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price earnings ratio

A reader, Wayne Whaley, who is also a veteran trader and registered CTA sends in this concise report on the earnings season:

"About 1/2 of second quarter earnings are in and we have a pretty good estimate now of what final earnings should look like at the end of the quarter.

quarterly earning stats

With interest rates at current levels, you can make a mathematical case for P/Es in the 25-30 range


Including the 2009 Second Quarter Estimate of 7.27, and using 979.26 as current S&P price

1) The P/E using last 4 quarters for E is 771.07
2) The P/E using last 8 quarters annualized for E is 37.21
3) The P/E using Standard & Poors estimate for 2009 earnings as E is 32.67
4) The P/E using Standard & Poors estimate for 2010 earnings for E is 26.28
5) Earnings for the third quarter need to come in around $8.50 to avoid a negative trailing one year earnings, which from the information I have would be a first (at least in the last century).

At best, you could argue that stocks are fairly valued even using estimates for 2010 earnings. Valuation techniques are interesting to calculate and make for interesting conversation but can be misleading for market timing purposes as the market can be over (1995-2000) or underpriced (1950's) for years, especially when earnings and money supply are moving targets."

The chart below provides perspective on the earnings collapse by focusing on 12-month, as reported S&P 500 earnings. This quarters earnings are expected to have fallen over 98% since topping in the third quarter of 2007. That makes this, by far, the worst decline on record all the way back to 1936 - the earliest we have data. In fact, real earnings have dropped so far that in the coming quarter will see the first 12-month period where the S&P 500 earnings are actually negative!

inflation adjusted S&P 500 earnings
Source: Chart of the Day

While this is certainly makes for a great story that we can tell and retell to the grandkids (boring them to tears), it doesn't really mean much. We are at an extraordinary moment in economic history. One where we are clinging to the ledge by our fingernails and peering down at the precipice below. In such unorthodox times, orthodox measures such as the price earnings ratio can fool, rather than inform you.

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james tobinThere are many different ways to value the stock market. We are waiting for the Coppock Guide to give us a signal by month's end (just a few more days left). The usually reliable price earnings ratio has gone haywire, but the dividend yield ratio is still valid.

But what if I told you there is an even better way to sum up the valuation of the stock market in just one number? A method that is both rational and comes with an astonishing track record, having identified every single generational buy opportunity?

Tobin's Q was created by the late James Tobin, a pre-eminent economist and professor at Yale. His work garnered him a Nobel prize "for his analysis of financial markets and their relations to expenditure decisions, employment, production and prices." But he's probably best known for his work on the stock market. Put simply, Tobin's Q is a ratio of the current value of the market divided by the replacement value of those same assets.

Think of a factory. It has a market price at which it would be bought and sold. And it also has a replacement cost - what one would have to spend to rebuild it from scratch. The ratio of the two is Tobin's Q. Obviously, that would imply that when the ratio is greater than 1 the market is overpriced because one could theoretically 'rebuild' it for a cheaper price than it would take to purchase it. The Q ratio for US equities has fluctuated between 0.3 and 3 in the past 130 years.

It has signaled all the great bear market lows: 1982, 1974, 1949, 1932, 1921. Tobin's Q moves at such a glacial pace that other indicators - even the Coppock Curve - seem twitchy by comparison. But when it does approach an extreme, it pays to give it the respect it deserves.

Valuing Wall Street by Andrew SmithersThe best book on Tobin's Q is Valuing Wall Street by Andrew Smithers (of Smithers & Co.). It came out at the same time as Shiller's more famous Irrational Exuberance.

Both books had the same message and both were published at the exact peak of the 2000 bubble, but Shiller's work got more attention because it was written to be more accessible to the general public while Smithers is more targeted to educated traders and investors. Although both books are good Shiller's book stole much of Smithers' thunder. You can pick up a copy from Amazon for less than $4 - which is a steal really.

As you might imagine, calculating the replacement value of such a diverse set of ever changing assets is mind bogglingly complex. Thankfully, the Federal Reserve does the heavy lifting. They provide the data in the Flow of Funds Report (pdf document). Look for the numerator on B.102 line 35: Market Value of Equities Outstanding (on page 103) and the denominator: Net Worth on line 32 (same page).

So the ratio resolves to:

9554.1 ÷ 15389.8 = 0.6208

Due to the nature of the data, it is only available quarterly with a lag of a few months. The latest report was released March 12th, 2009 which means the above number is for the fourth quarter of 2008. We should be getting the release of data for the first quarter of 2009 soon. But some analysts also guesstimate the number ahead of time. John Mihaljevic, the former research assistant to Tobin says the current value of Q is around 0.43 - which would be extremely close to the historic low of ~0.30. Following the previous link, you can not only get further details but purchase his complete report.

Obviously the market could fall more and take the Q ratio down with it. But this is further evidence that we are much, much closer to a generational buy point here rather than somewhere along the line of a continuing downtrend. Similar to the Coppock Curve, the Q ratio is not only setting up for a bullish signal but one of epic proportions.

Here is a chart of the Q ratio (from 1952 onwards when Federal Reserve data is available):

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Yesterday, while meeting with Gordon Brown, President Obama said:

What you’re now seeing is profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal, if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it

While cheerleading the US economy and stock market is part and parcel of being the president, that is a fairly accurate description of current valuation:

SP500 PE ratios long term chart
Source: Prof. Robert J. Shiller

And while some are pointing out a dichotomy between Obama's pronouncement and his advisor Buffett's description of the US economy as being in "shambles", there really isn't a conflict with the two views as long as you realize that the economy and the US market are two different things.

