Market Overview

The Great Valuation Debate: Are Stocks Overvalued? - Part 2

The Great Valuation Debate: Are Stocks Overvalued? - Part 2

With the stock market indices clearly in an uptrend at the present time (although a pullback in the near-term would surprise no one), this appears to be a good time to continue our look at the various valuation metrics.

Here's a look at the Price-to-Dividend Ratio from three different perspectives.

One of the reasons that many analysts prefer to look at P/D ratios over P/E ratios is that dividends represent cold, hard cash that companies have decided to return to shareholders. Unlike earnings, that can be distorted or "financially engineered" in any number of ways, the amount of money a company's board of directors decides to part with each year is a pretty darn good proxy for the board's confidence level.

Related: The Great Valuation Debate: Navigating a 'New Era' Market - Part 1

Before moving on, it should be pointed out that while dividends do indeed represent real cash being paid out to individuals, the payment of dividends has gone out of favor over the last 20 years or so. The problem is two-fold.

First, the tax treatment of dividends is not favorable.

Second, with Wall Street's focus having increasingly become whether or not a company's earnings "beats" the consensus estimates each quarter, companies have instead decided to buy back shares of stock. You see, buying back shares of stock avoids the "double taxation" that dividends incur and also helps improve the almighty EPS number.

The math here is simple. In order to calculate earnings per share, the company divides the total earnings by the number of shares outstanding. And, if the number of shares outstanding shrinks due to a share buyback program, EPS goes up - even if earnings stay the same. Thus, buybacks have become an important part of the financial engineering that takes place at the end of each quarter. But unfortunately, this has occurred at the expense of dividend payouts.

However, the P/D ratio can still provide a pretty good picture of stock market valuation - if you know how to use it correctly. So let's take a look at a few of these P/D ratio indicators and see what we can learn.

Price-to-Dividend Ratio
As you may have surmised already, the plain-vanilla P/D ratio has "issues" these days. The key is that since 1925, there have been four distinct ranges for the P/D ratio. For example, from 1925 through the late-1950's the P/D reading was mostly in a range between 12 and 37 (except for the Great Depression, when it went below 5).

Then from 1957 through 1974, the range tightened considerably with the low in the 23 zone and the high around 40. Next, from 1975 through 1992, the range was between 19 and 37. And finally since 1995 the low has been 26 and the high has been close to, wait for it... 90!

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Since 1925, the average P/D reading has been 27.6. Thus, this becomes our baseline or "normal" valuation level. Over the past 50 years, the average has been 39.2. And over the past 25 years, the average has soared to 51.8. However, prior to 1995, the P/D had NEVER been above 40. So, while the current reading of 48.29 may sound like it is below average relative to recent readings, it is still off the reservation from a long-term perspective. Furthermore, the range of the P/D since 2000 has been between 25 and 90. Yikes.

So, from this point of view, the straight-up, plain-vanilla P/D is somewhat impossible to parse these days.

Adaptive and Smoothed P/D Ratio: Since the traditional P/D is borderline useless at the present time, we need to attack the problem from a different angle. One way to do so is to first take a four-quarter average of the P/D ratio and then to slap standard deviation bands around a moving average of the P/D. This approach will first smooth out the readings and then will adapt to changing environments over time.

Given the massive range that the P/D has experienced over the past 25 years or so, this approach makes a lot of sense. However, as you might suspect, this is a longer-term indicator. But, the good news is that we can get a reading from the indicator at this time that may be helpful.
Although the range of the smoothed P/D remains large over the past 25 years, the addition of standard deviation bands and a moving average allow us to ascertain where overvalued, undervalued and fair-valued readings exist.

As of June 30, the current reading of this indicator was 40.78. While this is a relatively high reading, the moving average currently stands at 45.2. Thus, we can argue that relative to recent history, the DJIA is modestly undervalued.

Real Dividend Yield
The final method we will explore today is a little off the beaten path. The concept is to plot "real" dividend yields over time.

The "real" dividend yield is calculated by taking the dividend yield of the S&P 500 and then subtracting inflation from it - in this case, we will use the year-to-year change of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Since 1925, when the real dividend yield has been above 0.3 percent, the bulls have prevailed. The computers at Ned Davis Research tell us that the S&P 500 has gained ground at an annualized rate of nearly 10 percent per year when the real dividend yield is over 0.3 percent. When the real dividend yield is between 0.3 and -2.1, the S&P has gained at a rate of 5.9 percent per year.

And, when the real dividend yield is below -2.1, the S&P loses ground at a rate of -5.0 percent per year. Thus, it is safe to say that these levels represent good indicators for under-, over- and fair-valuations.

As of the end of May, the reading of the real dividend yield was +0.6 percent. This is above the 0.3 percent mark and as such should be considered moderately undervalued.

In sum, the valuation business is anything but a perfect science.

However, the message we can take from the dividend indicators we've reviewed is that while the readings may be elevated from a long-term perspective, the relative indicators suggest that the bulls should be given the benefit of the doubt here.

Put another way, stocks are not dramatically overvalued at the present time relative to the last 25 years.

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