Now might be a good time to buy.
That’s the takeaway from a recent Morningstar analysis, which reported in on a seeming contradiction in stock prices. The market as a whole, Morningstar writes, is expensive. But those prices are a bargain compared to what the underlying companies generally should cost.
At threshold level, stock prices have gone way, way up over the last several years. As Morningstar writes, its U.S. Market Index is up about 8.6% in 2023 alone and 16.2% over the recent low last October. That’s despite 2022’s inflation, which has largely but not yet completely abated, and ongoing concerns of a potential recession in late 2023.
“We still think the U.S. equity market looks expensive and has been getting more expensive since the start of the year,” wrote Morningstar while quoting Jim Masturzo, chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies at Research Affiliates. “The market is holding up well given the macroeconomic environment.”
So where can investors find the best bargains?
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For the Best Bargains, Look to Value Stocks
Look at the S&P 500, and you’ll also see lofty share prices. From an October 2022 low around 3,500, the S&P 500 is now back to hovering near 4,200 points. Even if you disregard the March, 2020 low as an aberration, this is a huge gain from the S&P 500’s pre-Covid value of around 3,300 points.
So the stock market is doing well, with high prices that are going steadily up. Much of that, writes Morningstar, is down to technology stocks that have posted huge gains in recent months and years. These are “the big technology stocks that dominate the weightings in broad market indexes, such as Apple (AAPL) — up 35% in 2023 — and Alphabet (GOOGL) — is up 39% so far this year. That, say some strategists, has left large growth stocks particularly expensive.”
Expensive is one word for it. At time of writing Apple traded for $177 and Alphabet for $123. Stocks like Tesla (TSLA) and Meta (META) traded for $197 and $263 per share, respectively. Although, to be fair, none of these compare with the likes of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), which has a current share price of $2,064.
Yet despite these high prices, Morningstar feels that now is still a good time to buy. “[B]y Morningstar’s fair value estimate measures, stocks are actually undervalued by more than 9%, with value stocks looking particularly cheap,” Morning star writes. “That market discount, however, has been narrowing significantly since the October low.”
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The key to this analysis is that term “value stocks.” Morningstar sees a market rich in value stocks.
Stocks are considered value stocks when they have a low share price compared with the underlying value of the company. For example, if you poured over the books of a company and decided that it was fairly worth about $20 per share, but it is currently trading for $15 per share, you would consider it a value stock.
Value stocks are generally considered a good buy for long term investors. Historically the market has been good at correcting a company’s share price to its fundamental value, a process known as “market efficiency.” Investors who buy a stock trading below the company’s fair valuation can generally expect that share price to rise over time to the level of its fundamental value. (some economists have criticized the market efficiency theory in the era of soaring tech sector valuations.)
The tricky part is figuring out that company’s underlying value.
How to Analyze a Company’s Underlying Value in Search of Bargain Stocks
Investors use a number of different metrics to decide what a company should trade for, including indicators like volatility (lower volatility tends to mean stronger value), dividends (higher dividends show stronger cash flow) and peer/competitor share price (higher priced competitors suggest a valuable industry). However the most common indicator that investors reach for is a company’s Price-to-Earnings Ratio, or P/E ratio.
A P/E ratio measures a company’s share price against its total earnings per share. For example, say that a company trades for $40 per share. It has released 1 million shares of stock total and it had $20 million in total earnings last year, giving it earnings of $20 per share. The company’s P/E ratio would be 2 ($40/$20).
The price to earnings ratio shows how much value you get for every dollar invested in a given stock. In our case above, for example, you pay $2 in share price for every $1 of company earnings. Or, to put it another way, every $2 that you invest in the company buys you $1 of value.
In general, across the market, 16 is considered an average price-to-earnings ratio. This means that with an average investment you pay $16 for every $1 of underlying earnings. Companies with low P/E ratio, whether compared with peer industries or the market at large, are generally considered value stocks. It’s likely that other investors will bid the price of this asset up because it offers better value than comparable investments.
All of which brings us back to Morningstar’s analysis.
As we noted above, Morningstar sees a market rich in value stocks. This is due to several different factors, including both standard P/E ratios and an adjusted form of this analysis known as the Cyclically Adjusted P/E, or “CAPE,” ratio. A CAPE analysis uses a company’s inflation-adjusted earnings over the past 10 years, rather than the firm’s most recent earnings report, in order to try and eliminated short-term anomalies in the business cycle. With both a standard P/E and a CAPE analysis, Morningstar writes, “fair value suggests stocks are undervalued.”
“Up 8.6% this year to date, the Morningstar U.S. Market Index sports a price/earnings multiple of 19.8 times based on trailing 12-month earnings,” Morningstar writes. “That compares with a P/E of 24.2 times at its peak in late 2021 and 17 times at the low in mid-October 2022… [And] value stocks are cheap relative to growth stocks [with] the materials sector trading at a P/E of 15 compared with an average closer to 18. Energy stocks are trading at a P/E of 7 compared with an average of 16.”
This is even true outside of the United States, where emerging markets are trading at a P/E ratio of 13.5.
Now, it’s important to understand that investors still do need to look for value. The large cap stocks out there, especially in technology, are expensive. “They are very high historically and relative to interest rates, liquidity, and inflation,” Morningstar’s analysis notes. What this means, in a nutshell, is that technology stocks have quite possibly met or exceeded their fundamental value. These companies have commanded a lot of growth, which means there’s not much of a gap left between their share price and their value.
The high-priced stocks that are demanding hundreds of dollars per share may grab headlines, but they aren’t necessarily driving the market’s value. Instead, look for the stocks with strong business fundamentals and a low P/E ratio.
Because despite the strong market, they’re out there, and now might be a great time to buy them.
The Bottom Line
A recent Morningstar analysis suggests that now might be a great time to buy into the market. Even though prices are high, they’re often low relative to the underlying value of companies at large, making this a strong moment for would-be investors.
Fundamentals Investing Tips
A P/E ratio is part of what’s known as “fundamental analysis.” This means that you look at the underlying company’s strengths and weaknesses to look for good investment opportunities. It’s an essential part of any long-term investor’s toolkit.
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