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Weekend reading: Something In the Way

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What caught my eye this week.

Families respond to tragedy and upheaval in different ways.

Histrionics. Denial. A chance to air old grievances. An opportunity for a clean break with the past.

In my family we’re tactically jovial but strategically gloomy. We’ll laugh on the way to the hospital – and invariably with the patient. But we’ll gameplay the worst on the drive home or on WhatsApp.

Among my clan of brooding pessimists, I’ve inherited the file marked Worst Case Scenarios from my father.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as personally content with his life as my dad seemed to be.

But boy, could he strategize like a 1950s Cold Warrior gaming out nuclear Armageddon.

When he passed it fell to me to be my family’s wartime consigliere – if not its walking, talking memento mori.

Whether it’s packing a raincoat for a summer holiday, doubling down on life assurance, or accelerating a long haul visit to a sickening relative, I’m always ready to make the case for the downside.

I could therefore relate to Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey this week when he followed his upper-cut of a 0.5% interest rate rise – itself the largest for 27 years – with an economic forecast that amounted to a kick in the balls.

Britain is to enter recession in autumn, we were warned, and it’s going to last more than a year.

Oh, and despite that hiking of interest rates, inflation will still hit 13% anyway.

As someone who is genetically wired to expect the worst and be surprised by the best, I take this as little more than a ruffle in the hair from my dad at the backdoor with a gentle “stay safe”.

But it seems to have thrown the country at large into convulsions.

The Man Who Sold the World

If I linked to all the different takes in response to Andrew Bailey’s portents, this article would resemble an old-school link farm and Monevator would go into Google’s naughty box.

But fire up your search browser and sniff around and you’ll find:

  • Those who think Bailey is being wantonly pessimistic, scaring us for no good reason.
  • Many who think he’s anyway making it worse by raising rates.
  • Others (including some of the above) who still think he should have raised rates earlier.
  • People – including politicians – who superstitiously believe what you say comes true and so damn him for his gloom.
  • Left-wing activists who believe we should continue spending money like its 2020 to keep us out of the imminent downturn.
  • Right-wing activists – and a Tory leadership candidate – who believe we should cut taxes and let inflation rip to keep us out of the imminent downturn.

And that’s just a taster of the range of the contradictory responses.

I doubt Bailey entered Bank of England governing to become Mr Popular. But like this he’s cast himself as the macro-economic equivalent of reality TV’s Naughty Nick.

Everyone can now boo when he appears on the screen. If we didn’t have the Lionesses to bring us a rare moment of national unity, at least we’d have the Bank of England, eh?

All Apologies

I am more sympathetic than most to Bailey’s plight.

The Bank of England has no good choices. It’s tasked with solving a problem that’s mostly not of its making and that anyway it hasn’t got a great solution to.

Many people seem to have forgotten we’ve just lived through a pandemic that saw vast chunks of the economy switched off, untold billions borrowed on the never-never, money sent to millions of workers to pay them to stay at home ordering goods off Amazon – and that as recently as this spring the world’s workshop, China, was back in idle mode.

I warned in our debates at the time that it was fanciful to imagine you could turn off our finely-tuned just-in-time economic system without, at least, seeing the machine splutter and judder when you switched it back on.

Yet I was equally surprised by how well the economy shape-shifted to (ongoing) working from home – and also by the success of those expensive furlough schemes in entirely warding off skyrocketing unemployment.

Take a moment to add all this up. Billions of workers and millions of factories randomly turning on and off for weeks on end. Immense fiscal transfers. Formerly obscure economic sectors – from baking sourdough to gambling on tech stocks – blossoming in lockdown, then wilting on reopening. The millions who never lost their jobs competing with everyone else for a suddenly limited supply of goods and then later a resurgent demand for services. All this over just two years.

You could even add in some black market mystery. I suspect there’s an untold story of extra economic activity outside of the tax system during the pandemic that may not have quite abated, and that is still distorting the numbers.

And people are surprised we’re not back to a 1990s Goldilocks economy?

Drain You

Then of course there’s the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The surge in a broad swathe of commodity prices that followed Putin’s Hail Mary Risk play has eased. But energy remains a crisis.

That’s especially true in Europe – including the UK – which has been rudely woken up from a daydream of conflicting energy policies. You know, gorging on fossil fuels bought from an autocrat who has admitted he wants to redraw your borders even while you close down nuclear reactors – and all the while fretting about climate change. That sort of thing.

