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Explanation for the Upward Tilt of US stock PE Ratios

Stock-Markets / Stock Market Valuations Nov 02, 2013 - 03:38 PM GMT

By: PhilStockWorld

Stock-Markets

Courtesy of  writes: One of my whip-smart readers, Cathy Leow, wrote in a really interesting take to explain the gradual and undeniable upward tilt for the PE ratios of US stocks in recent years. Cathy was formerly an economist and then a grains trader, she's been analyzing and investing in the equity markets since 2005.


I thought this was really smart and great food for thought, what do you think? Because if she's right, it might require a rethinking of the where we think secular bear markets need to bottom and where they truly become historically expensive…

***

Josh – you asked a question of a fund manager during Fast Money lunchtime edition he couldn't answer. You asked "why should the S&P 500 trade at a premium to its long term historical valuation?"

I believe I have the answer.

We can't look at long term historical valuations because the tax code has changed dramatically. Prior to 2003 dividends were taxed at ordinary income levels, so for the highest two or three brackets fixed income was as valuable as the dividend at the same yield. Today, at the same yield, dividends are far more attractive since fixed income is taxed at a higher rate for the upper brackets. Additionally, prior to 1982, capital gains taxes were generally higher (as were the dividend tax rates because marginal tax rates were much higher).

Ergo, because of the tax code there should be a rerating higher of p/e levels over the past 30 years relative to prior to that time. And a further upward boost in 2003 - especially for dividend paying stocks. Whether the level for the S&P 500 should be 17, 18 or more versus the long term historical average of 15 is something for the statisticians to debate.

Unfortunately there are other factors, such as earnings, growth and interest rates that also influence the multiple and pinpointing what the exact level should be is probably impossible. But 15 looks too cheap when taxes and current returns from fixed income are considered.

I had this epiphany a couple weeks ago while looking at a long term chart of historical p/e's and noticed the upward bias over the past decade or so and was wondering why this happened. The proverbial lightbulb went on in my brain when thinking about the changes in how dividends have been taxed in more recent history. Frankly I'm surprised this hasn't gotten more attention. And it also makes me wonder whether the hated utilities and other defensive sectors are really overpriced, especially as long as fixed income returns are so meager, and are likely to remain that way for awhile longer.

***

Thanks Cathy!

So? Is she onto something?

- Phil

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www.philstockworld.com

Philip R. Davis is a founder of Phil's Stock World (www.philstockworld.com), a stock and options trading site that teaches the art of options trading to newcomers and devises advanced strategies for expert traders. Mr. Davis is a serial entrepreneur, having founded software company Accu-Title, a real estate title insurance software solution, and is also the President of the Delphi Consulting Corp., an M&A consulting firm that helps large and small companies obtain funding and close deals. He was also the founder of Accu-Search, a property data corporation that was sold to DataTrace in 2004 and Personality Plus, a precursor to eHarmony.com. Phil was a former editor of a UMass/Amherst humor magazine and it shows in his writing -- which is filled with colorful commentary along with very specific ideas on stock option purchases (Phil rarely holds actual stocks). Visit: Phil's Stock World (www.philstockworld.com)

© 2013 Copyright  PhilStockWorld - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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