Jeremy Grantham: “Fair value on the S&P is 860”

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Jeremy Grantham has become a familiar and very popular face on this site. For those treasuring his insight, wisdom and prescient calls, the co-founder and chief investment strategist of Boston-based GMO has just published the October edition of his quarterly newsletter entitled “Just deserts and markets being silly again”.

jeremy

Before quoting from the report, Grantham recently put matters into perspective in a Kiplinger article, saying: “The recent rally has been very speculative, favoring risky assets over the past few months. I’m sorry if you missed investing at the market’s March lows, but don’t compound the damage to your portfolio by chasing gains in risky assets. We’re at the beginning of a seven-year period of lean returns. You should only be buying the highest-quality blue-chip com­panies, where valuations are most attractive.”

Here are a few excerpts from the Grantham’s newsletter.

“Corporate ex-financials profit margins remain above average and, if I am right about the coming seven lean years, we will soon enough look back nostalgically at such high profits. Price/earnings ratios, adjusted for even normal margins, are also significantly above fair value after the rally. Fair value on the S&P is now about 860 (fair value has declined steadily as the accounting smoke clears from the wreckage and there are still, perhaps, some smoldering embers). This places today’s market (October 19) at almost 25% overpriced, and on a seven-year horizon would move our normal forecast of 5.7% real down by more than 3% a year. Doesn’t it seem odd that we would be measurably overpriced once again, given that we face a seven-year future that almost everyone agrees will be tougher than normal?

“Price … does matter eventually, and what will stop this market (my blind guess is in the first few months of next year) is a combination of two factors. First, the disappointing economic and financial data that will begin to show the intractably long-term nature of some of our problems, particularly pressure on profit margins as the quick fix of short-term labor cuts fades away. Second, the slow gravitational pull of value as US stocks reach +30-35% overpricing in the face of an extended difficult environment.

“It is hard for me to see what will stop the charge to risk-taking this year. With the near universality of the feeling of being left behind in reinvesting, it is nerve-wracking for us prudent investors to contemplate the odds of the market rushing past my earlier prediction of 1,100. It can certainly happen. Conversely, I have some modest hopes for a collective sensible resistance to the current Fed plot to have us all borrow and speculate again. I would still guess (a well-informed guess, I hope) that before next year is out, the market will drop painfully from current levels. ‘Painfully’ is arbitrarily deemed by me to start at -15%. My guess, though, is that the US market will drop below fair value, which is a 22% decline (from the S&P 500 level of 1,098 on October 19).

“Unlike the really tough bears, though, I see no need for a new low. I think the history books will be happy enough with the 666 of last February.”

Click here for the full report on Grantham’s reasoning for his cautious stance.

Source: Jeremy Grantham, GMO, October 2009.

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