Don’t go too big on the US stockmarket

The US stockmarket has been very expensive for a long time. Yet history suggests there’s no reason for this.


Don't be tempted: the US is overvalued

Here at MoneyWeek we've been pointing out for some time that the US stockmarket is rather expensive relative to its history. Our favourite measure is the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio (Cape). This compares the current price of a market with its average earnings over ten years. Using the average means that you get a fuller picture (earnings obviously fluctuate with the economic cycle, so taking a single year can be misleading). Today the Cape on the US marketis higher than at almost any time other thanthe peak of the tech bubble, which was one ofthe biggest stockmarket bubbles in history.

Given that, we feel fairly comfortable describing the US market as expensive.

Some people have objections to the Cape. These objections range from issues around changing accounting standards to questions about how comparable today's asset-light businesses are to yesterday's factory-heavy businesses. But the reality is that it doesn't matter which measure you use to look at the US market they all suggest it is expensive to some degree or other. For example, the "Buffett" indicator (so-called because US investor Warren Buffett said it was his favourite valuation metric way back in 2001) divides the total market capitalisation of US stocks by US GDP. Above 100% and the market is expensive it's now about 140%.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

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

Get 6 issues free

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

Of course the US has been expensive for a while now. And because of that, investors try to find reasons why. The US is in some way special because of its intense focus on the tech sector, or because of its legal system, or because it's the world's biggest economy. Yet as Mebane Faber of Cambria Investment Management points out, history shows that the US is anything but unique.

Faber looked at the Cape on the US market versus the Cape on the rest of the world excluding the US. He found that, "going back to 1980, both have an average Cape ratio of about 22". In other words, there is nothing special about the US. "The historical valuation premium has been zero." For most of the 1980s, non-US stocks were a lot pricier than US ones (mainly due to Japan's massive bubble). US stocks took over during the tech bubble, then fell behind again between that bubble bursting and the run-up to the 2008 crisis, before surging ahead since then.

If history is any guide (it's not always), this suggests that US stocks are now more expensive, relative to the rest of the world, than they have been since at least 1980. Faber's point to US investors is to make sure that they have at least some exposure to overseas markets but for those of us in the UK, it's a useful reminder that while US stocks are in bubble territory, there is plenty of value to be found elsewhere.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.