S&P 500 Index: Soon To Be The Cheapest Since 1989

The recent swoon in the U.S. stock market has gotten to a point where there are plenty of values to be found for those investors willing to ignore the near-term headlines and negative sentiment. In fact, if things stay where they are for the next quarter or two, the S&P 500 index will be the cheapest it has been in more than 20 years (based on the current 2010 earnings estimate for the index of nearly $82). Below is a chart of the S&P 500’s trailing P/E ratio from December 31, 1988 through December 31, 2010 (the P/E for the next six months is an estimate based on current consensus profit expectation, assuming the market stays at today’s level).

Source: Standard and Poor’s Data

As of today we are at a P/E of about 14 (on this chart, the second to last notch on the x-axis). Assuming stock prices and earnings estimates remain where they are, the U.S. market would end 2010 at its cheapest level since 1989 (12.5 times trailing earnings). I know the headlines have been bleak over the last eight weeks or so, but stocks are quite cheap, especially given low interest rates and tame inflation.

If earnings season is pretty good this quarter (including in-line guidance for the second half of the year), as I expect it to be, I will very likely allocate some additional portfolio cash into the equity market. Although the market chatter is centered around the increased odds of a double-dip recession, it is important to note (as was pointed out on CNBC just this morning) that we have seen only 3 double-dip recessions over the last 150 years. Does that mean it is impossible we could get a fourth? Of course not, it just makes it probably a lot less likely than the U.S. equity market is currently indicating.

WSJ: U.S. Corporations Sitting on Stellar Balance Sheets

From the Wall Street Journal:

“The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that non-financial companies had socked away $1.84 trillion in cash and other liquid assets as of the end of March, up 26% from a year earlier and the largest increase on records going back to 1952. Cash made up about 7% of all company assets including factories and financial investments, the highest level since 1963.”

The strongest balance sheet backdrop for Corporate America in nearly 50 years can only be a positive for the U.S. stock market. Extra cash for strategic mergers, share repurchases, and dividend payouts can help boost stock prices until businesses become confident enough to invest money back into their own asset bases. The latter likely won’t occur until some of the bearish headlines of recent weeks subside. Among the important ones I would highlight, in order of potential resolution, would be the financial regulation bill going through Congress, the Goldman Sachs fraud case brought by the SEC, and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Second quarter earnings will likely be quite strong, but the headline risk is trumping fundamentals for the time being.

Rather than Panic About Greece and the Euro, Make a Shopping List

I have been holding double-digit cash positions in most equity client accounts for much of 2010 and this week I began allocating some of that cash back into the market. We finally got a 10% correction, after more than a year without one. The market seems to be obsessed with Europe and the Euro exchange rate right now, but honestly we have to keep things in perspective. Most U.S. companies (excluding the large multinationals of course) are not going to be directly impacted by troubles in Greece and neighboring areas. The entire country of Greece has the same population as the state of Ohio, so that really keeps things in perspective, for me anyway.

Accordingly, I do think U.S. stock prices have come down enough in recent weeks to warrant some bargain hunting. I invested about half of my clients’ cash balances this week. It is quite conceivable that the market tests the intra-day low reached on the crazy flash trading/1,000 down day earlier this month (1,065 on the S&P 500) and finds some support there. The sentiment is pretty ugly right now, so although I am still keeping some cash onhand in case of further weakness, I do think it is time to nibble at good values.

My suggestion for investors who share those feelings would be to make a shopping list. Come up with a handful of stocks you would like to own and pick a price that you really feel good about. As the market gyrates, you may be surprised which companies you can grab at very attractive price points. If you are a long term investor, try not to panic. There really are some great deals out there right now, as the S&P 500 has fallen below 1,100 and into correction territory.

What Can Happen When Markets Are Run By Computers? Stock Trading Might Go Nuts Like Today!

This afternoon the U.S. stock market went bananas and I decided to sit down in front of the television, watch, and enjoy myself. When the entire market is run mostly by computers, not only can traders control the minute by minute action but they can even set the computer up so that once certain price levels are reached, their trades get executed automatically, so actual human action is not even necessary. What happens when the computers are overloaded or someone makes a mistake? Well, watch this short segment from CNBC and see how the Dow Jones can drop 500 points and then make it all back in less than five minutes.

This is why many people think short-term trading in the market is nothing more than gambling. Literally anything can happen on any single day, in a single hour or minute, or in this case, a few seconds. Market watchers will tell you to use limit orders as a way to specify your exact desired buy and sell prices to avoid getting taken to the cleaners when markets react violently like this.

