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December 2, 2007

David Leonhardt: Remembering a Classic Investing Theory

David Leonhardt says the "stock run-up of the 1990s was so big ... that the market may still not have fully worked it off"

Remembering a Classic Investing Theory, by David Leonhardt, New York Times: More than 70 years ago, two Columbia professors named Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd came up with a simple investing idea that remains ... influential... In the wake of the stock market crash in 1929, they urged investors to focus on hard facts — like a company’s past earnings and the value of its assets...

Their classic 1934 textbook, “Security Analysis,” became the bible for what is now known as value investing. Warren E. Buffett took Mr. Graham’s course at Columbia Business School in the 1950s and, after working briefly for Mr. Graham’s investment firm, set out on his own to put the theories into practice. Mr. Buffett’s billions are just one part of the professors’ giant legacy.

Yet somehow, one of their big ideas about how to analyze stock prices has been almost entirely forgotten. The idea essentially reminds investors to focus on long-term trends and not to get caught up in the moment. Unfortunately, when you apply it to today’s stock market, you get even more nervous about what’s going on.

Most Wall Street analysts, of course, say there is nothing to be worried about, at least not beyond the mortgage market. In an effort to calm investors after the recent volatility, analysts have been arguing that stocks are not very expensive right now. The basis for this argument is the standard measure of the market: the price-to-earnings ratio. ...

In its most common form, the ratio is equal to a company’s stock price divided by its earnings per share over the last 12 months. ... The higher the ratio, the more expensive the stock is — and the stronger the argument that it won’t do very well going forward.

Right now, the stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index have an average P/E ratio of about 16.5, which by historical standards is quite normal. ... The core of Wall Street’s reassuring message, then, is that even if the mortgage mess leads to a full-blown credit squeeze, the damage will not last long because stocks don’t have far to fall. ...

Mr. Graham and Mr. Dodd ... would have had a problem with the way that the number is calculated today. ... They realized that a few months, or even a year, of financial information could be deeply misleading. ...

So they argued that P/E ratios should not be based on only one year’s worth of earnings. It is much better, they wrote in “Security Analysis,” to look at profits for “not less than five years, preferably seven or ten years.” This advice has been largely lost to history. ...

Today, the Graham-Dodd approach produces a very different picture from the one that Wall Street has been offering. Based on average profits over the last 10 years, the P/E ratio has been hovering around 27 recently. That’s higher than it has been at any other point over the last 130 years, save the great bubbles of the 1920s and the 1990s. The stock run-up of the 1990s was so big, in other words, that the market may still not have fully worked it off.

Now, this one statistic does not mean that a bear market is inevitable. But it does offer a good framework for thinking about stocks. Over the last few years, corporate profits have soared. ... In just three years, from 2003 to 2006, inflation-adjusted corporate profits jumped more than 30 percent... This profit boom has allowed standard, one-year P/E ratios to remain fairly low.

Going forward, one possibility is that the boom will continue. In this case, the Graham-Dodd P/E ratio doesn’t really matter. It is capturing a reality that no longer exists... The other possibility is that the boom will prove fleeting. Perhaps the recent productivity gains will peter out (as some measures suggest is already happening). Or perhaps the world’s major economies will slump in the next few years. If something along these lines happens, stocks may suddenly start to look very expensive.

In the long term, the stock market will almost certainly continue to be a good investment. But the next few years do seem to depend on a more rickety foundation than Wall Street’s soothing words suggest. Many investors are banking on the idea that the economy has entered a new era of rapid profit growth, and investments that depend on the words “new era” don’t usually do so well. ...

Dean Baker says he gets it "almost" right:

Leonhardt Gets It Right on Stock Market Valuations (Almost), by Dean Baker: NYT columnist David Leonhardt does a good job of spreading some basic commonsense on stock prices. The stock price should reflect earnings. Leonhardt notes that current PEs are about 27 against trend earnings, far higher than the historic average.

The reason for including the "almost" is that Leonhardt felt the need to say that maybe stocks aren't over-valued if profits keep growing rapidly (sounds like Alan Greenspan in the 90s). Well don't hold your breath on that one. Profits peaked in the 3rd quarter of 2006 and were down sharply in the 4th quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007. It's always possible that they will bounce back, just like it's possible that President Bush will sign the Kyoto agreement, but I don't know anyone who will bet on either event.

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