What Do Today’s Stock Prices Imply for Future Returns?

As the bull market approaches its seventh anniversary next March, many investors are increasingly nervous.

Partly, this anxiety stems from a deterioration in fundamentals, given the decelerating global economy. But years of unconventional monetary policy have also pushed valuations to heightened levels.

With U.S. stocks trading at a premium to other markets, as well as their historical norm, investors are reasonably wondering: Has the U.S. bull market run its course?

Key Stock Valuation Metrics That Predict Future Returns

In answering this question, as my co-author Terry Simpson and I write in the new Market Perspectives paper, “Assessing the Value of Valuations,” it’s helpful to look at what today’s valuations can tell us about the possible distribution of future U.S. stock market returns.

One popular valuation metric, the Equity Risk Premium (ERP), can be useful in assessing both relative returns and the right mix of stocks versus bonds. However, according to my team’s analysis of S&P 500 returns and valuations from 1924 to 2014, using data accessible via Bloomberg and Robert Shiller’s Web site, the ERP doesn’t provide much information as to the future return of U.S. stocks.

However, a simple price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, whether based on a snapshot in time or a smoothed measure of earnings, can be more useful, providing some indication of the possible distribution of future returns, our analysis shows.

Whether you’re looking at a basic P/E measure or a cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, over a one-year horizon, higher current U.S. stock market valuations are generally associated with lower future returns, and returns have generally been higher when the starting valuation is lower. Put differently, as intuition would suggest, below median P/E multiples typically lead to higher average returns, while above median multiples have historically been associated with periods of below-average returns.

At longer time frames, the basic relationship generally still holds: Higher U.S. stock market valuations are associated with lower future returns. In addition, the downside risk is more pronounced. When U.S. stocks are cheap, even bad periods have typically yielded positive longer-term returns. In contrast, high valuations have been much more likely to lead to bad outcomes.

To be sure, valuation tells you very little about returns over the short term, i.e., a horizon less than one year. And even at longer horizons, future returns don’t neatly correlate with past valuations.

In fact, according to our analysis, though higher U.S. valuations were associated with lower future returns, there were numerous instances in the past, particularly in the mid-to-late 1990s, when very high U.S. valuations coincided with strong returns over one- and three-year horizons. In other words, markets have shown a remarkable ability to levitate for prolonged periods, when valuations are highest and momentum is strong.

What Investors Should Make of Today’s Stock Prices

The takeaway for investors is that while U.S. stocks are perfectly capable of turning in a stellar year or so, over the longer three- to five-year time frame, we believe investors should expect significantly lower U.S. returns than they have become accustomed to over the past six years. At the very least, today’s stretched valuations suggest a multi-year period of subpar U.S. returns and that investors should proceed with caution.

Russ Koesterich, CFA, is the Chief Investment Strategist for BlackRock. He is a regular contributor to The Blog.

Terry Simpson, CFA, contributed to this post. He is a Global Investment Strategist for BlackRock.

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