Why now is a bad time to buy US shares

US stocks soared after the Fed decided to carry on printing money. And little wonder. But now is not the time to pile in. Ed Bowsher explains why.

13-09-20-NYSE

US stocks look too expensive

The Bernanke put' is back. Or at least that's what many bulls think.

By putting the taper on hold, Ben Bernanke appears to be offering a free insurance policy for investors.If markets start to fall, or the economy hits trouble, then Bernanke and the Fed will ride to the rescue with more money-printing.

So it's little wonder that markets around the world have soared. And in the US, stocks have hit record levels.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free
https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/flexiimages/mw70aro6gl1676370748.jpg

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Time to pile in then?I'm not so sure. I think there's a very good chance that US stocks could fall in the very near future.

Here's why

The looming economic stand-off in the US

Even worse, Congress must also agree to raise the government's debt ceiling' by the middle of October or we could see a government default on Treasury bonds. In other words, the government might not be able to repay debt to bondholders when various treasuries mature.

That could prove disastrous for financial markets, and the Fed would struggle to maintain stability. The Bernanke put' would be history.

Now, the idea of the US defaulting on its debt sounds mad. And if it did so, it would be entirely for technical reasons the debt ceiling' is a self-imposed political barrier, rather than any sort of economic line in the sand.

But don't forget that the previous debt ceiling deadline in 2011 triggered a downgrade in US government debt and a stock market wobble. Things only calmed down when Barack Obama and Congress agreed a last minute deal.

Of course, Obama and Congress may well agree a similar last minute deal this time around. That's what politicians tend to do. But all the signs suggest it's going to be tough.

Many Republican politicians are determined to block the president's Obamacare' health reform. These legislators see the debt-ceiling crisis as the only way they can stop the scheme.

And on the other side of the political divide, Obamacare' is arguably the president's only major achievement (regardless of what your views are on it, it's certainly his legacy' policy). So he'll be determined to hold firm on this.

What's more, the 2011 crisis was only averted by a deal that included automatic spending cuts from January this year. If another last-minute deal is agreed this time round, further automatic cuts look likely.

Again, whether or not you think such cuts would be a good thing, it would kick off more worries about the strength of America's early-stage recovery.

A more important reason for caution

The S&P 500 is trading on a price/earnings ratio of 16.5, according to Bloomberg. That's above its historic average. And if you adjust for where we are in the economic cycle (using the cyclically-adjusted p/e ratio), shares don't look cheap either.

It's also worth noting that a relaxed monetary policy doesn't automatically lead to higher share prices. The relationship between interest rates and share prices is less clear than the received wisdom would have you believe. As well-respected fund manager Alastair Mundy of Investec pointed out on Citywire recently, "Equities have had two shocking bear markets in the last 15 years, at a time when the Fed was easing".

It's true that US p/e ratios did tend to be higher when interest rates were low in the 80s and 90s, but as Mark Hulbert notes in the Wall Street Journal this week, if you look back over the last 100 years, that relationship doesn't hold.

And as Mundy points out, US earnings forecasts are still being cut. In fact, he's so wary on prospects for the US market, that he currently has a short position in US stocks.

In short, the bulls' strongest argument is that a taper delay means more cheap money sloshing around the system. And much of that cheap money will end up being used to buy shares.

But the taper will have to start eventually. And before we get to that point, the US has to navigate some very choppy waters as the debt deadline gets closer. If, like me, you fear that Obama and Congress are going to make a massive hash of dealing with the debt deadline, buying US shares makes no sense right now.

But even if you think I'm being nave, and that politicians will always do a deal when their backs are to the wall, the US stock market still doesn't look cheap enough when you consider the outlook for earnings. I'm steering clear.

There are plenty of more attractive places to invest in this week's MoneyWeek magazine Roundtable, our experts give their views on where they think you should be putting your money today. If you're not already a subscriber, subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

Why we like investment trusts

The 16 investments our experts would buy into now

SUBSCRIBERS ONLY

Ed has been a private investor since the mid-90s and has worked as a financial journalist since 2000. He's been employed by several investment websites including Citywire, breakingviews and The Motley Fool, where he was UK editor.

 

Ed mainly invests in technology shares, pharmaceuticals and smaller companies. He's also a big fan of investment trusts.

 

Away from work, Ed is a keen theatre goer and loves all things Canadian.

 

Follow Ed on Twitter