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

Powerful Market Rally May Be Running Out of Steam

After a very surprising employment report this morning (payrolls declined ~350k versus expectations of ~525k), the market reacted well at first but sellers have emerged. The fact that the market is flat today tells me the rally is losing steam (normally that type of jobs report would mean 200 or 300 points on the Dow). We may be at a point now where slow economic improvement has been priced into stocks, and as a result, incoming data that supports that thesis may not give a huge jolt to equity prices going forward.

This is a perfect example of how the stock market discounts the future ahead of time. We have had an enormous move since early March (S&P 500 up 42% from 666 to 944) on expectations that the economy would begin to slowly improve. Now that it appears to be happening, the market is looking ahead at what might be next. The answer to that question is a lot less clear.

My personal fair value target for the S&P 500 remains 1,050 but I have been raising cash into this rally below that level because there are still risks to the economic recovery and I want to save some cash for the next market drop. Recovery has to be a foregone conclusion, in my view, for the 1,050 level to solely dictate my actions.

Not only that, but more and more strategists are looking for 1,000 on the S&P 500, whereas they weren’t even mentioning it as a possibility a month or two ago. As a contrarian, that makes me think it is getting less likely we will reach that level in the short term.

After Huge Rally, Market Digests Earnings Season and Bank Capital Raises

With most first quarter earnings reports having already been released, along with bank stress test results, the action in the market has died down considerably. After a 40% rally, the S&P 500 has been consolidating between 875 (a key technical support level) and 930 (the recent high). Such backing and filling is a strong sign. One would expect a pause after such a huge move, and despite the fact that the banks are rushing to issue billion of dollars in new shares, the market is absorbing that new supply fairly well (the stocks are down from their highs but they seem to be building a base and fear has subsided).

As for earnings season, first quarter results largely exceeded reduced expectations. Bulls and bears will continue to debate whether beating those low estimates was a positive or not, but merely stopping the earnings decline would serve to put a floor on stock prices. If the rate of decline in both the economy and corporate profits can decelerate, we could very well see sideways market action for a while. With the S&P 500 up from 666 to nearly 900, that would be welcomed by most investors.

The recent rally has been predicated on the idea that Q4 2008 and Q1 2009 will turn out to be the worst quarters for the economy. If GDP can rise sequentially throughout the year, and turn positive on a year-over-year basis by the fourth quarter, corporate profits will likely have hit a bottom. This scenario is priced into equities, so we really need it to play out that way for the S&P to hold the 900 area in coming months.

There are still plenty of people who are negative on the economy and either don’t think a rebound will occur later in 2009, or if it does, it will be short-lived and we will see even worse times in 2010. If that proves true, we could very well see a retest of the March lows, as the bears are expecting.

Where do I come down? I think there is a decent chance we do not see 666 on the S&P 500 again. By “decent” I mean, say, between 50% and 67%. The rest of 2009 could very well be rocky though, so we could certainly get a correction or two, especially after a 40% rally in the market. As a result, I am holding some cash (10-20% right now in many cases) in order to take advantage of any other leg down if we get it. That cash number will likely increase if the market rally continues and we approach my own fair value estimate (1000-1050 on the S&P).

In general, I think a solid path would be for the market to trade sideways for a while. Digesting the big move we have made, rather than simply seeing another large sell-off (which was the typical course over the last year or so) would send a signal that the worst may be behind us and we can slowly recover. I agree with many who believe an economic recovery will be neither particularly fast, nor violently strong, but simply muddling along with little or no GDP growth would go a long way to supporting stock prices at their current level and take the calls for 600 on the S&P off of the table.

Look For Swine Flu Related Opportunities

To me this swine flu outbreak looks a lot like avian bird flu; fairly contained and overhyped. Of course anything is possible, but as Wall Street frets about swine flu (Dow futures are down 150 this morning), investors should be on the lookout for investment opportunities. Worries over bird flu led to numerous bargains, especially in the poultry industry. We’ll have to see what stocks, if any, are adversely affected by swine flu worries. Chances are they will excellent investment opportunities just as were available when SARS and bird flu were the worries of the day.

Q1 2009 Earnings Exceeding Estimates So Far

Are you surprised that the market is acting as well as it has lately, especially with earnings season having begun? Still waiting for that overbought correction after six weeks of gains in stocks? Me too. Why the relative strength? Well, according to Bespoke Investment Group first quarter earnings are coming in well above estimates so far (20% reporting):

“A fifth of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported earnings for the first quarter, and so far earnings are down 16.6% versus the first quarter of 2008. While down, this is much better than the -37.3% expected at the start of earnings season. When comparing actual earnings versus estimates, Consumer Discretionary, Financials, and Energy are leading the way. On the downside, the Industrial sector is the only one where actual earnings have come in weaker than expected. Earnings season still has a long way to go, but the fact that growth has come in better than expected thus far has been one factor driving the market higher.”

How The Financials Are Greatly Masking the Market’s Earnings Potential

Some people are making the case that the stock market can rally meaningfully even without the financial sector recovering. I disagree simply because earnings are being negatively impacted so severely by loan losses and mark to market writedowns at the large financial institutions that investors won’t get a clear picture of what a reasonable expectation for S&P 500 earnings are until financial sector earnings at least stabilize, if not climb back toward breakeven.

Jeremy Siegel, well known Wharton finance professor and author of “Stocks for the Long Run” (an excellent book) had an opinion-editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal recently that was titled “The S&P 500 Gets Its Earnings Wrong” (subscription only — get 2 free weeks here if you are not a WSJ online subscriber) that made some interesting points about the currently depressed level of earnings for the S&P 500.