In any case, the data for February and March 2009 are an estimate only and take us down to 12 - which is without an argument a very low P/E Ratio. But not as low as we've seen the price earnings ratio go.

In August 1982, the PE Ratio dropped below 7. And in both July 1932 and July 1921 it went below 6. To see that scenario again, the S&P 500 would have to drop another 40-50% to the 430-360 level (assuming earnings miraculously stay the same).

The only time that the PE Ratio has dropped as precipitously as in this bear market was in the aftermath of the 1929 bull market top. At its zenith in 1929, the PE Ratio was only approaching 33 while in the 2000 market top it reached 44.

Finally, I should mention that this isn't necessarily the way that others calculate PR ratios - Shiller methodology smoothes out the data over 10 years to remove short term volatility.

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price earnings ratio historical chartThe PE ratio needs no introduction. For a very long term chart of the ratio, click on the image to the left. The source of the chart is the NY Times with a helping hand from the economist, Robert Shiller. I was surprised to see that we were trading at a higher PE ratio as early as last year, than the top in 1929!

The graph above is based on the average earnings for the preceding 5 years. This chart is more short term, based on the rolling 4 quarters of earnings:

price earnings ratio rolling annual chart

Why Use the Price Dividend Ratio?
I'm not sure where I first learned about this ratio. But Stan Weinstein really made it stand out for me as a very important measure of market valuation in his book: "Secrets For Profiting in Bull and Bear Markets" The power of this ratio comes from the fact that unlike earnings, dividends can not be "massaged" by creative accounting. There are no "EBIT" dividends. They are completely immune from accounting shenanigans. They are either declared and paid in cash or they aren't.

Also dividends are free from the year to year shocks such as "write-offs" which can affect earnings. Most companies treat their dividends with what you might say approaches reverence because dividends send such a clear and strong signal about their financial strength.

I'm loathe to dip into the fundamental analysis toolbox but from time to time, when the situation warrants, I do. But for the reasons above, I prefer to use the price dividend ratio instead of the much more popular price earnings ratio.

Basically, the ratio tells you how much you have to pay for $1 of dividends. So in a way it can be equated to the "yield" coupon of the stock market. Or the inverse dividend yield of the stock market. And because of that, it has some correlation to the interest rate. So when interest rates are high, usually the dividend yield is also high.

Here is a very long term chart of the S&P 500 Index. I've added two data points, one for where we were this time last year and one for now:

sp500 price dividend ratio long term chart
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

Dow Jones Price Dividend Ratio
A year ago, when the Dow was at ~14200, the price dividend ratio was 49. Meaning you would have had to pay almost $50 to get $1 of dividends a year. It also corresponds very closely to the S&P 500's price dividend ratio (above).

As of now, however, the Dow's price dividend is a more reasonable 26. This is because of two things. First, and most obviously, the Dow has come down a lot, but also importantly, dividends have increased a healthy 11.7% from a year ago.

As you can see from this long term chart of the Dow's price dividend ratio, we are right around the long term average for this ratio:

price dividend ratio chart john bogle on mutual funds
Source: John Bogle on Mutual Funds

As we've all noticed in the past few days, the market has the ability to reach maximum levels and then to keep pushing into new territory (I'm looking at you VIX). So just because we are now at a much more "normal" price dividend level doesn't mean that it can't go lower. For example, here's a really scary picture of what might/could happen.

Having said that, I'm glad to see this fundamental ratio not clash with other technical indicators which are pointing to a potential market bottom.

The charts above are long term but do not show the most recent years, so if you know of a more up to date price dividend ratio, I'd love to see it. Or if you have access to a platform like Bloomberg, where you can look it up, send me a screengrab. I'm sure the most recent data holds some insight.

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president bush crocs.jpgAlthough I was early, my skepticism about the growth story of Crocs (CROX) turned out to be right on the money.

The dream turned into a nightmare for the longs with an almost 40% gap down on November 1st 2007. Although it would have been very painful, the best option - in hindsight - would have been to sell right there and then.

That's because when Wall St. turns on a one time growth darling... it can get very ugly.

Double Whammy
For one, no growth investor or swing trader wants to ride along with management when they were either blindsided by a slowdown or saw it coming and were coy and didn't communicate it in advance.

As well, declining sales/growth reduces the valuation of a company. And it has the levered effect of also reducing the multiple used to value it: the price earnings ratio. So the company is hit with a double whammy.

Very few are able to recover from this. That's why it is dangerous to fall in love with a stock, no matter how persuasive the arguments. A stock is a stock is a stock.

But with Crocs, I was a bit puzzled at how people could actually could like them, never mind love them (as a product or a stock). In any case, now that the whole sorry saga has played out, here's the chart:

crox crocs lessons from implosion long term chart

Other than the obvious line break (blue) that spelled the end of the run, it is interesting that each gap down was below the previous swing low. What more obvious sign that buyers were simply not showing up?

In other words, in each subsequent price realignment, it missed previously established support levels. Until finally, it is now trading below the first double bottom in 2006.

It is safe to say almost all longs are now underwater and unhappy. Which means that if a miracle delivers a rally, they will be so relieved to be able to get out with any semblance of break even, it will be a short lived rally.

Other than running away from former growth stock darlings, Crocs has other useful lessons. Study the first few months of CROX and notice how it built a base from which it launched a massive run. It almost looks like two back to back cup and handle formations. Now go and find stocks which have similar bases. IPOs are great candidates for growth but they are few and far in between these days.

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