October 12, 2008

IF ONLY THE DUMB PEOPLE DIDN'T HAVE ALL THE MONEY...:

What History Tells Us About the Market: The breathtakingly volatile week has left investors numb. A close study of the Great Crash, and the decades that followed, offers some unnerving context, and some reasons for optimism. (JASON ZWEIG, 10/11/08, Wall Street Journal)

Just eight days before the Dow hit rock-bottom, the brilliant investor Benjamin Graham -- who many years later would become Warren Buffett's personal mentor -- published "Should Rich but Losing Corporations Be Liquidated?" It was the last of a series of three incendiary articles in Forbes magazine in which Graham documented in stark detail the fact that many of America's great corporations were now worth more dead than alive.

More than one out of every 12 companies on the New York Stock Exchange, Graham calculated, were selling for less than the value of the cash and marketable securities on their balance sheets. "Banks no longer lend directly to big corporations," he reported, but operating companies were still flush with cash -- many of them so flush that a wealthy investor could theoretically take over, empty out the cash registers and the bank accounts, and own the remaining business for free.

Graham summarized it this way: "...stocks always sell at unduly low prices after a boom collapses. As the president of the New York Stock Exchange testified, 'in times like these frightened people give the United States of ours away.' Or stated differently, it happens because those with enterprise haven't the money, and those with money haven't the enterprise, to buy stocks when they are cheap." [...]

Robert Shiller, professor of finance at Yale University and chief economist for MacroMarkets LLC, tracks what he calls the "Graham P/E," a measure of market valuation he adapted from an observation Graham made many years ago. The Graham P/E divides the price of major U.S. stocks by their net earnings averaged over the past 10 years, adjusted for inflation. After this week's bloodbath, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index is priced at 15 times earnings by the Graham-Shiller measure. That is a 25% decline since Sept. 30 alone.

The Graham P/E has not been this low since January 1989; the long-term average in Prof. Shiller's database, which goes back to 1881, is 16.3 times earnings.

But when the stock market moves away from historical norms, it tends to overshoot. The modern low on the Graham P/E was 6.6 in July and August of 1982, and it has sunk below 10 for several long stretches since World War II -- most recently, from 1977 through 1984. It would take a bottom of about 600 on the S&P 500 to take the current Graham P/E down to 10. That's roughly a 30% drop from last week's levels; an equivalent drop would take the Dow below 6000.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2008 8:25 PM
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