Referring to the lofty valuations of the US benchmark indices, the quote du jour today comes from Richard Russell, 85-year-old author of the Dow Theory Letters. He said: Long-term profits depend largely on your original buy price. Today, as I write, stock valuations are extremely high. For instance, the price-earnings (PE) ratio for the Dow is now 18.02. The dividend yield for the Dow is a thin 2.67%. For the S&P 500 the PE is 86.20; the dividend yield is a mini 1.96%. In the face of these valuations, the odds of building impressive profits over the next decade are very poor (unless, of course, there's a crash and a new bull market).

The great fortunes in stocks are made by buying stocks at true bear market lows. At today's bloated values, profits in stock over the coming decade will probably not be any better than the percentage increase (if any) in the GDP over the same time period.

What can one expect as far as future returns are concerned?

A good way of looking at valuation levels, and cutting through the uncertainty of having to forecast earnings, is by means of Robert Shiller's cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), effectively muting the impact of the business cycle by averaging ten years of earnings. Using rolling ten-year reported earnings, my research (based on Shiller's methodology, but including some refinements) shows that the normalized PE ratio of the S&P 500 Index is currently 20.4. This compares with a long-term average of 16.4 and implies an overvaluation of 24%. The graph below show data since 1950, but the actual calculations date back to 1871.


As a next step, the PEs and the corresponding ten-year forward real returns were grouped in five quintiles (i.e. 20% intervals) as shown below.


The cheapest quintile had an average PE of 8.5 with an average ten-year forward real return of 11,0% per annum, whereas the most expensive quintile had an average PE of 22.6 with an average ten-year forward real return of only 3.1% per annum.

Based on the above, with the S&P 500 Index's current ten-year normalized PE of 20.4, investors should be aware of the fact that the Index is by historical standards in expensive territory. As far as the stock market in general is concerned, this argues for unexciting long-term returns for quite a number of years to come, providing support for Richard Russell's statement above.