for the stock market, a “worst case” scenario. (Note: The vertical axis is log scale; for a short discussion of log graphs, see About Stock Market Log Graphs.)
What’s the Dow's Long-Term Earnings Growth Rate?As I mentioned in the previous post, one interpretation of the graph above is that the stock market goes through cycles. It periodically gets ahead of itself by increasing faster than the businesses that it represents. It then has to wait for the earnings of those businesses to “catch up” with the valuation before beginning a new growth spurt. (For now, let’s ignore the fact that the composition of the Dow index changes over time.) Clearly, it would be helpful to look at about 100 years of Dow Jones earnings history in order to estimate the long-term earnings growth rate. This would give us an estimate of what the stock market's average return performance has been, and will be, over the long term -- excluding dividends.
|CYCLE -||YR-END||DOW PRICE||FWD % CHANGE||NORMAL EARNINGS||FWD % CHANGE||P/E RATIO|
To estimate the stock market's long-term earnings growth rate, we need to use data points at comparable points in the stock market cycle – e.g., trough to trough, or cycle-start (the beginning of a bull market) to cycle-start. I compared “normalized” earnings at the beginning of the last two bull markets. In the table above, I used 1941 and 1982 as the start years. I normalized the earnings by averaging the earnings from five years prior through five years afterwards. The earnings growth rate over that period was 5.72%. (Note: To do your own analysis, e.g., to calculate stock market earnings growth rates between any two years, see the link to the spreadsheet/model at the end of this post.) This ballpark growth rate based on earnings is consistent with the change in the Dow’s price (the average stock market return excluding dividends) during that period, 5.63%.
If you look at price growth from trough to trough, it tells a similar story. The two most severe bear markets on the graph bottomed in 1932 and 1974. The associated trough-to-trough growth rate is 5.71%. Therefore, the most recently completed stock market cycles indicate that the long-term average stock market return has been about 5.5-6% per year, excluding dividends. This estimate would seem to be further corroborated by estimates of long-term GDP growth, which I have seen generated by combining approximately 1% population growth with 1.5-2.5% in productivity improvements, and 2-3% long-term inflation.
IF that long-term growth rate is still applicable (a critical assumption), it is disconcerting since the Dow’s price growth for the 17 years from ’82 to ’99 was more like 15% per year.
(Note: For another approach to estimating long-term earnings growth, and arriving at the same basic conclusion, see Earnings Growth Contribution to 50-Year Returns.)
Long-Term Stock Market PerformanceI keep saying "excluding dividends." Since dividends are a major portion of total long-term stock market returns, you might be interested to know what returns have been including dividends. Reported numbers vary somewhat depending, e.g., on what index is used to represent the stock market (Dow, S&P 500, etc.), and what time period is analyzed. However, they are typically in the area of 10% over long periods of time. For example in Bogle on Mutual Funds (p.31, 1st edition), John Bogle reports that the S&P 500 returned 10.3% between 1926 and 1992. Note that about 1% of this return was due to multiple expansion -- prices getting more expensive relative to earnings and dividends; depending on your purposes, you might not want to include that 1%. In a future post, I will explore the implications of multiple expansion in more detail.
(Update: See a later post for average long-term total stock market returns, including dividends, for specific periods -- e.g., from 1900 or 1929).
A Worst-Case ScenarioOne way to arrive at a worst-case estimate is to extrapolate some of our previous “worst-evers” to the present. In the table below, I have taken the year-end lows from 1932 and 1974 and projected them to year-end 2008 using an assumed long-term growth rate of 5.72%.
|YEAR END||DOW PRICE||GROWTH RATE||2008 PRICE|
In both cases, the result is a Dow of approximately 4100. You’ll arrive in the same neighborhood if you draw a line from the ’32 low through the ’74 low and extend it out to 2008. In 2008, you will see that the line is just a touch higher than the 1993 and 94 data points, which were 3754 and 3834 respectively. Dow 4100 would represent a 70% drop from the all-time (2007) year-end high of 13265; it is roughly 50% below the October 24 close of 8379. As a reference point, the drop from year-end 1928 to year-end 1932 was about 80%. (Again, to do your own analysis see the link at the end of this post.)
How do we interpret such a disturbing and seemingly ridiculous possibility? What does this mean? Well, for sure it’s not a prediction that the Dow will fall to 4100. And, it’s certainly not an estimate of what the market is “worth” since the market tends to be undervalued at the end of bear markets. The exercise above is simply my attempt to develop a worst-case scenario, based on the last century or so of data, of what might happen. That the data support this possibility does not mean that it will happen. But it could.
Note: I have used data from a spreadsheet that I created by hand in 1997. If anyone finds any errors – either computational or conceptual – please let me know.
Recommended Articles:Three Scenarios for the Economy (and the Stock Market): for a fuller, qualitative, description of the worst case scenario.
Worst-Case Scenarios Based on 100 Years of Dow Price/Earnings History: My alternate approach. Estimates outcomes from best-ever to worst-ever.
The 1929 Stock Market Crash Chart: 1929-1932 revisited. The ultimate worst case?
Projected Market Returns for the Next Ten Years uses the above growth rate as a starting point.
See the sidebar to the left for links to additional posts.
How Low, How Bad, How Long is an excellent article by fund manager John Hussman. His methodology is similar to the methodology used in my two Worst-Case posts (Note: this article is 10 pages long and mildly technical.)
Buy American. I am. Warren Buffet’s New York Times op-ed piece reminding us of his dictum -- “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.”
Brighter Days Ahead: From the March 16, 2009 issue of Newsweek.
Note: I will add additional relevant articles as I discover them.
Dow Earnings and Year-End Closing Price DataFor those who would like to perform additional analysis, my Dow Jones / DJIA yearly closing price and earnings data, and the associated calculations, are in this spreadsheet/model. The spreadsheet is designed to automatically compute price and normalized earnings growth rates between any two years (e.g., 1941 to 1982). It can also project any year's closing price forward to any future year at whatever growth rate you would like to assume (e.g., project the 1932 close forward to 2008 at 5.72%). If you have trouble downloading the Excel spreadsheet, see this post.
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Last modified 8/30/2010