and share buybacks; as long as managers reinvest those earnings at attractive rates, the share price will increase, so the loss in dividend income will be offset by capital gains. Managers used to be able to argue that the higher tax rate on dividends gave them an incentive to use buybacks because capital gains were taxed at a lower rate. With the tax rates for dividends and buybacks now the same, managers still have the incentive to use buybacks because dividends erode the value of management stock options.

All else equal, a lower payout and a high retention rate should allow earnings to grow at a faster rate. Between 1950 and 1990, while GDP grew by about 3.4%, real earnings grew by about 1.5%. But since 1990, as the payout rate fell and GDP growth fell to 2.8%, earnings growth accelerated to about 3.5%. The S&P 500 currently trades around 1,150, but there is about $290 per share in cash, compared with about $100 per share 10 years ago. More cash on the balance sheet and faster earnings growth should justify a higher valuation. However, we should not expect earnings growth to continue to grow faster than the economy. Part of that growth over the past 20 years was fueled by an unsustainable increase in leverage by individuals, firms, and governments. Excess cash on balance sheets could also be a sign of a lack in profitable investment opportunities, particularly in this world of low returns on capital. Viewed in this light, we would want to avoid firms with high valuations that may not be able to deliver on expectations for rapid growth.

Morningstar Fair Value
While the price/earnings ratio provides a decent guidepost of market valuation, it is an oversimplification to value the entire market based on past earnings or an estimate of one-year forward earnings. In theory, a stock's price represents the discounted value of all future cash flows. At Morningstar, we are fortunate to have over 100 equity and credit analysts who build discounted cash flow models on all of the stocks they cover. We can aggregate all of these estimates to gauge the attractiveness of the market.

In the exchange-traded fund group, we can take this one step further and form price/fair value estimates on individual ETFs. The S&P 500 currently trades at a price/fair value of 0.82. While not as attractive a level as it reached during the financial crisis, we would characterize this level as undervalued. Additionally, large-cap and value stocks appear more attractive than small-cap and growth stocks.

Which ETFs to Buy?
While the market is not definitively undervalued by all measures, a fairly valued market is still an attractive proposition for stocks for the long term. But we understand why investors remain cautious. Given forecasts for lower economic growth, particularly in the developed world, we would focus on stocks that are less dependent on economic growth to justify their valuations, particularly large-cap, dividend-paying stocks.

Since 1927, dividend-paying stocks have returned 10.4% per year, compared with 8.4% for nonpayers, and they have accomplished this with less risk. But higher yields don't necessarily equate to higher returns. If we bucket dividend-paying stocks into deciles, the highest-yielding bucket (usually full of distressed firms) actually underperforms. When seeking dividend stocks, we need either broad diversification or some method to target quality companies with stable dividends.

Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index ETF VYM takes advantage of broad diversification to reduce risk yet still achieves a high dividend yield by tilting toward dividend payers. Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF VIG focuses on a narrower list of firms that have been able to consistently grow dividends for 10 consecutive years. Internationally, where it is even more difficult for U.S. investors to gauge the quality of individual stocks, it can be even more important to focus on dividends. WisdomTree DEFA DWM and WisdomTree Emerging Markets Equity Income DEM focus on dividend-paying stocks in international developed and emerging markets, respectively. Both funds weight stocks by the dollar amount of dividends paid, which results in a large-cap value tilt. Each of the funds mentioned above has a 4- or 5-star rating.

SPDR S&P Dividend SDY screens for stocks with a 25-year track record of increasing dividends. It weights stocks by dividend yield instead of market cap, resulting in a higher yield, but a tilt toward mid-cap companies rather than large caps. First Trust Value Line Dividend Index FVD equal weights stocks with a good safety rating from Value Line and an above-average dividend yield. While both of these ETFs have good track records, we are cautious about their tilt toward mid-cap companies in an environment where mid-caps are more expensive than large caps. Both SDY and FVD have about 26% of assets in wide-moat stocks, compared with about 56% for VIG and 43% for the S&P 500. The percent of assets invested in wide-moat stocks can be seen on the right-hand column of our ETF Reports.

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