Equities hit new heights

Jul 28, 2020

Swift and immense fiscal stimulus has driven equities to all-time highs in some cases, but inflation and interest rates could yet spoil the party.

Having entered 2020 at nosebleed valuation levels, equities reacted sharply and suddenly to COVID-19 by falling by over 40% in Ireland, by over 35% in the UK and by just under 35% in the USA. But then stocks bounced right back. By mid-July, the Irish Stock Exchange index was down 16% compared to the beginning of the year, the FT 100 index was down 21% and in the USA, the S&P 500 index was down just 6%. The Nasdaq has even managed to hit new all-time highs.

What is going on? The simple answer is that the world is witnessing an unprecedented level of official policy stimulus that is expected to trigger a sharp rebound in economic activity while interest rates (and corporates’ cost of capital) go lower than would otherwise have been expected. This stimulus is being felt first by financial markets but, if the past is an effective guide to the future, it will soon spread to an economy near you.

The scale of the pandemic-induced fiscal stimulus announced by government treasuries and finance ministries is vast. According to BCA Research, a Toronto-based investment research boutique, it is more than double the level of stimulus the global economy got in the wake of the global financial crisis over a decade ago. Not only that, but it’s happening much more quickly. There was initially a delayed element of “crisis, what crisis?” to the last big downturn. The reaction this time has been swift and immense.

The size of the fiscal response is dwarfed only by the scale of the monetary response. Even in Japan, where the annual rate of money growth has been under 3% for most of the last 30 years, M3 went up at an annualised rate of 10.5% in the three months to May. In the eurozone and the UK, the corresponding figure is about 20%. But the explosion in fresh money creation has been most evident in the USA where, in the three months to May, M3 rose at an annualised rate of almost 90%. The equivalent year-on-year rate of growth was the largest in modern peacetime history.

Commenting on recent monetary policy, Tim Congdon and John Petley of the Institute of International Monetary Research concluded that unless the US Federal Reserve decides to withdraw or reduce some of that money injection, “upward pressures on asset prices, and then on prices of factors of production, and goods and services, will be a marked feature of 2021 and 2022.” Ironically, valuation levels may help contribute to yet higher equity values, despite most people believing that equities are currently levitating.

A standard long-run measure of an equity’s value is its cyclically adjusted price earnings (CAPE) ratio. This eliminates the cyclical variability of profits as a factor that can distort the standard price earnings (PE) ratio by using average (inflation-adjusted) earnings over the previous ten years rather than earnings from just one year. Doing this compares a share’s price to an underlying ‘through the cycle’ measure of its earnings. The CAPE for the entire US market is nearly 30. It has only ever been this high twice before: in September 1929, just before The Great Crash, and during the 2000 tech bubble.

However, it is not enough for us to look at PE ratios in isolation. We need to compare them to the valuation of competing assets. And right now, the value of the equities’ main asset competitor – bonds – are sky-high. Steve Sjuggerud, the author of investment newsletter True Wealth, charts the US 10-year bonds rate minus CAPE. This measure’s current level suggests that equities are relatively cheap! BCA Research has looked at that measure going back to 1955. They reckon it shows that US equities are historically cheap, relative to government bonds!

To me, there are two key conclusions to take from this. First, the tsunami of fresh central bank liquidity being pumped into the global economic system means that, over the next 18 months, an equity melt-up (similar to those seen in Japan in 1989 and on the Nasdaq in early 2000) is far more likely than a meltdown. Second, this party will end abruptly if inflation stirs and interest rates start to rise significantly.

Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.