I find it to be mind-blowing when financial advisors and stock market gurus get in bubblevision or write Seeking Alpha articles and assert that the stock market is good “relative” value right now. They are either dishonest, unethical or just stupid. Likely a combination of all three in varying degrees.
Here’s a chart with which everyone is familiar:
Based on that graphic, it looks like the current stock market is only the third most overvalued in history, right? WRONG.
The problem comparing the current p/e ratio of the S&P 500 with that of previous stock bubble tops is that the accounting used to produce the “e” is not comparable. Over time, FASB and the SEC have colluded to make it easier for companies to hide losses and report non-cash income as GAAP cash flow and earnings..
As an example, in 2010 FASB issued a bulletin which changed the way big Wall Street banks were allowed to account for bonds and other forms of debt issued by others that are held as assets. Originally, banks had to market their bond/debt/loan holdings to market and accrue any market to market gains or losses at quarter-end as either income or expense. FASB decided to let banks classify any and all debt as “hold-to-maturity,” and allowed banks to hold this debt at face (maturity) value without ever marking to market. Any debt that was marked below maturity value (par value) could be marked up to par and moved into a “held to maturity” account. By doing this, the banks created non-cash gains in these holdings that was counted as income. Banks hold $100’s of billions in bonds/loans and, starting in 2011, this rule change allowed banks to create billions in phantom, non-cash income. This of course translates into lower p/e ratios.
There’s several areas of accounting over the years that have accomplished a similar feat for all publicly traded companies. The problem is that it has rendered p/e ratios over time incomparable. Of course, NO ONE points out this fact and certainly any Wall Street analyst would be fired if they went on a truth tirade. The bottom line is that, looking at the p/e ratio graph above, we don’t know how the current p/e ratio for the SPX compares with the p/e ratios at the market peaks in 2007 and 2000 and 1929. What we do know is that the current p/e ratio is significantly understated relative to the p/e ratios in 2007 in 2000 because earnings are overstated relative to those years because of the accounting gimmicks that enable companies to boost GAAP non-cash earnings. It could be that the current p/e ratio is the highest on record if we could make an “apples to apple” comparison of p/e ratios across time. In fact, I would assert that applying standardized GAAP across time would prove that the current market is more overvalued than at any time in U.S. history.
The above analysis is an excerpt from my latest issue of the Short Seller’s Journal. In this issue I presented two retail stock ideas for shorting. One of them was down 3.7% today and the other was down just under 1%. In the past couple of issues I have explained in detail why the retail sector is short opportunity right now. But that window will close quickly as more companies do what happened to Macy’s and Kohl’s last week. You can get more details on the SSJ and subscribe clicking on this link: Short Seller’s Journal.