All-Over-Map Valuation Models Thwart Unified Stock-Market Thesis

Scarily expensive, or dirt cheap? Cross-currents in the stock market’s $ 15 trillion wipeout are making it harder than ever to get a grip on valuations.

The S&P 500, even after a 21% drawdown this year, remains near or way above levels seen during the dot-com peak when plotted against sales or tangible assets. It altitude gets easier to justify versus earnings – as long as earnings are real. Move down the ladder to smaller companies, and many stocks can be framed as bargains.

Like everything else, the market in the post-pandemic era has defied old-school analysis, as unprecedented monetary easing and its unwinding speed up the economic cycle. A typical view is held by Leuthold Group, the Minnesota-based money manager: valuations have fallen with almost unparalleled speed, but were so high to begin with that they remain way above where past routs ended.

“The decline in P / E ratios during the bear market has been impressive – but that’s in part because the ‘starting point’ was so extreme,” said Doug Ramsey, chief investment officer at Leuthold. “Bulls who reminded investors throughout the climb higher that ‘valuation is not a timing tool’ have been too quick to forget their own good advice on the way down.”

The correction in valuation has indeed been fast. After falling in 10 of the past 11 weeks, the S&P 500 hit 18.3 times profits, down from a peak ratio of above 30 last year. The 43% drop in P / E over the stretch almost matched the size of the contraction during the entire 2000-2002 crash.

As things stand, a case could be made that stocks are reasonably priced now, with the index valued at 15 times next year’s profits, now estimated at $ 249.1 a share, according to analysts tracked by Bloomberg Intelligence. On the other hand, the economy should slip into a recession, as many economists and business leaders believe it will, the reliability of those estimates would diminish greatly.

A scenario analysis by DataTrek Research shows that if a recession is avoided, existing earnings estimates point to an possible target of 4,100 for the S&P 500. If not, 3,300 could be on the horizon. The index was slightly changed at around 3,770 in mid-morning trading in New York Wednesday.

“Think of US stocks as being like a seesaw,” said Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek. “And today’s prices essentially reflect equal odds (a horizontal plank) of near-term corporate earnings power increasing or decreasing by 10%.”

Other yardsticks are less kind, including price-to-sales. The S&P 500 trades at about 2.3 times the combined revenue of its constituents. While partly a consequence of fattening profit margins, the multiple is about the same it was at the height of dot-com mania.

To Matt Maley, chief market strategist at Miller Tabak + Co. a gauge based on the top line offers a more accurate indication on market valuations.


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