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Stock Prices Are Still Far Too Low

By James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett




The U.S. stock market, despite astonishing price appreciation over the past seventeen years, could triple or quadruple in value without exceeding its true worth.

A year ago, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 8,782, we published an article in the Wall Street Journal headlined "Are Stocks Overvalued? Not a Chance." The piece drew criticism from a financial establishment that had been preaching imminent disaster, pointing to high price-earnings ratios and low dividend yields and predicting that stock prices would fall when this zany euphoria wore off. They were dead wrong. As this goes to press (on April 5), the Dow has closed at a record 10,007, and the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite are also at all-time highs. Including dividends, the 30 stocks of the industrial average have returned 15 percent since our piece appeared, while the stocks of the Standard & Poor's 500 have returned 21 percent.

Dire warnings from professionals have accompanied nearly every step of the Dow's rise from 777 on August 12, 1982. Could it be that the model that Wall Street has been using to assess whether stocks are overvalued-a model based largely on historic price-earnings ratios-is deeply flawed? We think so. Investors are ignoring the old shibboleths and pricing companies like Gillette at a P/E of 64 or Microsoft at a P/E of 66. This reflects not their nuttiness but their sanity.

 

Rationally Exuberant

Contrary to Alan Greenspan's famous warning-made on December 5, 1996, with the Dow at 6,437-investors today are rationally exuberant. They are bidding up the prices of stocks because stocks are a great deal. Dow 10,000 is just for starters. How high will the market go? We'll give you a hint: The title of our book, to be published this fall by Times Books, is Dow 36,000. Using sensible assumptions, we are comfortable with prices rising to three or four times their current levels. Our calculations show that with earnings growing in the long term at the same rate as the gross domestic product and Treasury bonds below 6 percent, a perfectly reasonable level for the Dow would be 36,000-tomorrow, not 10 or 20 years from now.

What do we mean by a "perfectly reasonable price"? If traditional P/E ratios or dividend yields no longer apply, then what does? Our model looks at how much money a stock will put in your pockets through the profits generated by the company that issued it. Then, using those returns, we put a price on a stock that is in line with the price of another asset that carries roughly the same risk.

That other asset, believe it or not, is a government bond. Extensive research by Jeremy Siegel of the University of Pennsyl-vania's Wharton School has found that over 20 years and more, stocks are no more risky than Treasury bonds or even bills. "The safest long-term investment for the preservation of purchasing power has clearly been stocks, not bonds," he has written.

Stocks and bonds should offer similar returns at the very least. But according to Ibbotson Associates, large-company stocks have since 1926 been producing average annual returns of 11 percent, while long-term Treasury bonds have returned just 5.2 percent.

Why do stocks return so much more? That question has vexed economists for decades. Their best answer is that investors are irrationally fearful of the volatility of stocks, and therefore demand an extra return to compensate for their fears. What has happened since 1982, and especially during the past four years, is that investors have become calmer and smarter. They are requiring a much smaller extra return, or "risk premium," from stocks to compensate for their fear. That premium, which has averaged about 7 percent in modern history, is now around 3 percent. We believe it is headed for its proper level: zero. That means stock prices should rise accordingly.

It is this declining risk premium-not higher earnings or lower interest rates-that is the true explanation for the ascension of stocks. The increase in the number of buyers has naturally pushed up the price. To argue today that stocks are overvalued, you must believe that the risk premium, once so irrationally large and becoming rationally small, will move back to that irrationally large state again.

The bears- view of the world is a contradiction. When the equity risk premium was high, it was a "puzzle," and economists like Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago came up with complicated explanations for why investors were behaving in such a screwy fashion. Now that investors have smartened up and begun to buy stocks, economists are accusing them of being screwy again. Our colleague Lawrence Lindsey said recently: "We have all the signs of a bubble. . . . People get greedy, and they think nothing can go wrong."

Will stock prices rise forever? No, they'll rise until they reach a level where stock returns (the money stocks put in your pockets over a long period) equal bond returns. We are not there yet, but we're on the way-as four straight years of 20-plus percent returns attest.

Assume Treasuries yield 6 percent. To equalize that cash flow, stocks can yield much less than 6 percent, because, unlike bonds, stocks increase their earnings and dividends each year. In inflation-adjusted terms, earnings per share have been rising by an average of 3.3 percent annually since World War II.

Our conservative calculations show that an earnings return of about 1 percent-or a P/E of 100-is adequate to match cash returns from bonds over long periods. Since the P/E of the Dow is currently about 26, stocks could nearly quadruple before becoming overpriced.

But 36,000 or 40,000 is not so much a precise target as the outer limits of a comfort zone for long-term investors. Certainly, stocks could fall sharply in the short term-as they did last summer after the Russian default-but, ultimately, prices reflect three things: interest rates, earnings, and the risk premium. As long as rates stay reasonable, earnings rise with GDP, and the risk premium keeps falling, stocks will remain the investment of choice.

Why is the risk premium dropping? First, investors have become better educated about stocks, thanks in large part to mutual funds and the media. They have learned to hold for the long term and to see price declines as transitory-and as buying opportunities. Look at 1998, a year in which, by some indicators, the stock market registered its highest volatility in history. Investors did not cut and run; they added $151 billion to equity mutual funds. A study by the Investment Company Institute found that during the market's 19.3 percent decline over six weeks last summer, investors redeemed only 0.3 percent of their stock-fund holdings. And a study by the Boston firm Dalbar, Inc., concluded: "In a dramatic reversal of the behavior first identified in Dalbar's 1993 report on investor behavior . . . the 1998 investors see the down market as a buying opportunity."

 

Long-Term Holding

Second, partly because of new laws, 31 million Americans (an increase of 48 percent in less than a decade) keep stocks in tax-deferred retirement accounts, which force long-term holding. Third, businesses themselves have restructured and become more efficient, thanks to shareholder pressure, global competition, and computer technology. They are less likely to suffer devastating reversals in a recession. Fourth, government monetary and fiscal management have greatly improved. Fifth, the regulatory and tax environment while far from perfect-is more benign. Sixth, foreign threats have diminished.

In short, investors- enthusiasm is well founded. The risks of stock investing-never so great as imagined-really have declined. In 1952, a New York Stock Exchange survey found that only 4 percent of Americans owned equities; today, the figure is nearing 50 percent. It is this broad ownership of stocks that is the most profound evidence that investors have become more rational and that Dow 10,000 is only the beginning.


James K. Glassman is the DeWitt WallaceÿReader's Digest Fellow at AEI. Kevin Hassett is a resident scholar at AEI. Their book Dow 36,000 will be published this fall by Times Books. A version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 17, 1999.

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