Money has been piling into European shares as fears of the euro imploding recede, the economy shows signs of life and investors look for the next trade after Japan.
But the “eurozone shares are cheap” theme might have run its course. This chart shows the discount of eurozone forward price-to-earnings compared to the US, as a percentage (using MSCI indices).
We all know that reported earnings are manipulated. But are they manipulated any more than they used to be, and are they manipulated so as to overstate profits, or understate them? And is the manipulation now so extreme that it is no longer relevant to compare profits over long periods of time? That is where the debate over CAPE (the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio) has reached. Even if it sounds technical, it is of vital importance when trying to work out whether the market is undervalued – as much of the stock broker community likes to argue – or in fact overvalue.
For those who missed them, the FT recently published my latest Long View column, defending the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio as calculated by Robert Shiller of Yale University and its relevance, quickly followed by a Market Insight column from Jeremy Siegel of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and author of Stocks for the Long Run, arguing that Cape’s “overly pessimistic predictions are based on biased earnings data”. An academic conference on the subject is coming up in September.
Some navigation might be helpful. This is not just an arid academic dispute but a matter of critical interest to practising investors. As discussed last week, CAPE has been an impressive metric of value for over a century, and it sticks out from other metrics at present by signalling that stocks are badly overvalued (by 63 per cent for non-financials according to Andrew Smithers, a firm advocate of CAPEs as defined by Prof Shiller). Various different exchange-traded funds are now available that attempt to time switches between sectors based on their CAPE ratios.
However, the fact that CAPE is so bearish makes it unpopular. So does the undeniable fact that CAPE has been too bearish to be of great use to the average asset allocators over the last decade, failing to signal that stocks were cheap before two separate rallies, both of which saw stocks double over a period of four years. (You can see charts of CAPE over time in earlier LongShort posts here and here). Proponents of CAPE would counter that the measure is not for tactical asset allocation and that valuations cannot be used for timing the market.
So bulls are now trying to show either that Shiller’s CAPE was always flawed, or something has happened in the last decade or so to make the measure less useful. The academic participants know a lot of money is riding on this. Much more after the break.
Cyclically-adjusted price/earnings multiples (CAPEs), as made famous by Yale’s Professor Robert Shiller, are growing inconvenient for the brokerage community.
Last week, BofA Merrill Lynch’s Savita Subramanian pointed out that of 15 popular measures of equity valuation, CAPE (which compares share prices to a 10-year moving average of real earnings) was the only one that made stocks look expensive. The list of valuations suggesting US stocks are either cheap or at fair value includes:
- trailing p/e
- forward consensus p/e
- trailing normalised p/e
- enterprise value/ebitda
- forward PEG (p/e ratio divided by growth)
- trailing PEG
- price/operating cash flow
- price/free cash flow
- enterprise value/sales
- market-based equity risk premium
- normalised equity risk premium
- S&P 500 in WTI oil terms
- and S&P 500 in gold terms
CAPE is thus beginning to stick out like a sore thumb. As it has been showing that stocks are expensive throughout most of the current rally, there is now a widening attempt to discredit or ignore it. Merrill’s own complaint is typical:
The Shiller P/E, which is based on inflation-adjusted earnings over the past 10 years, currently suggests that stocks are overvalued. However, this metric
assumes that the normalized (cyclically-adjusted) EPS for the S&P 500 is today less than $70—well below even our recessionary scenario for EPS. The
methodology assumes that the last 10 years is a representative sample, but the most recent profits recession was the worst we have seen and was exacerbated by a high leverage ratio which has since been dramatically reduced. Assuming that this scenario is going to repeat itself is, we think, overly pessimistic
But is it? Earnings volatility has certainly been extreme over the last decade, and arguably unprecedented. But if anything that suggests that the measure – which grew famous from efforts to predict the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and to show that the 2003-07 bull market was a “fools rally” – is more, not less, useful. That is the contention of Prof Shiller himself, and it is a reasonable one. More on this, with charts, and some comments from Prof Shiller, after the break.
Even after the extraordinary summer rally in European equities, strategists continue to punt European shares as cheap, and so worth buying. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.
The sell-side analysts pushing the idea are too numerous to list, but one of the better argued cases is that presented by the cyclically-adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), which averages profits over 10 years in an attempt to eliminate the effects of the economic cycle.
Paul Jackson at Societe Generale has some nice charts showing Europe looks cheap, and demonstrating the use of one derivative of CAPE, the cyclically-adjusted dividend yield.