A Market Valuation Gauge That Works
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In my previous article, I examined many popular metrics that all show that U.S. equities have been overvalued for over 20 years. The conventional explanation is that the overvaluation and its unusually long duration is a statistical outlier. But those aberrations were observed in only 15% of the data population (20 out of 134 years) and are unlikely to be statistical outliers. The root cause is not yet known. Until the anomaly is better understood, naively equating the lack of mean reversion with overvaluations will lead to misguided valuations and ill-advised investment strategies.
A decade ago, I began searching for a valuation indicator that is immune to possible mean-reversion malfunction. The challenge proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. I ultimately had to abandon my search and developed my own valuations gauge, the total return oscillator (TR-Osc) and present it here.
Mean reversion is the underpinning of all valuations metrics. The basic concept of valuations relies on the notion that value oscillates between an upper bound (overvalued) and an lower bound (undervalued) around a median (fair-valued). How do you calibrate a gauge that has an unbounded output or with a drifing median that confuses mean reversion? A functioning valuations gauge should resemble a pseudo sine-wave oscillator with quasi-periodicity.
Although the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio (CAPE) oscillated around a stable geometric mean of 14 from 1880 to 1994, its mean has risen to 26.2 since 1995 (Figure 1A) – a telltale sign of mean reversion malfunction. By contrast, my TR-Osc has been bounded by well-defined upper and lower demarcations for over a century. The mean of TR-Osc measured from 1875 to 1994 is almost identical to the value computed over the last 20 years (Figure 1B). After reaching either extreme, TR-Osc always reverts toward its long-term historical mean.
From 1880 to 1950, TR-Osc and CAPE were almost in sync. After 1955, the two indicators began to diverge. Although both the CAPE and TR-Osc detected the dot-com bubble in 2000 (red squares), only the TR-Osc warned us about the 1987 Black Monday crash (red circle). After the 2000 peak, CAPE stayed elevated and came down only once in mid-2009 to touch its historical mean at 14. The TR-Osc, however, dropped to its lower bound in January 2003 (green arrow) getting ready for the six-year bull market from 2003 to 2008. The TR-Osc did it again after the housing bubble when it dipped below the lower bound of 0% in February 2009, just in time to reenter the market at the start of a seven-year bull market from 2009 to present.
In 2008, the TR-Osc reached a minor summit (red triangle) while CAPE exhibited no peak at all. Both TR-Osc and CAPE indicate that the meltdown in global financial markets did not stem from an overvalued equity market. I will expand on this later when I discuss the real estate sector.
Common deficiencies in all contrarian indicators
There are two common deficiencies shared by all contrarian indicators including all traditional valuations models. First, their signals are often premature because the market can stay overvalued or undervalued for years. Greenspan's 1996 irrational exuberance speech alluded to an overvalued market but it was four years too early. From 1996 to the dot-com peak in 2000, the S&P500 surged 87% and the NASDAQ 288%.
The second deficiency of all contrarian indicators is that the market can reverse direction without hitting either extreme at all. The CAPE, for example, was not undervalued in 2002 or 2009. Value investors would have missed out on huge gains of 90% and 180% from the two spectacular bull markets in the 2000s.
The dual gauges of the TR-Osc: scalar and vector
Before I explain how the TR-Osc overcomes these two deficiencies, let me first describe the TR-Osc. The TR-Osc captures what investors in the aggregate earn by investing in the S&P 500. That is the sum of two components – the first from price changes and the second from dividend yields. Price return is the trailing five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR). Dividend yield is the annual return from the dividends investors received. The look-back period doesn't necessarily have to be five years. All rolling periods from 2 to 20 years can do the job. In addition, both real (inflation-adjusted) and nominal TR-Osc's work equally well because inflation usually does not change much over a five-year period.
The TR-Osc overcomes the two deficiencies by having two orthogonal triggers, a scalar marker and a vector sensor. The oscillatory and mean-reverting attributes of the TR-Osc allow overvaluation and undervaluation markers to be clearly defined (Figure 2). When the TR-Osc was near the upper bound (the 20% overvalued marker), the S&P 500 often peaked. When the TR-Osc was near the lower bound (the 0% undervalued marker), the market soon bottomed. But in 2008, the TR-Osc only reached 12% and the market was not overvalued. Investors had no warning from the valuation marker to avert the impending subprime meltdown. Valuation markers (scalar) alone are not enough. The TR-Osc needs a second trigger, a motion sensor (vector) that tracks the up or down direction of valuations.
Let me illustrate how the scalar and vector triggers work in concert and how buy/sell signals are executed. When the TR-Osc is rising (an up-vector) or drops below the lower bound at 0% (an undervalued marker), a bullish market stance is issued. When the TR-Osc is falling (a down vector) but stays above 0% (not undervalued), or when it exceeds the upper bound at 20% (an overvalued marker), a bearish alarm is sounded. The asymmetry in the buy/sell rules stems from prospect theory, which contends that losses have more emotional impact to people than an equivalent amount of gains.
When a bullish signal is issued, buy the S&P 500 (e.g. SPY). When a bearish alarm is sounded, sell the S&P 500. After exiting the stock market, park the proceeds in 10-year Treasury bonds. The return while holding the S&P 500 is the total return with dividends reinvested. The return while holding U.S. Treasury bonds is the geometric sum of both bond yields and bond price percentage changes caused by interest rate changes.
The performance data presented in this article assume that all buy and sell signals issued at the end of the month were executed at the close in the following month. When the TR-Osc signals were executed closer to the issuance dates, both return and risk performances were slightly better.