To cap it all, I’ve long expected a tougher time ahead for Britain, thanks to our self-inflicted Brexit.

I was already using the dreaded word ‘stagflation’ in June 2021 when higher inflation seemed a certainty. However I wasn’t confident then about a recession.

But early this year the Russian invasion – and the start of quantitative tightening – put the boot in.

The Bank of England is pinning the blame squarely on soaring energy bills. With the cap on bills expected to hit £3,500 in October, who can blame them?

All the money that goes into heating and lighting our homes can’t be spent elsewhere in the economy. A slowdown is inevitable.

The Bank has nothing to gain from wading into politics. But of course our politics makes it worse.

Lithium

Counterfactual scenarios can be fanciful alternate realities that tell you more about their author than the real-world.

Mine are obviously no different.

But such scenarios are also a safe-space for imagining how things could be different. They provide a lens to seeing where you’ve possibly gone wrong. And perhaps what you might do about it.

As an open economy with an aging population, the UK was never going to escape a ravaging from the Covid pandemic. But our politics over the past six years has made our plight worse.

The sheer cost of the upheaval and distraction of Brexit is impossible to calculate. The slump in inward investment and the de-rating of our equity market is less controversial.

Most countries face post-pandemic staffing problems. But ours are worse, given we switched off the potential free movement of millions overnight. The friction and cost at our borders is also now beyond doubt.

Some readers will groan at me bringing all this up again. Get used to it. I understand it’s hard even for the ambivalent not to be bored, but these consequences are not magically going away.

They will incrementally make our economy weaker. They will cause us more pain, by curbing our freedom of action.

Dumb

Indeed it’s interesting to compare today with the years following the financial crisis.

Despite being whacked as hard as anyone due to our enormous financial sector, the UK – and especially London – prospered, relatively-speaking, in the post-crash years.

Talent and money flowed in, for good and ill.

At worse, we saw dark money from dubious Russians bidding up the price of Mayfair properties.

But at best we saw hundreds of thousands of bright people leave the slower-growing and crisis-stricken economies of Europe to seek their fortunes here.

I watched an entire sector – Fintech – basically built on the brains of bright newcomers to the UK.

But there is much less chance of us creating a new Revolut or Transferwise this time around, given Britain’s plunging attractions to overseas talent:

Source: Financial Times

I suppose this was one of the aims of our leaving the EU. Job done I guess.

But when your country is less appealing to talent than Saudi Arabia you know you’ve got a fight on.

Meanwhile the candidates for our next un-elected Prime Minister continue to simply whistle to their hardcore voters as if none of this was happening.

The Tory party membership is an electorate who thinks Dunning-Kruger is a dodgy German wine. I don’t say the loons on the far-left of the Labour party would be any better, but the fact is right now it’s a brotherhood of Blimps who will determine our political response over the next few years.

Curb your enthusiasm accordingly.

Territorial Pissings

Before one of the dwindling band of Brexit ultras pipes up, I’m definitely not blaming our general economic situation on their glorious project.

Yes we’ve hobbled ourselves with a self-inflicted knee-capping. But these troubles are global.

Some countries are doing better than others – although nobody’s politics reflects that.

The various factions of the US chattering classes for example are continuing to tear themselves to shreds. But I’d rather have its economic problems than ours.

The US is self-sufficient for energy (and much else) for starters. But also, its equally unpredictable economic recovery seems to me more like a car checking its speed after coming too fast off the freeway than a vehicle running off the road.

Yes, the US just saw two quarters of negative economic growth. But it also just added another 500,000 jobs to its workforce, which is now larger than before Covid.

With recessions like that, who needs a boom?

I jest, a bit. We’ve been doing well for jobs, too. Also just like the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve faces the same difficulty of raising interest rates to tackle inflation caused by utterly indifferent factors – supply chains, war, the hangover from Covid support – and again in the face of widespread hostility.

So while I fancy its chances better than ours, the US definitely has challenges. And unlike ours, its response will continue to reverberate around the world, especially via interest rates.

Particularly infuriating are the popular US commentators who condemned the Fed for talking about rate rises earlier – who said they’d prefer to see inflation run hot, and more QE if needed, and an end to boom-and-bust – who now chastise the same Fed for being too late!

Peak central banker was definitely 20 years ago.

