Stocks Are On the Brink of a Bear Market
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The bears are pretty close to reclaiming Wall Street, even after Tuesday’s late-day recovery.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged as much as 550 points, or 2.17 percent, before bouncing back to close down just 126 points in a wild ride Tuesday. The index remains up for the year, with some sectors such as health care and consumer discretionary shares still doing pretty well. The S&P 500 Index is up 2.5 percent year to date, excluding dividends, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index is up nearly 8 percent.
The most recent drop puts stock prices, even after more than two weeks of losses, only back to where they were in July of this year. And yet, we may be much closer to panic territory than it appears. Based on valuations, all it would take for stocks to enter a bear market would be a 5 percent drop in the S&P 500 from here. At the low on Tuesday, when the S&P 500 was down 60 points, the market was within 90 points of that threshold.
The mirage that we are still in a strong bull market, and not on the brink of a bear one, has more to do with this year’s fast-rising earnings than a sharply falling stock market, which is typically what leads investors to run for safety. The classic definition of a bear market is when a stock market average such as the Dow or the S&P 500 has dropped 20 percent from its highs. But that’s probably not the best one. The more important factor to consider when gauging whether investors are feeling upbeat about stocks, and, by extension, the economy, is what they are willing to pay for the earnings that those companies generate.
Typically, investors pay more for earnings when they believe they will grow swiftly or steadily. That belief has been damped recently with the threat of trade wars, rising interest rates and inflation, political instability, and disappointing global growth. As a result, investors have been much less willing to pay up for stocks.
Back in mid-December, when the stock market’s valuation and the mood of investors hit its high, the S&P 500 was trading at a price-to-earnings ratio of 18.9, based on expected earnings for the next four quarters. Since then, while stocks are up, they haven’t nearly kept pace with earnings growth, which is on track to climb 25 percent this year. The result: Stock market valuations have plummeted, falling well past correction territory, which is typically considered a drop of 10 percent. At one point on Tuesday, the weighted valuation of the stocks in the S&P 500 fell to as low as 15.6, or down 17 percent from the December high. The S&P’s P/E ended the day at 15.9.
Whether the market is in bear territory or not matters because declines tend to feed on themselves. It also suggests that investors have lost faith that the economy can keep producing the big gains it has turned in lately. If anyone still believes that President Donald Trump’s tax cuts will lead to a prolonged boost to corporate profits, it is hard to see evidence of that in the market. On top of that, when the psychology of investors is glum, bad news tends to send stocks downstream much faster than at times when stocks are trading at bull-market premiums.
The good news about the valuation drop is that we are likely much closer to the bottom of the current market swoon than some fear. The average P/E for the S&P 500 going back to 1991, based on forward earnings, is 15.8. We are not much above that. The five-year average is 16.4, and stocks are the cheapest they have been since the fall of 2015.
That shouldn’t necessarily make you confident that stocks will charge ahead again, given the chance of a protracted trade war or rising interest rates, both of which could pinch prices. But it should make you less concerned that there will be a protracted hibernation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Gandel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering banking and equity markets. He was previously a deputy digital editor for Fortune and an economics blogger at Time. He has also covered finance and the housing market.
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