U.S. Stock Market Approaching Attractive Levels

The U.S. stock market has finally rolled over, after going 3 years without so much as a single 10% decline. We are not quite there yet (at today’s S&P 500 low of 1,837 the index is down 9% from its peak reached last month), but for all practical purposes this is what a correction looks and feels like. So does it matter? Are stocks down to a point where investors should consider adding to their stock holdings? Let me share some thoughts as to how I am viewing the market’s current position.

Entering 2014, the S&P 500 sported a price-earnings ratio of about 17 based on trailing 12-month earnings (1,848/107). While this was justifiable given how low interest rates were, it was at the high end of historical norms and did not provide a lot of room for multiple expansion. The best that bulls could hope for was that earnings would continue to grow and rates would stay low, allowing for stable P/E ratios. And up until a few weeks ago, that is exactly how things played out. Earnings for 2014 are slated to come in around $119 (+11% year-over-year) and the S&P 500 index reached a high of 2,019 in September, up about 9% for the year excluding dividends of 1.5%.

While everybody has been worried about when interest rates will rise, and by how much, I think it is far more important to look at P/E ratios relative to those rates. If the average P/E ratio over the long term has been 14-15x, in a low rate environment a 17-18x P/E ratio would be fair but not compelling, assuming you expected rates to trend upward in the intermediate term. However, if stocks were trading at 15x earnings with low rates, it changes things.

Let’s assume the 10-year bond normalizes to a 4% yield (vs 2% today) over the next 3-5 years, which is the consensus view. If U.S. stocks would be likely to fetch a 15 P/E in that scenario (average rates, average P/E’s), then stocks would be attractive if I could pay 15x earnings when yields are just 2%. Essentially, even if rates doubled, there would not be any P/E multiple compression. If, however, I pay 17-18x earnings and rates rise/multiples fall, then I should expect that P/E compression will offset corporate earnings gains, and my stock returns will be muted.

Why is this important? If the S&P 500 index were to drop to 1,800 (about 2% below current levels) and earnings for the index are $119 for 2014, the trailing P/E ratio for the S&P 500 would be 15x at year-end and interest rates would be near record lows. That would make me want to add fresh capital to my stock market investments. If rates stay low for longer than people expect, then multiples could go back to 17x and equity gains will result. If rates rise and we only see average P/E ratios of 15, then stock returns will largely track corporate profit growth, which continues to be strong.

Paying above-average prices in a low rate environment is justifiable but offers minimal upside. Paying average prices for stocks in a low rate environment offers you some downside protection if rates rise and solid upside potential if they are steady. As a result, I think U.S. stocks look attractive at around 1,800 on the S&P 500. And many people would suggest starting to buy even with the index at 1,840 because it’s “close enough.” Bottom line: it’s time to make a shopping list because stocks are on sale.