Negative Creep

For my part I don’t have any great answers. I mostly have more questions.

To stick with the gloomy theme, for example, where are – or rather aren’t – all the people who died during the pandemic in the economic discussion?

We lost a quarter of a million souls to Covid in the UK. The US more than a million. But you rarely (ever?) hear anyone factoring in their loss into their economic deliberations.

Perhaps now the emotional intensity has died down, there is an acceptance that Covid’s victims were not those whose loss would cause the most upheaval in pure economic terms. (I got hate email for saying so early in the pandemic).

Even more controversially, perhaps the excess deaths from Covid weren’t so excessive on a two-year view? (Very probably not).

Then there’s the question of how we reshape our economies after the huge changes wrought by working from home for years, and an avowed desire for de-globalization.

Finally, there’s the musical chairs of the workforce.

I’ve used the analogy of a machine juddering in fits and starts back into life to explain why I’m not surprised to see the economy so unsettled.

Similarly, I think of the workforce via a sporting analogy of a ‘man out of position’. People just aren’t where they would be optimally if the pandemic hadn’t happened, both geographically and skills-wise.

In some places this is obvious: think struggling NHS wards and broken airports.

But in other places much less so – until you look at, for example, programmer salaries rocketing earlier this year.

All of these factors will take time to resolve themselves.

Come As You Are

I’ve been accused by some readers of being too gloomy for the better part of a year, albeit mostly regarding the market.

I appreciate I won’t have brightened anyone’s Saturday morning with this missive, either.

However we are where we are. Fatten your emergency funds, keep investing, stay usefully employed if you can. Things will get better eventually.

Heck, if you need to then by all means look on the bright side.

Things could definitely be worse. Covid could have turned out to preferentially kill 20-somethings with children. Unemployment might have surged. Policymakers could have hesitated and withheld relief for workers, plunging us into a depression.

A bleak way to cheer up? Again I’m a wartime consigliere. Don’t come to me for faith healing.

Of course I’ve known families who approach the worst in completely the opposite way to mine.

They refuse to talk about a fatal prognosis, say, except in short bursts of stony-faced indifference with doctors. Back on the ward in visiting hours, they’re waving holiday brochures under the nose of their unfortunate – and unconscious – relative.

There’s an upside to that sort of insurmountable optimism. And miracles do happen.

How about we split the difference and settle for muddling through?

Have a great weekend – and to conclude on-brand, try not to think about how this glorious weather is causing the worst drought for a century…

(Wait, come back!)

[continue reading…]

{ 67 comments }

UK historical house prices

UK house prices used to be much lower: image of a newspaper advert from the 1970s

Everyone says our homes cost too much to buy. But few look deeply into UK historical house prices for context.

Yet if you were to go back through the ages with a time-traveling estate agent in a TARDIS (period features, surprisingly roomy, in the same family for 900 years) you’d find it’s been a long while since British homes were cheap.

Even when property looked more affordable – the 1970s, say, or briefly in the 1990s – there were other things going on.

High unemployment, punishing interest rates, recession, or a more restricted market for mortgages.

With that said, the housing market did start to undergo a step-change roughly three decades ago. In hindsight, the advent of buy-to-let mortgages and steadily falling interest rates kicked off a 30-year housing boom. The tax advantages enjoyed by landlords versus homeowners didn’t hurt, either.

This all eventually made property more expensive on historical measures, such as the ratio of house prices to earnings.

But wait!

Like everybody who talks about house prices, we’re already rushing to diagnose what (supposedly) ails the market.

For today, let’s just look at UK historical house prices through various lenses, to put current prices into context.

House price growth over the past ten years

The average new home in the UK costs £294,845, according to Halifax. That’s an all-time record.

What’s more prices have been rising at an 11% a year clip.

At a time when wider inflation is approaching double-figures, this rate of gain may not seem so shocking for once.

Then again, the persistence of any price growth is a bit surprising. We’re at the tail-end of a pandemic, after all. Most other assets have crashed this year. Not coincidentally, interest rates are rising. That directly leads to costlier mortgages.

So is property simply proving its worth as a store of value? Or is this ongoing strength an anomaly?

Well UK house prices have already been climbing for ten years. See this graph from the Financial Times:

Source: Financial Times

Note that the Financial Times is using Nationwide figures. Nationwide has house prices a little lower than the Halifax ones I quoted earlier.

