Has unchecked optimism inflated asset values?

Published 8:27 pm Friday, March 20, 2015

“Irrational exuberance.” That phrase – uttered by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 1996 and reputedly coined by economist Robert Shiller – has become part of the investment lexicon. Now and then, bears reference it – especially when the market turns red-hot.
Late last year, many Wall Street investment strategists thought the S&P 500 would advance about 5.8% in 2014. They were wrong. As 2014 ends, the broad benchmark is poised for another double-digit annual gain. Asked to explain the difference, bearish market analysts might point to irrational exuberance.
Irrational exuberance – the run-up of asset values due to runaway enthusiasm about an asset class – reared its head catastrophically in 2000 (the tech bubble) and in 2007 (the housing bubble). In the first edition of his book of the very same title (2000), Shiller warned investors that stocks were overvalued. In the second edition of Irrational Exuberance (2005), he cautioned that real estate was overvalued. The fact that he’s trotting out a third edition of the book in 2015 has some people a little spooked.
Has easing bred irrational exuberance once again? As a 2011 Forbes.com headline put it, “Trees Don’t Grow to the Sky – Even with the Fed Behind Them.” You could argue – quite convincingly – that the Fed has propped up the stock market since 2008, and that the great gains of this bull market were primarily a result of QE1, QE2 and QE3.
No further easing, no further gains, the logic goes (or least not gains resembling those seen in recent years).
As 2014 ends, bears insist that stocks are greatly overvalued. To back up their argument, they point to recent movements in the CAPE (Cyclically Adjusted Price-to-Earnings) or P/E 10 ratio. This closely-watched stock market barometer (created by Shiller and his fellow economist John Campbell) tracks a 10-year average of the S&P Composite’s real (inflation-adjusted) earnings.
(If you’re wondering what the S&P Composite is, it is a historically wide, big-picture window on the U.S. equities market that unites data from the S&P 500 – which has only existed since 1957 – with prior S&P indices.)6
Since 1881, the P/E 10 ratio of the S&P Composite has averaged about 16.5. At the peak of the dot-com bubble in 2000, it hit 44.2. It stumbled to a low of 13.3 when the market bottomed out in March 2009, but it was up at 26.5 as December began, about 60% above its historic mean.5
Why should this concern you? This P/E 10 ratio has only topped the 25 level three times – in 1929, 1999 and 2007.
But isn’t the market healthy & ready to stand on its own? That’s what the bulls insist, and given the S&P 500’s 2.45% rise for November following the end of QE3, they may be right.
Ardent bulls contend that another secular bull market began in March 2009 – history just hasn’t confirmed its secularity yet.
In fact, Shiller himself recently noted that even though the high P/E 10 ratio is troubling, it has been mostly above 20 since 1994. (Low bond yields may explain some of that.) A numeric gap from 26 to 16 is decidedly less alarming than one from 26 to 20.7
Whatever occurs, remember that stocks don’t always go up. (Home prices don’t always ascend either.) The longer a bull market progresses, the more challenges it overcomes, the greater the chance that this particular reality of equity investing may be lost.
It pays to diversify your portfolio across asset classes for this very reason, now and in the future.

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