With S&P 500 profits set to come in around $157 for 2018, the trailing P/E ratio for the broad market index has fallen from 21.5x on January 1st of this year to 16.5x today. Surging earnings due to lower corporate tax rates have allowed for such a significant drop in valuations despite share prices only falling by single digits this year, which is a great result for investors. Normally, a 5 point drop in multiple requires a far greater price decline.
With sky high valuations now corrected, the intermediate term outlook for stocks generally should fall squarely into the lap of future earnings growth in 2019. On that front, there are plenty of headwinds. With no tariff relief in sight, the steady inching up of interest rates, a surging federal budget deficit, and no incremental tax related tailwinds next year, it is hard to see a predictable path to strong profit growth from here.
Even if 10-year bond rates go back into the 3’s, market valuations should stabilize in the 15-18x range, so stocks today appear to be fully priced for a relatively stable economic environment. Although current profit estimates for 2019 are quite high (double digit growth into the $170+ area), I suspect those figures will come down meaningfully once companies issue 2019 guidance in late January and into February (analysts don’t often go out on a limb so they will wait for companies to tell them what to expect).
Putting all of this together and we are unlikely to make new highs in the market anytime soon, in my view. We probably have 10% downside and 10% upside depending on various economic outcomes over the next few quarters. In the meantime, there are plenty of cheap stocks to accumulate and hold for the long term, until attractive exit points present themselves. Goldman Sachs (GS) is a perfect example, at it inexplicably trades for $176 today, below tangible book value of $186 per share.
Full Disclosure: Long GS at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.