Essentials of Borrowing
Listen to Coronavirus Patient Zero
Stocks Look Pricey
The first quarter of 2006 is over. Now is a good time to reflect on stock prices and the opportunities they present. Bargains are scarce. Equities are expensive. In recent weeks, I’ve heard several fund managers say valuations are still attractive. I don’t agree.
Generally speaking, valuations are unattractive. Returns on equity are higher than historical levels. A market-wide return on equity of 15% is unsustainable. Price-to-earnings ratios may not fully reflect how expensive stocks are. Price-to-book ratios are more alarming.
There are two additional concerns. Most discussions of the relative attractiveness of equities focus on the S&P 500 and forward earnings. The S&P 500 is not the most representative index. It may not be the best index to consider when looking at market-wide valuations. Forward earnings are (necessarily) estimates. Where current returns on equity are unsustainable, projected earnings that use similar returns on equity may overstate the earnings power of equities in general. This can occur even where the estimates appear reasonable given current earnings. If you start with unsustainable base earnings, you are likely to overestimate future earnings even if you truly believe you are assuming very modest earnings growth. Assets in general are pricey. Value investors have few places to turn if they continue to insist upon a true margin of safety.
Bonds are unattractive. Long-term inflation risks make U. treasury, corporate, and municipal bonds a fool’s bet. There is little to gain and much to lose. The know-nothing investor who buys a top-quality bond today and holds it for decades may very well find his purchasing power diminished. There may be some select opportunities in foreign equities. But, these are difficult to evaluate. Foreign government obligations are also difficult to evaluate, but that isn’t much of a problem for value investors, because most foreign government debt is priced to perfection. You’ll have to be willing to take a lot of uncompensated risks if you want to own such bonds.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There may be a few bonds out there that are attractive. There certainly are a few attractive stocks out there. But, even those stocks that look very attractive relative to their peers don’t look nearly as attractive when compared to past bargains. Value investors face a difficult choice. They can assume stock prices will return to historical levels, and hold cash until the correction comes. Or, they can accept the reality they currently face. There is no logical reason stock prices must necessarily return to historical levels. During the twentieth century, real after-tax returns in diversified groups of common stocks were very high relative to other investment opportunities. There have been various reasons given for why this occurred.
Many have said these returns were possible, because of the higher risks involved in holding equities. Over the long-term, risks were somewhat higher than today’s investors seem to remember, but they were hardly severe enough to justify the kind of performance spreads that existed during much of the twentieth century. True, if you bought at inopportune times, it was possible to remain in a fairly deep hole for a fairly long time. But, if you gave no real consideration to the timing of your purchases or the prospects of the underlying enterprises, you did better than many bondholders who chose their investments with the utmost care. This is a disconcerting problem. It may be that most investors are overly sensitive to the risk of an immediate “paper” loss in nominal terms, and therefore overlook the much greater risk of a gradual loss of purchasing power. Issuing fixed dollar obligations may be the best bet for any business or government that seeks to swindle investors. For the sake of the common stockholders, I hope many of the best businesses continue to issue such obligations when money is cheap. Corporate debt gets a bad name, because it tends to be overused by those who don’t need it and shouldn’t want it (and, of course, by those businesses that do need it but won't survive even if they get it).
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