Indeed it’s worth knowing that all the different house price data compilers use their own data sets. Each with its own quirks. Nationwide excludes buy-to-let purchases, for example.

According to Nationwide the average UK home now costs £270,452.

That compares to £164,955 in 2012 – a total price gain of 64% in a decade.

However that figure isn’t adjusted for inflation.

Most things are more expensive than in 2012, right?

Ten-year house price growth: after-inflation

We can use the Bank of England’s cute inflation calculator to convert the price rise cited by Nationwide into real terms. (That is, inflation-adjusted).

Inflation data for 2022 is not yet available. Let’s therefore use 2021 as our base year, given how hot inflation has been running for the past eight months.

  • Nationwide says the average house cost £251,133 at the end of 2021
  • At the same point in 2011, the average house cost £164,785

Using the Bank of England’s calculator, we can see that the 2011 house price equates to £196,776 in 2021 money. (That is, adjusting for CPI inflation.)

Play with Monevator’s compound interest calculator and you’ll see that it takes about 2.5% a year over ten years to turn £196,776 into £251,133.

Therefore house prices went up by about 2.5% a year ahead of inflation over the ten years to 2021.

This is mildly interesting for property nerds. But it gets more dramatic looking further back.

Consider that by the end of 1991 the average house cost £53,635. That’s £99,618 in 2021 money.

  • In nominal terms, house price growth was about 5.3% a year over the 30 years from 1991 – or 368% overall.
  • But in real terms – after-inflation – annual growth was only a little over 3%, or 152% in total.

Clearly 152% is a lot less vertigo-inducing than a 368% nominal terms price rise.

Although as we’ll see later on, it’s still a lot faster than wages have grown. Which is why we keep hearing about a housing crisis!

(It’s also a reminder of how property has protected you against inflation).

Real UK historical house prices: a longer-term view

Nationwide produces an alternative real price index. It saves all this mucking around doing estimates with calculators.

Here’s how Nationwide’s real average house price has risen since 1984:

Source: Nationwide

Interestingly this graph suggests that – in real terms – house prices are yet to recapture their 2007 pre-financial crisis peaks.

Conversely, you can argue it’s a bit silly to adjust asset price inflation by changes in the price of a basket of goods and services. But that’s for another day.

Very long-term UK house price history

It’s fun to induce vertigo by looking at the Nationwide and Halifax price data via longer-term charts. Download the Nationwide series and you can do so yourself.

Alternatively, you can wait for someone else to do it for you – the media is forever knocking such graphs out.

For instance one-time Monevator contributor Tejvan Pettinger recently published this chart showing UK historical house prices spanning more than 50 years:

Source: Economics Help

Any graph that rises from (apparently) near-zero like that will grab your attention. But remember these property values are not adjusted for inflation.

And is even 50 years a long enough time over which to evaluate house prices?

The UK is a very old country. And we’ve been buying and selling property since well before The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The long, long-term: house price history before Hitler

Academics have made various stabs at estimating the returns from property over more than a century.

For example, in the paper The Rate of Return on Everything: 1870-2015, the authors calculate that the very long-run return on property across 16 countries was just over 7%, in real terms.

Interestingly that’s very similar to the long-term real return from equities.

However this 7% annual return isn’t comparable to the house price series we’ve been looking at. That’s because its property values also incorporate the return from rent, to come up with a total return. In contrast, the house price data series only track prices.

But a bit later on the same paper estimates UK capital gains on housing since 1895 at 5.4% in nominal terms, or 1.25% real.

Which would indeed suggest the past 30 years have been a bit frothy, historically-speaking.

Meanwhile a more recent paper, The Best Strategies for Inflationary Times, pins UK annualised real housing returns from 1926-2020 at 3%. And as best we can tell that’s capital gains only. (It’s based on ONS data, which uses Land Registry house prices.)

My interpretation of these studies – together with the data from Nationwide and Halifax – is that property prices in the UK have been going up for over a century, but that growth has accelerated in the past few generations.

This would correlate with the popular notion that an increasingly egalitarian Britain has steadily transformed from a nation of renters to homeowners. At least until the past decade or so, when sluggish wage growth hurt affordability.

It’s fascinating research, with a lot of nuance and discussion that I’ve glossed over in this quick summary. Dive into the papers for a more thorough perspective.

How much do house prices go up in a year?

