The stock market is down, but is it cheap?

Caution: please remove sharp objects from arms reach before you read this!

The S&P 500 is almost in bear market territory, down just short of 20% since its most recent high.

This fact leads market commentators to question if the market is getting cheap.

My answer: looking at long term, historical evidence, the market is not cheap. In fact, it would have to drop another 23% from current levels or remain flat for 4 1/2 years before trading at historical, fair value.

Before you read my reasoning below, please keep in mind that you don’t have to invest in the market as a whole. In fact, there are times when it’s better to invest in active managers who are trying to beat the market (but make sure they really can beat the market). Because I believe we are in a secular bear market that started in 2000, I think this is one of those times.

I’m finding some of the best bargains I’ve seen in my 12 1/2 years of investing. I’m absolutely giddy about the great companies I’m finding at great prices. This evaluation does not, however, include the stock market as a whole.

Why do I think the market is expensive. In a word, history. Looking at the history of the S&P 500, you can clearly see that earnings per share grow at around 6% a year over the long term. A plot of S&P 500 earnings per share with a simple exponential fit is a wonderful thing to behold (send me an email if you want to see it). Every time earnings per share deviates from the long term average, it regresses to the mean. Every time.

Using such a plot, I can see what the average, forward price to earnings ratio has been since 1948 by simply dividing year end price by the one year forward estimate of earnings (using the 6% growth rate fit on historical S&P 500 earnings per share).

Since 1948, the forward price to normalized earnings ratio has been 14.85. Let’s keep things simple by rounding up to 15. That allows for the fact that price to earnings ratios have been creeping up over time.

Using my plot of normalized earnings per share for the S&P 500 of $65.70 (June 30, 2009 normalized earnings per share for the S&P 500) and an historic price to forward earnings of 15, I come up with a fair value for the S&P 500 of $985.50, or 23% below current levels ($1,280 at the time of this writing).

By my reasoning, the S&P 500 wouldn’t be at fair value unless: 1) it drops another 23% tomorrow or 2) remains at $1,280 for the next 4 1/2 years.

I don’t mean to scare anybody with my forecast, I’m simply showing that, in the long term, price follows earnings. And, if earnings grow at historic rates and the market is willing to pay in the future what it was in the past for those earnings, then the S&P 500 is anything but cheap right now.

I wouldn’t assume a lot better results if you’re invested in the market, or with a professional investor who is so diversified as to essentially be mimicking the market (a lot of them are, a whole lot).

Take heart, though. You don’t have to invest in the market. Look for stocks that are better quality and cheaper than the market and you’ll do just fine. Or, better yet, find a professional who can do it for you.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.