Why High Stock Prices Are Bad For Future Retirees

The future is going to be similar to the past. Stocks have performed previously. So they will do well in the future.

On that syllogism rests the whole edifice of retirement preparation. I think there’s a mistake in it.


Deconstruct the return and you come to a conclusion: High stock prices are a blessing. They are delivering a windfall for today’s retirees, however they will produce misery for young people just getting going with their 401(k)s.


I’m not predicating my forecast on any collapse at ratios. No, I presume that P/Es remain at their lofty degree forever. My analysis rests completely on reinvestment’s arithmetic.

Over the last century stocks have returned 7.2percent a year, net of inflation. That’s the benefit in buying power enjoyed by a hypothetical investor reinvesting all dividends beginning in 1919 and incurring cash management costs or no taxes.

The rate of recurrence in the half-century since Woodstock has been lower, at 6.1%.

One or the other of those numbers may be used from the scientific sounding Monte Carlo simulations from your financial planner. Projecting the past explains the Financial Independence’s starry-eyed ambitions, Retire Early audience. It goes into the predictions coming in government pensions’ not trustworthy stewards.

What’s wrong using returns? You overlook something important about earnings yields.

That 7.2% annual return over the century occurs to match the 7.2% average earnings yield throughout the period. This is no coincidence.

A earnings yield is the inverse of the P/E of a stock. If a share has earnings of $7, and trades at $100, its earnings yield is 7 percent and its own P/E is just over 14.

To find the connection between earnings returns and market returns, we will begin with assuming that companies can effortlessly maintain their earnings up with the price of living. That is, we are positing that companies could dividend their whole $7 of gain (per $100 of market value) and not harm their actual earning power.

What is the real return on the stock exchange in this world? If the gain were distributed in total, a shareholder could make use of the 7% return to purchase more stocks. Stocks would remain set at $100 (in real terms), and a shareholder would compound his riches at a 7% rate.

If the company paid out none of its gain, the shareholder would get the identical result. The company would then be using the $7 to purchase other companies, to buy in its own stocks or to invest in growth. To $107, its share price would climb after annually with at least one of these uses of its cash.

In fact, of course, corporate America disburses expansion: dividends, acquisitions, share buybacks and money all four ways.

Don’t fret that a few companies do well and a few or that there are bull markets and corrections. We’re talking about the business in an ordinary year.


To recapitulate: Earnings yields induce stock exchange returns. Deliver a return averaging 7 percent.

Two subtleties, that we’ll now address are skipped more than by this simple analysis. It just so happens that both of these factors cancel out each other within the last century, and come close to canceling out each other over the previous 50 years.

One factor is that companies can’t maintain their earning power while standing pat. A number of that $7 needs to be reinvested to offset the erosion brought on by economic and technologic change. This reinvestment is over and above whatever depreciation allowances built into the net revenue calculation that is 7 outlays whatever.

By buying in stocks mature businesses keep their earnings per share up. Newer companies are more inclined to invest in new lines of business. Either way, some of that $7 isn’t a profit.

The other, offsetting, complication is that P/E ratios have not stood still. They’re a whole lot greater than they had been in 1919, and somewhat higher than they were in 1969. This expansion of multiples promotes the hypothetical return for somebody buying stocks at 1919 or 1969 and promoting at 2019.

Over the last century those two variables came to approximately 1 percent each, which is why the 7.2% return is close to the average 7.2% earnings return. For the past half century that the growth in multiples did not quite make up for its obsolescence, which is the reason why the 6.1% yield is a little shy of the 6.4% typical earnings yield.

Let’s use this analysis to today’s marketplace. We discover that neither 7.2percent nor 6.1percent is a realistic expectation for stock market returns.

Corporations now are richly priced in relation to their earning ability. The earnings yield on the S&P 500 indicator is low–somewhere between 4 percent and 5%, based on what you use for earnings. You could look at an average over the previous several years or, more bullishly, a projected average for 2018-2021.

From this 4% or 5 percent you have to choose a multivitamin to get obsolescence. If this nick be any less than 1%? No. We’re living in a digital age. A hot stock before Netflix showed up, blockbuster, became irrelevant quicker than Radio Corporation of America, the great growth inventory of the 1920s.

What about a change in the market multiple? You need to add a return number that is negative here, Should you expect P/Es to revert to historic amounts. Some very smart people, including Robert Shiller (he of the fearsome cyclical average P/E ratio) and Robert Arnott (of Research Affiliates), warn of a drop in P/Es.

Let us not be that bearish. Let us assume that stocks stay on a permanent high plateau. So put in 0% for growth.

Add this up. You get an earnings yield of 4 percent or 5%, from which you should subtract 1 percent to your Blockbuster effect, today. It’s reasonable to expect a 3% or 4% annual real return in the stock market. It is well worth noting that the forecast for the next decade of Arnott is 1% per year.

In case you have a portfolio consisting of 60% stocks earning 4% and 40 percent Treasury bonds earning a real return of 0.2%, that’s the return on 20-year hints, and then you are going to be compounding at 2.5%.