Looking at long-term house price history charts can be deceptive. The steady line rising from the bottom-left of the graph to the top-right makes a house price boom look as smooth as ascending a ski-lift on a windless day.

However just as icy gusts will rock your cable car, so house prices actually move in fits and starts.

Study the historical house prices graph below, which charts annual changes over the past 30 years:

Source: Nationwide

At first glance you might wonder how today’s prices are any higher since 2002. The graph appears to move downwards as you go from left to right.

Remember though, this is plotting annual house price changes. Not the absolute level of house prices. Anything above 0% represents a year when prices rose.

Looking more carefully, we can see there was a huge boom at the turn of the century. House prices rose by at least 10% a year – and as much as 25% – between 2002 and 2005.

Growth continued at a slower pace until 2007, when the market cooled. You’re seeing here the impact of the global financial crisis.

Don’t believe anyone who says house prices never go down! The chart shows that by mid-2008 prices were falling 15% year-over-year.

However this crash was short-lived. The Bank of England cut interest rates, and mortgages became much more affordable.

The falls soon turned around. And by 2014 house prices had recovered much of their losses.

Another brick in the wall: small annual gains add up over time

It’s interesting to note how often prices barely budged in the years between 2012 to 2022. Especially compared to that 25%-a-year surge of two decades ago.

Yet despite this sometimes-sluggish market, we saw in the ten-year price FT graph at the start of this article that house prices overall rose around 60% between 2012 and 2022.

This underlines that property is best approached as a long-term asset. Especially given the high cost (and hassle) of buying and selling. Inconsistent annual gains add up mightily if you give them enough time.

Indeed most people feel they do better with their own property than their pension precisely because they get on the property ladder for the long-term. They ignore its short-term fluctuations, and instead they commit to holding on to their homes.

This is exactly what leads to your parents or grandparents sitting in houses they bought for what seems like peanuts compared to today’s prices.

Historical house prices compared to earnings

The absolute level of historical houses prices is endlessly fascinating for Britons. But what really matters from the perspective of a would-be buyer is how affordable they are.

If the average annual salary was £100,000, say, then an average house price approaching £300,000 would be cheap-as-chips.

Buying such a home with a 90% mortgage would cost you £1,365 a month, with a 3.5% repayment mortgage over 25 years.

Assuming £5,500 of take home pay after-tax, our £100K earner would have plenty of spare cash leftover each month for Netflix subscriptions and avocado on toast.

But of course most people earn nothing like £100,000 in 2022. The median average salary of full-time UK workers is £31,285.

Hence all the hand-wringing about home-owning being out of reach for young people.

The time-honoured way to show this is by plotting average house prices against earnings over time.

Again, back when I first fretted about a housing bubble – you probably weren’t born – you had to do this for yourself in Excel.

Nowadays the data providers do it for you in your web browser. (Seriously, you may not be able to afford your own home but just look at your Internet go!)

Here’s 30 years of the house-price-to-median-earnings ratio for the UK (pink) and also London (green):

Source: Nationwide

The merest glance at this graph shows you why people feel property values have become more expensive – particularly in London.

It’s because it has!

When I first started looking for flats in the mid-1990s, the price-to-earnings ratio in London was barely three. Whereas it now costs nearly ten-times the median income to buy an average home in London.

The wider UK ratio has escalated just as dramatically, albeit from a lower base. And unlike in London it’s still climbing.

Previously I’d end the story here. But in 2021 researchers from Schroders threw this intriguing graphical cat among the price-to-earnings pigeons:

Source: Schroders

The Schroder analysts dived into a millennia of data from the Bank of England to produce this 175-year chart of housing affordability in the UK.

And you can see that in the Victorian era, UK house prices were at least as expensive as today compared to average earnings.

Quoting Schroders’ Duncan Lamont:

It may only be of historic curiosity, but it is interesting that house prices were even more expensive in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They then went on a multi-decade downtrend relative to earnings. This only bottomed out after World War I.

There are three important drivers of this: more houses, smaller houses, and rising incomes.

When I next update this article (diary note for 2032) I might try plotting this graph against interest rates to see if that’s a factor too.

Although to be frank I don’t know if there was much of a mortgage market in the early 1900s…

Don’t bet against the house

Soaring house-price-to-earnings ratios in recent years underline how higher UK house prices have made property ever more expensive for British workers.

But even that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.

