Stock Market Valuations and Hamburgers

To refer to a personal taste of mine, I’m going to buy hamburgers the rest of my life. When hamburgers go down in price, we sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in the Buffett household. When hamburgers go up in price, we weep. For most people, it’s the same with everything in life they will be buying -- except stocks. When stocks go down and you can get more for your money, people don’t like them anymore.

– Warren Buffett, Fortune magazine: “The Wit and Wisdom of Warren Buffett”

A few weeks ago I spent two days giving multiple speeches alongside my friend Steve Blumenthal of CMG in a very cold New Jersey on the heels of a rather strong blizzard that had left the countryside white and beautiful. I listened to Steve do deep dives on stock market valuations. He started each of his presentations with Warren Buffett’s hamburger story, quoted above, before jumping into multiple charts. After a while, we began to go back and forth during his presentations, as I had my own insights on market valuations, generally in sync with his.

I asked him if he would be willing to do a joint letter on valuations from time to time (as he puts a great deal of research into the topic), and he agreed. This will be the first of our occasional joint letters (assuming we get a good response), with Steve doing the first draft and then me jumping in with comments and charts from my own sources. I want to thank the Ned Davis Research team for allowing us to use a few of their charts and data. (I should note that Steve will be at my conference, for those attendees who would like to talk with him further on this topic.) So let’s jump right in.

Stock Market Valuations and Hamburgers

Warren Buffett is famous for talking about his pleasure when both stock prices and hamburgers are cheap. He appears joyous when prices are down and cries when prices are up.

So should we sing or weep? Warren Buffett has a brilliant way of making the complicated simple. Let’s think about valuations like we think about the price of hamburgers and see if we are going to get more or less for our money. We’ll share with you our favorite valuation charts and story them in a way that we hope will help you better understand the markets and your portfolios.

When we speak to advisors and investors, we use Warren’s hamburger analogy. Heads nod. Eyes lock in. People get it. If, on the other hand, we talk about price-to-earnings ratios (P/E), price-to-sales ratios, price-to-book ratios, eyes glaze over. People generally don’t get it unless they are financial professionals or sophisticated investors. I’m sure you understand finance language, but a lot of people don’t. So for now, let’s talk hamburgers.

We didn’t have all of this big data or computing power in Steve’s early days with Merrill Lynch in 1984 or when I started in the investment publishing industry in 1982. But we do today. What you’ll see in the data that follows is that hamburgers are richly priced. We’ll define what that means in terms of probable returns over the coming 7, 10, and 12 years and what it means in terms of relative risks.

Valuations and Forward Equity Market Returns

Following are a number of our favorite valuation metrics. Let’s take a look at them and see what the research data tell us about probable forward returns (high-priced or low-priced hamburgers):

Median P/E (Price-to-Earnings Ratio)

Think of the P/E like this. Your business has 10,000 shares outstanding, and your current share price is $10. That means your company is worth $100,000 (10,000 x $10). Now, let’s say your company earned $20,000 over the last 12 months. That works out to $2 in earnings for every share of outstanding stock ($20,000 in earnings divided by 10,000 shares). So if your stock price is $10 and your current earnings per share is $2, then your stock price is trading at a P/E of 5 (or simply $10 divided by $2 equals 5). It is simply a metric to see if your “hamburger” is pricey or cheap.