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Which stock markets look "cheap" after another week of turbulence?


Duncan Lamont, CFA

Duncan Lamont, CFA

Head of Research and Analytics

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They say a week is a long time in politics. The same could be said of financial markets at the moment.

In the week since we published our recent update on stock market valuations, the daily returns on the US stock market have been +5%, -5%, -9%, +9%, -12%. Markets have been whipsawed on a daily basis, and the weekly decline has come in at -13%. Double-digit weekly losses have been a painful feature across the globe.

Given the scale of the moves, it feels appropriate to refresh our valuation analysis (see the end of this article for a brief explanation of each indicator).

This time last week, most markets were erring on the side of being cheap. Figures are shown on a rounded basis and have been shaded dark red if they are more than 10% "expensive" compared with their 15-year average and dark green if more than 10% "cheap", with paler shades for those in between.

Valuations vs historical average: 9 March 2020

which-stock-markets-look-cheap-march_2020.jpg

Past Performance is not a guide to future performance and may not be repeated. 

Source: MSCI, Refinitiv, Schroders, Robert Shiller. Data cover 15 years to 9 March 2020.

Figures are shown on a rounded basis and have been shaded dark red if they are more than 10% expensive compared with their 15-year average (median) and dark green if more than 10% cheap, and an even darker green for more than 20% cheap, with paler shades for those in between.

However, updating this analysis today reveals a field of green. Every market is outright cheap compared with valuations over the past 15 years. Even the US market, which has been consistently expensive for years, is now cheap. This picture is almost identical if we extend the timeframe to the last 20 years, or since 1995 when emerging market valuation data first becomes available.

In fact, markets have fallen to such cheap levels that we have decided to introduce a new colour to our shading. Previously, dark green indicated that a market was more than 10% cheap compared with its historical average. Now the even darker green highlights those markets which are more than 20% cheap. 17 of the 25 valuation measures shown below are now in this category.

Valuations vs historical average: 16 March 2020

which-stock-markets-look-cheap-march_2020_update.jpg

Past Performance is not a guide to future performance and may not be repeated. 

Source: MSCI, Refinitiv, Schroders, Robert Shiller. Data cover 15 years to 16 March 2020.

Figures are shown on a rounded basis and have been shaded dark red if they are more than 10% expensive compared with their 15-year average (median) and dark green if more than 10% cheap, and an even darker green for more than 20% cheap, with paler shades for those in between. 

Markets have fallen to such cheap levels because the hit to economic growth that is set to be inflicted by the coronavirus is so hard to quantify. And uncertainty is what markets hate most. As a result, markets are likely to remain turbulent and further declines cannot be discounted.  

Specifically, in relation to the figures above, forward earnings expectations have yet to be reduced by much but such reductions are inevitable. Dividends are also likely to come under pressure.

Risks abound but, for those who have a long enough time horizon, valuations are unequivocally more appealing than at any point in recent years. The problem is that, while uncertainty persists, they could become even cheaper. It is not the time to be recklessly bold but, if you have a long enough time horizon, the stock market is starting to look a much more interesting proposition.

The pros and cons of stock market valuation measures

When considering stock market valuations, there are many different measures that investors can turn to. Each tells a different story. They all have their benefits and shortcomings so a rounded approach which takes into account their often-conflicting messages is the most likely to bear fruit.

Forward P/E

A common valuation measure is the forward price-to-earnings multiple or forward P/E. We divide a stock market’s value or price by the earnings per share of all the companies over the next 12 months. A low number represents better value.

An obvious drawback of this measure is that it is based on forecasts and no one knows what companies will earn in future. Analysts try to estimate this but frequently get it wrong, largely overestimating and making shares seem cheaper than they really are.

Trailing P/E

This is perhaps an even more common measure. It works similarly to forward P/E but takes the past 12 months’ earnings instead. In contrast to the forward P/E this involves no forecasting. However, the past 12 months may also give a misleading picture.

CAPE

The cyclically-adjusted price to earnings multiple is another key indicator followed by market watchers, and increasingly so in recent years. It is commonly known as CAPE for short or the Shiller P/E, in deference to the academic who first popularised it, Professor Robert Shiller.

This attempts to overcome the sensitivity that the trailing P/E has to the last 12 month’s earnings by instead comparing the price with average earnings over the past 10 years, with those profits adjusted for inflation. This smooths out short-term fluctuations in earnings.

When the Shiller P/E is high, subsequent long term returns are typically poor. One drawback is that it is a dreadful predictor of turning points in markets. The US has been expensively valued on this basis for many years but that has not been any hindrance to it becoming ever more expensive. 

Price-to-book

The price-to-book multiple compares the price with the book value or net asset value of the stock market. A high value means a company is expensive relative to the value of assets expressed in its accounts. This could be because higher growth is expected in future.

A low value suggests that the market is valuing it at little more (or possibly even less, if the number is below one) than its accounting value. This link with the underlying asset value of the business is one reason why this approach has been popular with investors most focused on valuation, known as value investors.

However, for technology companies or companies in the services sector, which have little in the way of physical assets, it is largely meaningless. Also, differences in accounting standards can lead to significant variations around the world. 

Dividend yield

The dividend yield, the income paid to investors as a percentage of the price, has been a useful tool to predict future returns. A low yield has been associated with poorer future returns.

However, while this measure still has some use, it has come unstuck over recent decades.

One reason is that “share buybacks” have become an increasingly popular means for companies to return cash to shareholders, as opposed to paying dividends (buying back shares helps push up the share price).

This trend has been most obvious in the US but has also been seen elsewhere. In addition, it fails to account for the large number of high-growth companies that either pay no dividend or a low dividend, instead preferring to re-invest surplus cash in the business to finance future growth.

A few general rules

Investors should beware the temptation to simply compare a valuation metric for one region with that of another. Differences in accounting standards and the makeup of different stock markets mean that some always trade on more expensive valuations than others.

For example, technology stocks are more expensive than some other sectors because of their relatively high growth prospects. A market with sizeable exposure to the technology sector, such as the US, will therefore trade on a more expensive valuation than somewhere like Europe. When assessing value across markets, we need to set a level playing field to overcome this issue.

One way to do this is to assess if each market is more expensive or cheaper than it has been historically.

We have done this in the table above for the valuation metrics set out above, however this information is not to be relied upon and should not be taken as a recommendation to buy/and or sell If you are unsure as to your investments speak to a financial adviser.

Finally, investors should always be mindful that past performance and historic market patterns are not a reliable guide to the future and that your money is at risk, as is this case with any investment.