As stocks soar to historical highs, some experts say conditions ripe for correction


The stock market has been a roller coaster ride in recent weeks, with wild swings from day to day at times.

The major indices have also hit record after record this year as the as the economy roared back from pandemic lows and the government flooded the economy with stimulus cash.

The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indices, for instance, closed at record-highs last month, besting highs that were only just set earlier in the year, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 large company stocks closed at a record-high a month prior. Despite a pandemic-battered economy, the S&P 500 and tech-heavy Nasdaq are both up approximately 30% compared to the same period a year ago, and the Dow is up more than 20%.

The trends have left some experts wondering whether the ground underlying the rapid growth of the market, fueled in part by a new crop of retail investors, is solid, or if there is a bubble building.

Risks abound, from the debt ceiling crisis to inflation fears and even China’s Evergrande saga, which have led to daily swings.

But even as markets have fallen on news, the newfangled hashtags like #BuyTheDip (which encourages market participants to buy rather than sell during these down periods) and #DiamondHands (encouraging investors to hold onto assets rather than sell) often trend on Twitter in tandem with the fear-ridden headlines. Even the Fed has warned of vulnerabilities associated with the “increased risk appetite” demonstrated by retail investor exuberance seen in the “‘meme stock’ episode.”

While the pandemic’s abrupt disruption to American life is another reminder that it’s impossible to predict the future, historical patterns and the precariousness of present market conditions have some economists warning that current growth rates may be unsustainable, especially amid inflation worries and potential tightening by the Fed of monetary policy.

Here’s what we know and don’t about the market landscape:

Key overvaluation indicator at highest level since the Dotcom bubble

One measure often used by economists to predict a potential asset price bubble is the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, developed by economist and Yale University professor Robert Shiller. The measure looks at firms’ inflation-adjusted real earnings per share over a 10-year period to indicate possible over- or under-valuations.

Itay Goldstein, a professor of finance and economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, told ABC News that the measure is essentially used as “an indication for whether the stock price is too high or not.”

When Shiller first published his research in 2000, he pointed to how high stock prices were at that point relative to the fundamentals that should underly their prices. His book, “Irrational Exuberance” appeared in March 2000, highlighting how psychological factors can produce speculative bubbles and as it appeared, the tech-heavy NASDAQ Composite index began a 78% drop and the broader U.S. stock market took a 64% fall.

Presently, the CAPE Ratio hovers at around 37, its highest level since the 2000-2002 Dotcom crash — higher now than the 30 it reached before the Black Tuesday crash in October 1929 that triggered the Great Depression. The historical mean is 16.8.

There have been criticisms of CAPE. Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has argued in research that changes in accounting standards cause the earnings data to be biased downwards and thus the CAPE to be biased upwards. Others noted that the CAPE uses past earnings, but what investors are interested in is future earnings.

“You basically see that it’s now still in historically high levels,” Goldstein said of the CAPE Ratio. “If you go back in history, it was higher than that only around 2000 before the big crash of the Dotcom bubble, it wasn’t even at that high a level in 2008 before the big financial crisis.” In May 2008, before stocks started falling, the CAPE was 23.70.

“It’s been high for a long time, and there was this crash last year when COVID started and then it climbed back up very quickly and continued to climb since then,” he added. “It’s hard to predict what will happen, but certainly it could be that the level is too high and there could be some correction.”

Fears of overvaluation are not new, especially in the tech sector where the value of certain traditional fundamentals or research and development may be harder to quantify. Many tech companies are not earning profits now, but people are investing based on the hope that they will earn in the future. A measure such as CAPE that uses past earnings will not be useful for evaluating these companies.

Tech sector and risk appetite

Many market watchers, for example, have been ringing alarm bells surrounding the sky-high growth of Tesla stock in recent years — arguing that its value does not align with its production output and fundamentals. On paper, the argument seems valid: Tesla’s market cap, some $775 billion, is larger than the next five largest automakers combined.

Yet some with so-called #DiamondHands who have been able to ignore this have seen themselves become “Teslanairres” in recent years as the electric vehicle maker’s stock value continues to climb.

Tesla aside, overvaluation estimates for the stock market as a whole is “speculative,” Goldstein said.

“People can tell sort of an economic story that will justify — my overall feeling is that it’s too high and it’s hard to justify that based on fundamentals,” Goldstein said, referring to the market as a whole.

While he stresses it is ultimately difficult to know for sure whether stock prices are creeping towards a bubble, Goldstein said that, “The indicators that we see, I think give us some reason to be worried that stock prices might be too high.”

The Federal Reserve also warned off rising asset prices being vulnerable to “significant declines should risk appetite fall,” in its semi-annual Financial Stability Report released in May, noting that “prices are high compared with expected cash flows.”

Fed Governor Lael Brainard pinned increased appetite for risk and rising valuations in part on retail investors, referencing “the ‘meme stock’ episode” in a statement accompanying the report.

“Valuations across a range of asset classes have continued to rise from levels that were already elevated late last year. Equity indices are setting new highs, equity prices relative to forecasts of earnings are near the top of their historical distribution, and the appetite for risk has increased broadly, as the ‘meme stock’ episode demonstrated,” Brainard said.

The increased appetite for risk has also been seen in the bond market, Brainard added. “The combination of stretched valuations with very high levels of corporate indebtedness bear watching because of the potential to amplify the effects of a re-pricing event,” he said.

Unique market conditions and inflation woes

When COVID-19 upended the economy in the spring of 2020, unemployment levels in the U.S. reached highs not seen since the Great Depression as lockdown orders forced businesses to shutter. In the midst of the crisis, the stock market fell sharply in March (when it had been at record highs) — but then rallied back to reach new highs within months.

Much of the pandemic stock markets gains can be pinned in part to aggressive monetary policy by the Federal Reserve in response to the pandemic, some economists say. The Fed pulled out all of the stops, slashing the target for overnight interest rates to almost zero, buying massive amounts of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, encouraging bank lending and taking other steps to sustain the flow of credit.

“What the Fed has done is it…


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