What’s eating equities?

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Please note that this article may contain technical language. For this reason, it is not recommended to readers without professional investment experience.

In the normal course of things, this column would focus on an aspect of the fixed income market that is of current interest. But given that we are at the start of a new year, and that equity markets have sold off sharply, I think it is appropriate to reflect first on equity markets and to then pivot back to fixed income, as both markets are interlinked: investors can choose to allocate their capital to one or the other, and will use their expectations of risk and return to guide their asset allocation decisions.

The forward returns of bonds are well approximated by their yield to worst minus their expected loss. Equities, though, are a different kettle of fish: their expected return depends on a number of factors, including future earnings growth and their current valuation in relation to earnings and book values. In recent years, Professor Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio (an acronym for Cyclically Adjusted P/E) has gained wide acceptance as a measure of market valuation on account of the fact that it is a good predictor of long horizon equity returns. Currently, CAPE has a value of 26, which is much higher than its historical average of 16.67, and suggests that stocks are overvalued.

But this is far too simplistic of an argument. In a recent paper, Cenk Ural of Barclays and I show that there is a linear relationship between the reciprocal of CAPE and expected returns, and use a variety of enhancements to the basic CAPE methodology to show that the current expected return of the S&P 500 is about 6%. This is lower than it has been historically (see chart 1 below), but by way of comparison, the yield to worst of the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index is 2.42%, while that of the U.S. Corporate Index is 3.6%.

Chart 1 : The evolution of CAPE and long term interest rates: 1880 – 2015

 whats eating equities

Source: Professor Robert Shiller

Seen in this light, stocks do not look rich, even though they indisputably look rich by historical standards. The primary risks to stock prices, in our view, are a decline in the trend rate of earnings growth – a 1% decline in GDP growth will result in a 60 basis point reduction in the expected return of equities – and a decline in profit margins from their currently elevated level of 10% of revenues to their historical average of about 6%, which will force equity prices down by a third.

Both risks are real: the decline in the labor participation rate coupled with a stagnant productivity growth will likely translate to weaker economic growth, which in turn will lead to weaker earnings growth, and a decline in labor market slack will lead to increases in wages that are not easily passed through to customers, resulting in a decline in profitability. However, the labour-capital income split has been the subject of numerous studies over the past decade, and shows no sign of concrete resolution. In any event, even if both risks are realized, the realized return on stocks over the next decade will only be slightly lower than that of bonds, making them reasonably attractive in a strategic asset allocation framework.

What, then, of diversification? We expect European stocks (which have disappointed investors for the past five years) to perform roughly in line with U.S. stocks. Emerging market stocks, though, are a different story. Not only are growth rates declining as emerging market economies rebalance toward consumption from investment, but their generally lower level of profitability forces many companies to continually raise capital to support their growth, diluting existing shareholders and lowering their return. We believe this issue will continue to plague emerging markets until they complete their rebalancing. That said, emerging market stocks are selling at attractive valuations, though it remains to be seen if the valuations are low enough to overcome the impact of dilution.

And finally, to square the circle, we pivot back to bonds. At current levels, investment grade bonds of all stripes offer fair value relative to equities – the equity premium relative to the broad bond market is about 3.5%, which is reasonable, but not so large that investors would find it tempting to switch their bond holdings into stocks. And the bond market continues to offer opportunities to add value from sector and country selection, security selection and duration, and yield curve management. While the prospect of rising interest rates has unnerved some investors, we would urge temperance – bonds are still attractive and will continue to play an important role in an institutional portfolio for the foreseeable future.

Thomas Philips

PhD, Global Head of Front Office Market

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