Most people buy a property with a mortgage. And interest rates fell pretty steadily from the 1990s until, well, this year!

So buying a property became easier to finance as rates fell, even as the absolute price level rose and wages only inched ahead.

Of course you might argue that financing costs are a different issue, at least in theory, and I’d have some sympathy with you.

But the facts on the ground seem to be that cheap mortgages have (in practice) supported higher price-to-earnings ratios for property, even as house prices climbed ever higher – just as low interest rates supported higher (in theory) prices for shares.

Of course, that (theory) ended in a stock market crash when rates finally rose.

Will higher rates do the same for property prices?

As per the Schroders’ quote above, we could also talk about what you get for your money with an average home these days, compared to the past.

Flats and houses are certainly smaller than they used to be. But some people – especially homebuilders – would stress they’re better insulated and finished.

And just look at that kitchen!

It was ever thus. Your great-great-grandparents’ loo was in their back garden. And as we’ve seen above, UK house prices have steadily ticked higher regardless.

Driven most of all by an infuriating platitude: we all have to live somewhere.

Will UK property prices keep going up?

Despite costing higher multiples of earnings, property has continued to be bought and sold every year.

It’s a functioning market, and as such its hard to call property ‘expensive’. Isn’t it just the going rate?

Many of you will disagree – perhaps I do too – and there’s no doubt we’ll be speculating about where house prices will go in the next 12 months for the rest of our lives.

But where do you think UK house prices will be in the next 30 years?

My guess: up, up, and away!

Note: a version of this article was first published in 2011. It has been re-written after another ten years of historical house prices were added to the ledger. We’ve kept the comments below for posterity. Do check their dates for context.

{ 52 comments }

When people you meet on the internet confidently declare that markets are over/under/fairly valued, they’re either going with their gut, talking out of their hole, or maybe – just maybe – they’ve checked the latest stock market valuation data.

And just in case they haven’t, now you can.

Because I’ve collated the best CAPE ratio by country data that I can find in the table below. 

CAPE ratio by country / region / world

Region / Country Research Affiliates (30/6/22) Barclays Research (31/5/22) Cambria Investment (12/7/22) Historical median (Research Affiliates)
Global 23 n/a 15 22
Developed markets 25 n/a 19 23
Emerging markets 15 n/a 14 16
Europe 17 21 17
UK 13 18 15 14
US 29 32 28 16
Japan 20 21 20 35
Germany 13 19 14 18
China 12 13 12 16
India 27 30 28 22
Brazil 12 15 12 15
Australia 17 22 18 17
South Africa 15 18 15 18

Source: As indicated by column titles, compiled by Monevator

A country’s stock market is considered to be overvalued if its CAPE ratio is significantly above its historical average. The converse also holds. Meanwhile a CAPE reading close to the historical average could indicate the market is fairly valued.

You should only compare a country’s CAPE ratio with its own historical average. Inter-market comparisons are problematic.

There’s more countries and data to play with if you click through to the original sources linked in the table. All sources use MSCI indices. Cambria uses MSCI IMI (Investible Market Indices). Research Affiliates derives US CAPE from the S&P 500. You can also take the S&P 500’s daily Shiller P/E temperature.

But what exactly is the CAPE ratio, what does it tell us, and how credible is it?

What is the CAPE ratio?

The CAPE ratio or Shiller P/E stands for the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio (CAPE).

CAPE is a stock market valuation signal. It is mildly predicative of long-term equity returns. (The CAPE ratio is even more predictive of furious debate about its accuracy).

In brief:

  • A high CAPE ratio correlates with lower average stock market returns over the next ten to 15 years.
  • A low CAPE ratio correlates to higher average stock market returns over the next ten to 15 years.

The CAPE ratio formula is:

Current stock prices / average real earnings over the last ten years.

To value a country’s stock market, the CAPE ratio compares stock prices and earnings numbers in proportion to each share’s weight in a representative index. (For example the S&P 500 or FTSE 100 indices).

But company profits constantly expand and contract in line with a firm’s fortunes. National and global economic tides ebb and flow, too.

So CAPE tries to clean up that noisy signal by looking at ten years’ worth of earnings data. For that reason CAPE is also known as the P/E 10 ratio.

What can I do with global and country CAPE ratios?

