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Two charts show why the stock market today is a far cry from the dot-com bubble

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

The stock market’s incredible run since President Donald Trump’s election win has come down to one sector: tech.

This has some observers asking if we’re not seeing something resembling the 1990s tech bubble, when valuations ballooned, a few major tech giants led the way, and companies with no prospects to make money went public.

But in a new note to clients, John Higgins at Capital Economics argues the answer to that question is no. We’re seeing less enthusiasm from investors this time around, and we’re also seeing less insane valuations for stocks.

Higgins notes that back in 1996, then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan gave his infamous warning that perhaps investor enthusiasm for stocks had become “irrational exuberance.” After this speech, valuations took off as Greenspan’s warning was roundly ignored. And then the market crashed, as Higgins shows in this chart.

Stocks haven’t taken off like they did before the tech bubble burst. (Source: Capital Economics)

“The main explanation for this difference is that the surge in the valuation of the stock market that took place during the dot com bubble has not been repeated,” Higgins writes.

Higgins adds that valuations were much more frothy: “Back [in the 90s], the price/12m trailing operating earnings ratio of the S&P 500 climbed to around 30 at its peak, which was roughly double its level in 1994.

“Today, by contrast, the equivalent ratio is still not far above 20. Although the valuation of the market is not as stretched today as it was in the late 1990s, investors’ exuberance is also arguably more rational than it was then.”

Using the desire for investors to bid up stocks at ever-increasing valuations, Higgins sees this chart as indicating a comparatively subdued enthusiasm from stock market players relative to what we saw in the 1990s.

Stocks aren’t as expensive right now as they were ahead of the tech bubble bursting. (Source: Capital Economics)

“After all, the surge in the stock market’s valuation in the late 1990s was driven by a mistaken belief that a technology revolution would lead to a permanently faster rate of growth in productivity and corporate earnings,” Higgins writes.

“This time around, however, the more modest increase in the stock market’s valuation has been largely driven by a secular decline in the available return from ‘risk-free’ assets. In our view, this has raised the equilibrium valuation of equities.”

Essentially, Higgins is saying that lower interest rates reflecting lower growth prospects for the world’s developed economies make baseline stock valuations higher.

Of course, that final line — that there is a new, higher “equilibrium valuation of equities” — is surely to remind some market historians of Irving Fisher’s famous line that stocks had reach a new “permanently high plateau” on the eve of the 1929 stock market crash which ushered in the Great Depression.

This will also pique the interest of those wary of any argument based on something like a “this time is different” framework, often viewed by critics as flawed because, the thinking goes, it is never different this time.

Because in the markets, as in life, everything old will eventually be new again.

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland

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