The problem with that, of course, is that your order may hit in a moment of panic, and had you known that was happening, you never would have made the trade. Imagine if you came home today to learn that you sold 100 shares of Proctor and Gamble at $50 (a limit order you had set) because it traded there for a brief second based on computer malfunction, but rebounded to $61 within seconds. You would be furious. Limit orders are not always the answer. Investors, especially those who are novices, need to be very careful. As we saw today, the market can be a landmine.

Current Bull Market Now More Than 400 Days Without 10% Correction

For several months I have been holding elevated cash levels (above 10%) in most client accounts, due to the fact that the stock market appears overbought and has gone a very long time without a standard 10% correction. In fact, we have now gone more than a year without a 10% drop which is a long time historically. I decided to look at the data to see exactly how overbought this market is relative to other bull markets.

It turns out that the current streak of more than 400 days without a correction represents only the 14th time this has happened since 1928. Of those instances, the current bull market (up more than 80% from the March 2009 intra-day lows) places fourth on the list. The three stronger bull market streaks (1953-1955, 1990-1996, and 2003-2007) ranged from +97% to +131%.

Depending on your time frame, the current streak could be either alarming or unimportant. One could argue that the fourth longest streak in 82 years indicates near term problems on the way, but one could also conclude that the last streak of this length was only a few short years ago, so maybe it is becoming more and more common.

I prefer to look at the longest set of data we have, which is why I continue to hold above-average cash levels. The fewer data points you consider, the less reliable the data will actually be. This can explain a lot of things in various topics, including why there is such a heated debate about global warming right now. If you look at the last 5 years you might conclude that global warming is no longer happening. Conversely if you look at the temperature trends over the last 100 years, it is pretty obvious that global warming is occurring.

Looking at historical stock market data tells me that the current bull market is near the top of the list historically, but of course that does not mean stocks are going to fall anytime soon. Just three years ago the S&P 500 went 4 years without a 10% correction. Today it has only been a little more than 1 year. As a result, I prefer to hold extra cash to use should the correction come, but still have most of my clients’ capital invested in attractively-priced stocks.

Market Is Pricing In 35% Profit Growth in 2010

A theme of mine in recent weeks, as well as for 2010, is that the stock market has risen 70% from the March lows and has begun to price in the current consensus forecast of $75 in S&P 500 earnings, which would be a 35% increase from 2009. As a result, I think the Wall Street strategist consensus of a 10 -15% market gain this year seems overly optimistic. It is far more likely that earnings come in below $75 than above that level.. not a good risk-reward trade off.

Last evening we got the first big earnings report from the fourth quarter (Intel), they blew away the numbers (40 cents vs 30 cent estimate) and the stock is down this morning. JPM reported a decent number this morning (beat on earnings, light on sales) and it is down too. Whenever you see stocks not go up on good news, it is typically a clear sign that the markets have priced in the good news.

Despite a cautious market outlook short term, there are still good investments out there. I will share a couple in coming weeks to halt the post-holiday lull in postings on this site.

Earnings Will Likely Be Good, But How Will The Market React?

I have been prepared for a market correction for a while now, but we have yet to get one. The rally off of the March lows has reached +61% and the momentum continues to be strong. Will it continue even as companies report their third quarter earnings?

Nobody can know for sure, but over the years we have often seen a “buy on the rumor, sell on the news” mentality on Wall Street, especially during earnings season. Stocks ramp up heading into reporting season, only to fall after the news of solid results actually comes out. A similar phenomenon could certainly happen this quarter and as a result I will be carefully watching both what the numbers are, but also how the market reacts to them.

If stocks sell off even after companies post in-line or slightly better than expected earnings, such market action could be the first sign that a long overdue correction in stock prices is on the horizon. In fact, we might already be seeing this. This morning Johnson and Johnson reported earnings seven cents ahead of estimates but the stock is trading down in premarket trading. Will that be the start of a trend, or simply an aberration? We will have to wait and see.

Evaluating Market Level With S&P 500 Having Reached My Fair Value Target

I have written here previously that my personal fair value target for the S&P 500 index was around 1,050. I got there by using an average P/E multiple of 14-15 and projecting a “normalized” earnings run rate for the index of around $70 annually. The index has now risen 60% from its March low and hit a level of 1,074 intra-day on Thursday, about 2% above my target. Naturally, the next question is “what now?”

First we need to reevaluate my initial assumptions to determine if they need to be revised. Current earnings estimates on the S&P 500 for 2009 are about $54, which is a 9% increase from 2008. Estimates going forward are significantly higher than that, at around $73 for 2010. Does my $70 still apply?