The CAPE ratio has three main uses:

  • Some wield it as a market-timing tool to spot trading opportunities. A low CAPE implies an undervalued market. One that could rebound into the higher return stratosphere. Conversely, a high CAPE ratio may signal an overbought market that’s destined for a fall.
  • Similarly, CAPE – and its inverse indicator the earnings yield (E/P) – may enable us to make more sensible future expected return projections.
  • High CAPE ratios are associated with lower sustainable withdrawal rates (SWR) and vice versa. So you might decide to adjust your retirement spending based on what CAPE is telling you.

But is CAPE really fit for these purposes?

Well I think you should be ready to ask for your money back (you won’t get it) if you try to use CAPE as a market-timing divining rod.

But optimising your SWR according to CAPE’s foretelling? There’s good evidence that can be worthwhile.

How accurate is CAPE?

It’s certainly more predictive of negative energy than being told by a woman in a wig that you’re a Pisces dealing with a heavy Saturn transit.

But the signal is as messy as mucking about with goat entrails.

The table below shows that higher CAPE ratios are correlated with worse ten-year returns. Notice there’s a wide range of outcomes:

A table showing that high and low CAPE ratios correlate with low and high future returns but there's still a wide dispersion of results within that trend

Source: Robert Shiller, Farouk Jivraj, The Many Colours Of CAPE

The overall trend is clear. But a market with a high starting CAPE ratio can still deliver decent 10-year returns. Equally, a low CAPE ratio might yet usher in a decade of disappointment.

When it comes to hitting the bullseye, therefore, the CAPE ratio looks like this:

The CAPE ratio envisaged as a target board shows that

Portfolio manager Norbert Keimling has dug deeper. His work showed that the CAPE ratio by country explained about 48% of subsequent 10-15 year returns for developed markets.

This graph shows a relationship between country CAPE ratios and subsequent returns

Source: Norbert Keimling, Predicting Stock Market Returns using the Shiller CAPE

You can see how lower CAPE ratios line up on the left of this graph with higher returns, like prom queens pairing off with jocks.

There’s no denying the trend.

Not all heroes wear a CAPE

Strip away the nuance and you could convert these results into an Animal Farm slogan: “Low CAPE good. High CAPE bad.”

However animal spirits aren’t so easily tamed!

Keimling says the explanatory power of CAPE varies by country and time period. For example: 

  • Japan = 90%
  • UK = 86%
  • Canada = 1%
  • US = 82% since 1970
  • US = 46% since 1881

Despite such variation, however, the findings are still good enough to put CAPE in the platinum club of stock market indicators. (It’s not a crowded field).

In his research paper Does the Shiller-PE Work In Emerging Markets, Joachim Klement states:

Most traditional stock market prediction models can explain less than 20% of the variation in future stock market returns. So we may consider the Shiller-PE one of the more reliable forecasting tools available to practitioners.

But I wouldn’t want to hang my investing hat on World CAPE’s 48% explanation of the future.

Nobody should bet the house on a fifty-fifty call.

Don’t use CAPE to predict the markets

Let’s consider a real world example. Klement used the CAPE ratio to predict various country’s cumulative five-year returns from July 2012 to 2017.

As a UK investor, the forecasts that caught my eye were:

  • UK cumulative five-year real return: 43.8%
  • US cumulative five-year real return: 24.5%

The UK was approximately fairly valued according to historical CAPE readings in 2012. The US seemed significantly overvalued. 

Yet if that signal caused you to overweight the UK vs the US in 2012, you’d have regretted it:

UK vs UK index returns show that CAPE ratio predictions were wrong from 2012 to 2017

Source: Trustnet Multi-plot Charting. S&P 500 vs FTSE All-Share cumulative returns July 2012-17 (nominal)

From these returns, we can see that the ‘overvalued’ S&P 500 proceeded to slaughter the FTSE All-Share for the next five years. (In fact it did so for the next ten.)

As a result, CAPE reminds me of my mum warning me that I was gonna hurt myself jumping off the furniture. 

In the end she was right. But it took reality a while to catch up.  

Using the global CAPE ratio to adjust your SWR

The CAPE ratio is best used as an SWR modifier.

Michael Kitces shows that a retiree’s initial SWR is strongly correlated to their starting CAPE ratio:

A retirees starting Shiller PE is strongly correlated to their sustainable withdrawal rate (SWR)

A high starting CAPE ratio1 maps on to low SWRs. When the red CAPE line peaks, the blue SWR line troughs and vice versa. 

