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Is it possible to predict US equities?

Is it possible to predict US equities?

Creating a model that sensibly and accurately predicts and provides a solution for long-term impact of the Covid-19 crisis on risk assets is probably too complex.

Both the micro and macro uncertainties are significant. How would you sensibly model and predict corporate fundamentals such as earnings, brand longevity, indebtedness and defaults?

Equally, it is hard to estimate the economic environment in which companies will operate.

How involved will central banks be in markets; how do we resolve the debt burdens; will tax rates rise or austerity be imposed or both; will inflation go up or down; will consumers return to old spending patterns; will interest rates stay low or rise; will employment fall and will economic growth be low or even negative?

Modelling all of this would throw out too many equally plausible but incompatible scenarios, we think.

In this article, we will focus on the largest pool of risk assets of all: US equities. We will assume that we have very low odds of predicting these events, but that history offers some interesting pointers.

We ask the question: what is a sensible, even optimistic, long-term PE ratio for the US equity market?

And, given the US market now has a PE rivalling the 1999 tech bubble, we assume the current PE is hard to maintain or justify. As a reminder, if a company has earnings of two and a market cap of 10, its PE is five.

And if that PE drops to eight, it suffers a 20 per cent fall in value, unless earnings increase to compensate.

So, if the US PE reverts to a lower level, even if higher than historic average levels, what would corporate earnings need to do to maintain the current market value of the US equity index? In the table we show the results.

PE Level

Potential future PE

Five-year earnings needed p.a.

Current PE

31

0%

Optimistic PE

24

5%

Average PE

18

11%

Source: Fundhouse and Refinitiv, September 30 2020

Within the table, you can see that the long-term average PE ratio of the US is 18. It may interest you that the average ratio for the UK, Europe and emerging markets is 14 in all three instances.

Since December 2007 (pre-global financial crisis), UK equities have not grown earnings in real terms, yet the US has grown earnings at around 2 per cent to 3 per cent real (a year). The average US PE is around 30 per cent above most other regions, to reflect their better earnings power.

If we assume the US reverts to its historic PE average (18), earnings will need to grow at 11 per cent a year for five years for the market to have a zero return.

If we are more optimistic about the US market and suggest it deserves a long-term PE of 24 (33 per cent higher than its average and 70 per cent higher than most other developed markets), then it needs to grow earnings at 5 per cent a year in nominal terms over the next five years to stand still.

That 5 per cent is reasonable and aligned with the 10-year number, but remember that is the earnings growth needed to deliver a zero return at a 24 PE.