In my mind it does. The idea behind trying to determine “normalized” earnings is to eliminate the long tails of the distribution. Valuing stocks based on earnings during a recession ($50-$55) is not very helpful given that the economy grows during the vast majority of all time periods. Conversely, using the previous peak earnings level ($87) factors in a period of easy credit and dramatic leverage which surely boosted profits to unsustainable levels.

So, I would define “normalized” earnings as the level of corporate profits that we could expect in neither a recessionary environment (negative GDP growth), or a highly leveraged economy (say, 4-5% GDP growth). Put another way, what would earnings be if the economy was growing, but not very fast (say, by 2% per year). Something between $50 and $87 most likely, and the number I have been using is $70 for the S&P 500.

Interestingly, the consensus for 2010 is for moderate economic growth, positive but not at the pace we saw earlier this decade. Given that the current earnings estimate for next year is $73, I believe my $70 figure still makes sense, given what we know right now anyway.

Where does that put us in terms of the market? Well, in my mind we are trading pretty much at fair value, but it is helpful to look at both the more bearish case and the more bullish case to get an idea of what the risk-reward scenario looks like. Comparing your potential upside with the corresponding downside should make it easier for investors to gauge how they should be allocating their investment capital.

First, the bears will argue that earnings are being helped merely by cost cutting and that revenue growth will be non-existent because the economy will remain in a rut for a long time. They will contend that earnings in the $70 range for 2010 is overly optimistic and will cite the $54 figure for this year as a more reasonable expectation in the near term. Assign a 14-15 P/E (the median multiple throughout history) on those earnings and you get the S&P 500 index trading between 750 and 800, or 25-30% below current levels.

Next, we have the bulls on the other end of the spectrum. They believe that slow to moderate growth in 2010 is likely and S&P 500 earnings in the $70 to $75 range are reasonable expectations. They go further and argue that given how low interest rates and inflation are presently, P/E multiples should be slightly above average (the argument there being that low rates and low inflation make bonds less attractive and stocks more attractive, so equities will fetch a premium to historical average prices). They will assign a 16-17 P/E to $73 in earnings and argue that the S&P 500 should trade up to around 1,200 next year, giving the market another 10 to 15% of upside.

From this exercise we can determine the risk-reward using all of these arguments. Bulls say 10-15% upside, bears say 25-30% downside, and I come in somewhere in between at a flat market. Therefore, I am cautious here with the S&P 500 trading at 1,066 as I write this. To me, aggressively committing new money to equities at these levels comes with a fair amount of risk given that the best case scenario appears to only be another 10 or 15 percent. As a result, I am holding above average cash positions and being fairly defensive with fresh capital. There just aren’t that many bargains left right now, so I am hoping the next correction changes that.

Speculative Trading Lends Credence To “Rally Losing Steam” Thesis

A disturbing recent trend has emerged in the U.S. equity market and many are pointing to it as a potential reason to worry that the massive market rally over the last six months may be running out of steam. Investment strategists are concerned that a recent rise in speculative trading activity is signaling that the market’s dramatic ascent is getting a bit frothy.

This kind of trading is typically characterized by lots of smaller capitalization stocks seeing massive increases in trading volumes and dramatic price swings, often on little or no headlines warranting such trading activity. Indeed, in recent weeks we have seen a lot of wild swings in small cap biotechnology stocks as well as some financial services stocks that were previously left for dead.

For instance, shares of beleaguered insurance giant AIG (AIG) soared 27% on Thursday on six times normal volume. Rumors on internet message boards (not exactly a solid fundamental reason for a rally) which proved to be false were one of the catalysts for the dramatic move higher, which looked like a huge short squeeze.

Consider an interesting statistic cited by CNBC’s Bob Pisani on the air yesterday. Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) registered 6.55 billion shares on Thursday. Of that a whopping 29% (1.9 billion shares) came from just four stocks; AIG, Freddie Mac (FRE), Fannie Mae (FNM), and Citigroup (C). Overall trading volumes this summer have been fairly light anyway and the fact that such a huge percentage of the volume has been in these severely beaten down, very troubled companies should give us pause for concern.

While not nearly as exaggerated, speculative trading like this is very reminiscent of the dot com bubble in late 1999 when tiny companies would see huge volume and price spikes simply by issuing press releases announcing the launch of a web site showcasing their products.

I am not suggesting the market is in bubble territory here, even after a more than 50% rise in six months, but this kind of market action warrants a cautious stance. Irrational market action is not a healthy way for the equity market to create wealth.

Fundamental valuation analysis remains paramount for equity investors, so be sure not get sucked into highly speculative trading unless there is a strong, rational basis for such investments. Companies like AIG, Fannie, and Freddie remain severely impaired operationally and laden with debt.

As a result, potential buyers into rallies should tread carefully and be sure to do their homework.

Full Disclosure: No position in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time