Every market brings an opportunity to apply time-tested investment disciplines to a brand new fact set. Today, facts are substantially different than they were just a year ago — when U.S. stocks, as represented by the S&P 500, were at 1,426, almost 30% below today's 1,850 level — and dramatically different than they were five years ago, when the financial crisis had ravaged equity prices worldwide. Over the past five years, disciplined, valuation-driven investors have captured double-digit compound returns in an unusually low-inflation environment. So five-year, real, compound returns are far ahead of expectations. But, as price increases, investment risk often increases. Price defines risk, and managing risk defines serious investing.
As 2014 begins, our work on price (P) to normalized earnings (E) reveals a multiple of a little over 21 times, compared to that same P/E ratio of a little over 10 times in the spring of 2009. Both multiple and earnings have increased to create those double-digit compound returns that we have enjoyed.
So, where do we go from here? Is the U.S. stock market now overpriced? The answer is yes and no; portions are overpriced and portions are not. If we think of positive stock markets as having three phases, we are now in the second phase. Prices are higher; therefore, risks are higher and the next five years are likely to be more challenging than the last five.