Dr. Siegel explains that while the S&P 500 is market value weighted (larger companies are weighted more heavily in the index than the smaller ones), Standard and Poor’s does not use the same methodology when calculated the index’s earnings. Instead, a dollar of profit from the smallest stock is treated the same as a dollar earned by the largest. As a result, the losses being accumulated by a small portion of the index are negating the profits being generated by the majority, which is making the S&P 500’s earnings look overly depressed.

Consider the data below, taken from Siegel’s column:

Siegel is suggesting that the absolutely abysmal financial performance of the market’s worst stocks last year (mostly from financial services firms, of course) is giving the appearance that corporate profits have absolutely fallen off a cliff in every area during this recession. He is quick to point out that 84% of the largest 500 public companies in the U.S. (420 out of 500) are actually doing quite well. That fact is going unnoticed because $1 of earnings from the smallest stock in the S&P is treated the same as $1 of earnings from the largest component, even though an investor in the S&P 500 owns 1,300 times more of the largest one than the smallest.

I’m not sure if Siegel is suggesting that they should actaully go ahead and change the way they calculate S&P 500 earnings (and if so, I’m not sure I would even agree with him), but I do think this data is very helpful in seeing just how much the financial sector is masking corporate profits from other sectors.

My personal estimate right now for S&P 500 fair value is around 1,050 (14 to 15 times normalized earnings of between $70 and $80). I came up with those estimates before reading Siegel’s article, but the data he provided give me comfort in the estimate. After all, if you assume the bottom 80 companies get back to breakeven and the other 420 companies maintain their 2008 profitability (both are conservative assumptions when the recession ends in my view), we see that S&P 500 earnings would range from $67 (if you use GAAP earnings) to $81 (if you use operating profits)

As you can see, any relief for the financial sector with respect to mark-to-market accounting principles could temper the writedowns going forward. Even getting the financial sector to breakeven by 2010 would reduce the negative earnings impact from the bottom 6% of the S&P 500, clearing the way for earnings to rebound pretty quickly from the $40-$50 level analysts are projecting for 2009.

Why Fair Value For The S&P 500 Is Not 440

Barry Ritholtz, market veteran and blogger over at The Big Picture postulated today that fair value for the S&P 500 might be 440. He got there by taking trailing 12 month GAAP earnings of $28.75 and applying a 15 P/E ratio to them.

Personally, I expect more from Barry given how strong much of his market and economic analysis has been over the years, but there are glaring flaws in this valuation methodology. First, I don’t know very many market strategists who believe fair value on the S&P 500 should be based on the earnings produced by the index’s components in the depths of a deep recession. Most people agree that fair value should be based on an estimate of normalized earnings, not trough (or near-trough) profit levels.

Imagine you owned a Burlington Coat Factory retail store. You are ready to retire and have a business person interested in buying your store. What would your reaction be if this person took your store’s profit for the month of June, multiplied it by 12, and based his offer price on that level of projected annual profits. Clearly that figure does not give an accurate representation of how much money your store earns in a year because June is probably one of your worst months of the year for selling coats!

The same flaw exists in valuing the stock market based on current earnings. Doing so implies that earnings today represent a typical economic climate, which is clearly not the case.

The second issue with Barry’s analysis is the use of “as-reported” GAAP earnings. The reason GAAP earnings have fallen so fast is that they include non-cash charges such as asset impairments. It is common these days for companies to report cash earnings of $1 billion but a GAAP loss of $5 billion due to a $6 billion asset impairment charge. In such a case GAAP earnings (which include the non-cash charge) are understated by a whopping $6 billion. Why should asset impairments be excluded? A stock’s value is based on the present value of future free cash flow. Since cash flow is what matters to investors when valuing the market and specific stocks, non-cash accounting adjustments (such as asset impairments) don’t really play a role in fair value estimations.

The interesting thing is that you don’t have to take my word for it on this topic if you don’t want to. The very fact that the market is trading about 50% below its all-time high and yet still trades at 29 times trailing GAAP earnings (S&P 500 at 834 divided by 28.75) is excellent evidence that using GAAP earnings during a recession will not result in an accurate estimate of fair value in the eyes of most investors.

Economy Continues to Deteriorate, But Stock Market Treads Water

Market strategists call it a “bottoming process” or “building a base.” The chart below shows the S&P 500 over the last three months and you can see what they are talking about. Earnings estimates keep dropping, job cuts keep pushing up the unemployment rate, GDP continues to contract, but the S&P has been going sideways in a range between 750 and 950, even in the face of three months of bad news. No rally has been sustainable, but the market isn’t getting significantly worse.

Some think this trend is a good thing, others would like to see the market rising in the face of bad news, but it is too early for the latter. There is no doubt that it is a positive sign that the market seems to have come to grips with the reality that job losses will continue, corporate profits in 2009 will stink, and the unemployment rate is headed well over 8% this year (from 7.2% currently). Since the market discounts future events ahead of time, current market prices appear to have priced in the consensus economic forecasts for 2009. Of course, we don’t know if those assumptions will prove accurate or not. Only time will tell on that front.

For those looking for a large market advance, we likely won’t get one that is sustainable until the economy shows signs of stabilizing. Just like stocks hit bottom before the economic statistics got worse, stocks will begin to rise before the economy begins to grow again, but we are likely facing months of stagnation before that happens. As a result, the last three months of sideways market action makes sense. Things might not get too much worse than most are expecting, but a recovery is going to take time.