(Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Looking Good.)
By Richard Morey
Note: This article is extremely negative, so if you would prefer to have a rosy view of the stock market please disregard. The numbers are all… the numbers. I did not alter any of them, and my calculator is working properly.
Also note I use probability theory in some of the calculations involving estimates of likely stock market losses (these calculations aren’t included in the data below). This means nothing is being stated as a certainty – merely a high probability of falling within, for example, 3% above or below the most accurate valuation measures. The math is very, very ugly this time around, and anyone with a grasp of fundamental statistics can see it glaring at them.
The Price-to-Sales Ratio
The price-to-sales ratio (P/S ratio) measures a company’s value in terms of its stock price in relation to its sales.
If you had to pick just one variable to determine if stocks were over or underpriced, I would submit that the Price-to-Sales Ratio is not only good but somewhat better than Warren Buffett’s shorthand measure called “Market Cap to GDP.” (Of course, Mr. Buffett’s preferred indicator also shows stocks now far further overpriced than at any point in our history.)
There are several reasons why the valuation systems with the highest correlation to actual future outcomes are all, at heart, based on corporate revenues instead of earnings or any other variable. The first, and most important, is that revenues and long-term prices of stocks happen to have the highest correlation of any single variable – by a substantial margin. Adding in certain other variables which also have a high correlation can enhance the overall results, but revenues are by far the largest contributor.
This can be explained fairly easily. I’ve always said revenue growth was the one growth you could actually believe because if the CFO falsifies the company’s income he or she could go to prison. Plus, it’s so very easy to manipulate variables such as earnings which is where the media focuses.
In other words, revenue growth is the most trustworthy growth upon which to judge how the companies are actually performing in their actual businesses (as opposed to their financially engineered façade called earnings embraced by the media and therefore the investing public).
As an aside, I should mention that corporate earnings are even more volatile or variable than stock prices themselves. As a metric upon which to attempt to determine stock values, earnings can therefore be even less reliable than the other most notoriously wild and often far off the mark variable called stock prices. But these are the things we’re trying to measure through valuation methods. It’s a little like the blind leading the blind.
Using revenue growth we can therefore get a picture of underlying corporate business growth much more reliably – hence its high correlation with subsequent, actual outcomes in the real world.
Without further ado,
let’s look at the Price-to-Sales Ratio today to see if stocks are over or underpriced:
Today the P/S ratio sits at 3.18. The previous peak, in history, was achieved on March 24 of 2000 – a few days before the tech bubble began to collapse. In that instance the P/S sales ratio plunged from the previously unheard of level of 2.44 down to 1.31, a 46% drop. The broad stock market itself (S&P 500) lost 55% from top to bottom, while the tech market fell a staggering 82.5%.
Assuming this time doesn’t turn out to be different, a P/S ratio of 1.31 would seem to be a reasonable guess as to where it will end up this time around. This certainly can’t actually be pessimistic when you consider the P/S ratio has bottomed below 1 a full 40% of the time it has hit a cycle low since 1950.
Our “optimistic” analysis of a P/S retreat to 1.31, if similarly reflected in stocks as occurred at the previous top, would lead to a loss of 67.6% for the S&P 500. (By definition the P/S ratio must fall during every bear market for stocks – called lowering the numerator.)
A more pessimistic, and perhaps more realistic, expectation would see the P/S ratio falling far below 1 at the end of this cycle. Since 1950 we have seen seven economic cycles in which stocks fell such that the P/S ratio fell below 1, averaging a low of .75 at bottom. This would equate to a loss of 76% for stocks. Even this optimistically assumes stocks don’t go down more than the P/S ratio as it did from 2000-2003. If it did, the losses would be a staggering 87%.
It’s late, and I refuse to consider losses beyond 80% for stocks when this bubble pops. I want to sleep better tonight, so I’m going to perhaps be wrong but cling to those 67% loss estimates.
Another valuable feature of focusing on the P/S ratio is that it reverts to the mean like clockwork. This makes calculating these likely stock market losses fairly simple. These numbers still – to me anyway – represent a form of shorthand. They give us a range of a negative 67% if we have a good outcome, extending to a negative 87% should we end in a worldwide depression (see article on Inflation’s discussion of China for current data related to this concern).
Please note I am aware that the P/S ratio is bested by several other methods of valuing stocks. It’s the basis of each of the superior methods, but the P/S ratio involves several features which need to be corrected to more accurately value stocks. Plus, adding other variables highly correlated with future outcomes of stock prices measurably improves a method’s performance.
Fortunately, the other superior valuation measures only show losses of approximately 70-75% for the stock market. Of course, this only puts them back at fair value, while I included the average overshoot to the downside as a possible outcome. That number ranges from -76% to a -87%.
I prefer to assume we’ll get through the coming storm of asset losses than worry about what it would look like should asset prices fall more than the 70-75% the best methods are now showing as the most likely outcome. We can survive that, and if it wasn’t for the poor – and soon to be poor – I would consider it might benefit us in the long run by removing all the bloated excess. One way or another we have to remove the corporate debt rot, and nobody has ever found a way out of debt liquidation to solve the problem. The collateral damage is usually severe.