Over the long haul, stocks track earnings (the 10% market return over the past century was composed of 2% real earnings growth, 3% inflation, 4% dividends, and 1% multiple expansion). It therefore makes sense to get a sense of how fast earnings are likely to recover once this depression ends.
John Mauldin discussed this issue in his newsletter last week. John still believes the recent rally is a suckers’ rally and that we’ll likely be working our way out of this hole for years. One reason for that pessimism is the conviction that earnings won’t just snap back to pre-crash highs the way they have in recent recessions.
In short, because the peak earnings of 2007 were inflated by leverage (debt), and that leverage is now been stripped from the system. Last time we went through an extended period of deleveraging, after the 1920s, it took 18 years for earnings to regain their old highs. If this recovery mirrors the 1930s recovery, S&P 500 earnings won’t regain their highs until 2025 or so.
John also thinks that the current rally in the stock market will fail as soon as the stimulus bleeds off and the Bush tax cuts phase out next year:
[L]et’s look at a very interesting chart sent to me by one of my readers, Chad Starliper of Rather and Kittrell in Knoxville, Tennessee. It shows all the cumulative drops in earnings from major peaks, along with the recovery paths. What is interesting is the divergence between the pre- and post-WWII periods. Our experience since 1945 is one of rather quick recoveries, averaging about 3-4 years until earnings rise above the old highs.
The thicker black line shows a drop of 69.2% from peak earnings since 2007. Prior to World War II, it took 12-20 years for earnings to recover. Earnings are still dropping. As I will point out in the next few e-letters, we live in a world (not just the US) that is in a deep recession. There is massive deleveraging and deflation. The recovery is going to be quite slow, and that portends a slow recovery in earnings, which suggests protracted churning in the stock market.
Even ignoring the disastrous 4th quarter of 2008, what if earnings drop by 80% or more, which is quite possible? That means they have to rise by 400% to get back to new highs. That could take some time. Even if they could rise at an unlikely 24% a year, it would take six years to see new highs. Look at what a mountain corporate earnings must climb.
Consumers are retrenching, and savings rates are likely to rise for at least 3-4 years, back to 7% or more, leaving consumer spending not at 70% of US GDP but closer to 63%. That will be a rather large adjustment, and will mean that a lot of productive capacity will have to be closed or allowed to lie in disuse for a long time. We just built too many strip malls and car factories and restaurants. It is going to take some adjustments.
Further, the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration are going to enact the largest tax increase in history in 2010, just as the economy is barely recovering. The Bush tax cuts go away, because the Republicans could not make them permanent when they had the chance. We are going to pay for that with a likely dip back into a recession in 2010, or at the very least a prolonged weak economy.
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