William Bengen (the creator of the 4% rule) concurs with Kitces’ findings: 

And Early Retirement Now also believes a high CAPE is a cue to lower your SWR.

However all these experts base their conclusions on S&P 500 numbers. Can we assume that CAPE ratio by country data is relevant to UK retirees drawing on a globally diversified portfolio?

Yes, we can.

Keimling says:

In all countries a relationship between fundamental valuation and subsequent long‐term returns can be observed. With the exception of Denmark, a low CAPE of below 15 was always followed by greater returns than a high CAPE.

Likewise, Klement found:

Shiller-PE is a reliable indicator for future real stock market returns not only in the United States but also in developed and emerging markets in general.

Michael McClung, author of the excellent Living Off Your Money, also advises using global CAPE to adjust your SWR.

The spreadsheet that accompanies his retirement book does the calculation for you. You just need to supply the World CAPE ratio and an Emerging Markets CAPE figure. Our table above does that.

Incidentally, one reason I included three sources of CAPE ratio in my table is to show there’s no point getting hung up on the one, pure number. Because there’s no such thing.

Meanwhile, Big ERN has devised a dynamic withdrawal rate method based on CAPE.

Conquering the world

Finally, if you want to use Bengen’s more simplistic Rules For Adjusting Safe Withdrawal Rates table shown above, you’ll need to translate his work into global terms.

Bengen’s over/under/fairly valued categories assume an average US historical CAPE of around 16.

You can adapt those bands to suit your favourite average from our CAPE ratio by country table.

Bengen’s work suggests that a CAPE score 25% above / below the historic average is a useful rule-of-thumb guide to over or undervaluation.

A base SWR of 3% isn’t a bad place to start if you have a global portfolio. Check out this post to further finesse your SWR choice.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

 

  1. The CAPE ratio is labelled Shiller CAPE in the graph. []
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Our Weekend Reading logo

What caught my eye this week.

I often fret that we don’t bang the drum enough for passive investing on Monevator these days.

It’s not that we’ve changed our minds that using index tracker funds is the way forward for most investors. Far from it!

It’s more that if you bang a drum every week, you start to feel like a slave – and regular readers start to get a headache.

Monevator made its bones championing passive investing more than a decade ago, when coverage was scant in the mainstream British media. There’s a ton of articles in our archives on why and how to do it.

Maybe we should update and republish them more often, to give them a fresh airing?

The trouble with a blog – unlike with a book, say – is you never know where someone is starting from. A reader could be on their 500th article, or their first.

I should use our fancy new email system to create some kind of automatic crash course in passive investing for new subscribers. Watch this space…

For the record, though, unless you have special access, some rare edge in selecting winning active funds – or you have non-standard aims like ESG investing or a desire for an unusual return profile – than the evidence supporting index funds has only grown.

Most people accept this nowadays. Even active manager redoubts like the personal finance section of the Financial Times, which wrote this week:

In the first six months of this year, nearly two-thirds (60 per cent) of actively-managed equity funds have fallen further than the market.

Yes, you read that right.

Actively-managed funds — where you pay extra for a team of well-remunerated fund managers to cherry pick stocks they think will outperform — have actually under-performed cheaper passive funds that simply track the nearest comparable index.

There’s also an interesting table showing how active managers have performed over ten years.

Note that some of the apparent better-than-average success – such as 63% out-performance in the UK market – can typically be explained by factors such as holding more small companies than the benchmark. (And if so, this might be replicated more economically by getting broad cheap exposure via a tracker fund, and marrying it with say a 20% allocation to small caps.)

Some of the outperformance though will be genuine alpha generated by skillful stockpickers. Never think active managers are lazy or stupid!

The opposite is true, which is why they find it so hard to beat each other. (The maths also guarantees a worse than average performance, after fees).

Slim pickings

I’m an active stockpicker, remember. I don’t think beating the market is the stuff of myth and magic.

No, the difficulty is you identifying who will beat the market ahead of time.

Get it wrong – as you probably will, statistically-speaking – and you’ve wasted 30 years in more expensive funds. You will retire poorer as a result.

Who needs you to take that risk? Only active fund managers, whose big salaries depend upon it.

So much for funds – here’s some evidence this week from Alpha Architect that most of us shouldn’t be picking stocks, either. Ho hum.

Have a great weekend everyone.

[continue reading…]

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