The inflationary threat to stocks

Oct 20, 2009 19:01 UTC

Would inflation be good for stocks?

With the monetary and fiscal spigots open wide, some investors say equities are a good place to be. But David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital has warned that inflation could compress price-to-earnings multiples. A look back to history suggests his fears are warranted.

(Click chart to enlarge in new window)


The Federal Reserve has lowered rates to virtually zero and expanded its balance sheet significantly, stuffing banks with excess reserves that are available to lend. If the market picks up, banks will find themselves surrounded by creditworthy borrowers again and excess reserves could quickly flow into the real economy, increasing inflation.

In the meantime, many analysts argue that the government is likely to keep printing money to finance runaway fiscal deficits and large unfunded obligations for Medicare and Social Security, increasing inflation.

The Fed will tell you that deflation is the primary risk facing the economy as the private sector continues to de-lever. And inflation is hardly guaranteed. There’s still time for the Obama administration to get America’s fiscal house in order and the Fed can choose to tighten monetary policy. Highly unlikely both, but nevertheless possible.

If inflation is in the cards, why might that be bad for stocks? One reason is that investors will pay less for future earnings.

Historically, according to Howard Silverblatt of Standard & Poor’s, investors have valued stocks of the S&P 500 at about 17 times earnings. If a company stands to earn a dollar per share in a given year then investors will tend to pay $17 for a share of its stock.

But if you add inflation to the mix, future earnings lose their purchasing power, which means investors won’t pay as much for them.

Einhorn, at the Value Investing Congress on Monday, said that if we wind up with significant inflation, distant earnings will be discounted at higher rates, meaning “P/E ratios will collapse.”

We see this relationship in action if we compare the average P/E multiple of the S&P 500 with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. In the 1960s, when inflation was low, P/E multiples were high. In the 1970s, when inflation was high, P/E multiples were low. After Paul Volcker beat back inflation in the early 1980s, P/E multiples began a two-decade expansion.

To be sure, investors use expected inflation rates when discounting future earnings. That said, when building their models they tend to extrapolate the future based on the present.

Depending on its relative impact on revenues and costs, inflation may or may not be good for company earnings, but it will certainly shrink the multiple investors are willing to pay for them.


A fine theory Richard, but the increase in the discount rate of future earnings more than offsets any increase in earnings during inflationary periods.

What’s interesting to note is that during the ’70s, the earnings of the S&P 500 actually outpaced inflation, increasing from $1.80 at the beginning of 1972 to $4.06 at the beginning of 1982, when inflation finally moderated.

But what happened to stock prices during that time? They were flat. The S&P was at 102 on 12/31/71. It was at $122 on 12/31/81. So despite earnings that more than doubled, stocks were actually up only 20%.


Because the average P/E multiple for the index declined from 18 to 8.

Oh, and when Volcker moved to kill inflation, it hammered earnings by 25%. But the market saw inflation was declining and the P/E multiple again increased, so despite the fall in earnings, stocks were UP in 1982.

Posted by Rolfe Winkler | Report as abusive

Huffington Post: Housing still heading south

Reuters Staff
Apr 28, 2008 19:29 UTC

Tell you something you don’t already know, right? Though the conclusion has been stated often enough, it’s nice to see data to back up the story. For that, check out Hale Stewart’s latest article over at Huffington Post (via Patrick).

It includes the Case Shiller chart showing the run-up in house prices over the last few years. The chart is similar to the NAR chart I reproduced in a post last week, though it doesn’t juxtapose prices with median income.

Like I said last week, the path of house prices will definitely have plenty to do with interest rates. Homes remain overvalued relative to income, but with mortgage rates still near historic lows, folks that CAN get financing are still able to pay up for houses.

[Recall the math from last week: With a fixed rate 30-year mortgage of 18%, a $2000 monthly payment will buy $132,000 worth of home. Cut the interest rate to 6% and the same $2000 payment will buy $334,000 worth of home. Low interest rates support higher house prices.]

And since the threat facing the economy may be Japan-style deflation rather than U.S.-style stagflation, interest rates are likely to stay low for some time….