Chart of the day: Techs vs industrials

By Felix Salmon
July 22, 2011
Larry Summers for suggesting that I take a look at this chart.

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Thanks to Larry Summers for suggesting that I take a look at this chart. It wasn’t particularly easy to find, but it’s quite striking all the same. (And thanks very much to Roy Strom and Van Tsui, here at Thomson Reuters for putting it together.)

What we’re looking at here is a ratio of ratios: it’s the price/earnings ratio of the companies in the MSCI USA IT index, which covers technology companies, divided by the price/earnings ratio of the companies in the MSCI USA Industrials index. (For earnings, we’re using 12-month forward earnings — but we’re not really looking at the p/e ratios themselves here, just the ratio between the two ratios.)

Summers is absolutely right: this ratio is currently at an all-time low. The TR data goes back to 1994, so this chart encompasses 17 years, but I suspect you’d need to go back a lot further to find the last time this ratio was trading this low.

Importantly, the ratio is trading at less than 1: the market is saying that earnings at technology companies, which historically exhibit high growth, are worth less than earnings at established industrial companies.

Now this might be an artifact of the specific indices I’m using here: according to another chart sent to me by John Coogan, the ratio is still at an all-time low, but is above 1. Still, the fact is that the market clearly isn’t giving technology earnings the premium they’ve historically commanded.

Why might that be? Frankly I don’t really know. Maybe it’s a function of industrial earnings rebounding less quickly than earnings in the tech sector more generally. Maybe it’s largely an Apple thing. But there’s definitely an indication here that either industrial earnings are too expensive, or technology earnings are too cheap right now. Or both.

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