The second half of 2015 was tough for investors, with global markets falling sharply, prompted by concerns over China's yuan devaluation. But since February many major indices, including the FTSE 100, have rallied and are at (or near) all-time highs. So where should value investors look in search of bargains?
The simplest way to check whether a country is cheap or not is to look at its trailing price/earnings (p/e) ratio. Using figures from Star Capital, by this metric China and Russia stand out for value investors as the only two markets on single-digit p/es. Stocks in emerging Europe also look cheap, trading on an average p/e of only 10.3. Brazil and Britain look expensive on this measure, trading on p/es of 40 and 50 respectively, while the US is slightly above the global average on 20.1.
Dividends tell a similar story: China and Russia yield 4.1% and 4.3%, against a global average of 2.6%. Again, the US looks relatively expensive on 2%. But other markets look more attractive on this measure than on earnings. For example, yields for Australia, Spain and Taiwan are not far off China's levels, while the UK also looks comparatively cheap with a solid yield of 3.6%.
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Of course, p/es and dividend yields can be flawed measures of value. P/es can be skewed in markets dominated by cyclical stocks (the heavy weighting towards resource stocks in the UK index is one reason the p/e looks so high). Meanwhile, yields are hard to compare between countries due to differences in the tax treatment of dividends.
A popular alternative metric is the cyclically-adjusted p/e (Cape). Cape measures prices against the average of earnings over the last decade. Originally devised by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd for individual companies, the idea is to give investors a better idea of how cheap a stock currently is compared to average profits over a typical economic cycle. Research by Professor Robert Shiller, now at Yale, found a strong negative correlation between Cape levels and future US stock returns (ie, a higher Cape led to lower returns). Further research by Star Capital confirmed that other major international markets have a similar relationship.
So what does the Cape ratio suggest today? That Russia and eastern Europe are very cheap, on Capes of 5.1 and 7.7 respectively. China, however, is on a Cape of 14 still below the global average, but not quite the bargain-basement level implied by the simple p/e or dividend yield. Indeed, the UK also has a Cape of 14.
The US trades on a Cape of 25.5, expensive by historical levels. Some experts have argued that this suggests the Cape is no longer valid for the US, but Shiller himself notes that while Cape is a useful predictor of long-term returns, it's not a timing device. And just because a market is expensive, that doesn't mean it can't get even more overvalued during the tech bubble, the US Cape rose to more than 40.
Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.
He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.
Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.
As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri
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