Wealth Management: Are Stocks Overvalued at This Juncture?

July 2021

By Phil Kernen

Yes—and no. Use historical averages, but don't overlook impact of current conditions.

In June, the S&P 500 hit a new high, crossing 4,300 for the first time. Milestones like this come with the inevitable questions about valuation: Are stocks too expensive? To guard against overpaying, investors can turn to historical averages or rules of thumb for points of reference. But we risk ignoring current conditions that impact valuations and drawing the wrong conclusion. With that in mind, what factors should you consider today?


Earnings are still strong. Companies are priced based on their earnings, for which investors pay a multiple reflected in a valuation ratio called price over earnings (P/E). Using the S&P 500, the historical average P/E ratio is 15-16x. Based on that comparison, the S&P 500 offered at 20x earnings could be seen as expensive. But calling the market overvalued is not the same as saying the same for every single stock. The average P/E represents a range of companies, in different industries, with dissimilar prospects and diverse growth rates. For example, the forward P/E for Growth stocks is 26x, and the forward P/E for Value stocks is 16x. We have already seen a rotation boosting the P/Es of relatively cheap value stocks at the expense of comparatively expensive growth stocks. Value should continue to perform competitively with Growth for a while. 

P/E ratios are typically calculated using forward or expected earnings, calculated by Wall Street analysts with input from company management. Analysts and management receive favor when actual earnings exceed their estimates, so both parties have incentives to underestimate future earnings. First-quarter earnings reports were solid, we expect the second quarter will be better, and markets have underestimated full-year earnings for 2021. When future earnings turn out to be higher than expected, it would mean your P/E today was too high. As the economy reopens, earnings are accelerating. 

Conclusion: Relying only on average P/E ratios hides what is going on underneath.


Productivity is picking up. For the second quarter, we expect companies to announce that revenues and net earnings are back at highs last seen before the arrival of COVID-19. They will have accomplished this with a non-farm labor force with 7.5 million fewer workers than before COVID-19. They are also working through multiple supply-chain challenges associated with a reopening economy and rapidly expanding demand.    

A stagnant or shrinking labor force compels companies to improve their productivity to maintain margins. Working longer hours might suffice for the short term, but morale and productivity will decline over the long term. The best approach marries fully staffed production with maximum efficiencies. Despite announcements of worker shortages, companies have become more productive through technology enhancements, process improvements, or both. For the first quarter of 2021, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that productivity increased 5.4
percent through a combination of increased output and hours worked.   

Business efficiencies implemented in response to the pandemic are showing their bright side now. Productivity gains will allow companies to maintain their profit margins, a positive indicator in the face of possibly rising inflation.   

Conclusion: Productivity growth is back.


Low-Interest Rates mean higher valuations. When interest rates decline, that can affect stock prices in two ways. The first is due to the discount rates applied to value future business earnings. As the discount rate moves lower, company earnings become more valuable. The second relates to stocks and bonds competing for our capital. When rates are low, stocks and their higher dividend yields look more attractive, supporting valuations. Rates have been historically low, and overnight rates were pressed back to zero in 2020, which means higher stock values. 

Remember, too, that historical P/E averages are looking back decades and stem from economic environments where higher average interest rates were the norm. The higher stock prices we have seen since 2008 reflect a willingness to paying a higher P/E in a much lower interest-rate environment.  

Conclusion: Ignoring the current low-rate environment can lead to an incorrect assessment of stock valuations.


Market highs are a weak predictor. Every time markets hit new highs, investors ask whether they can go higher. Since the market recovery in early 2020, the answer has consistently been yes.  Based on data going back to 1960, stocks have performed slightly better than average after hitting all-time highs. While this time could be the exception, history demonstrates you have a better-than-average chance of returns greater than zero over the following 12 months. 

Conclusion: Market highs are a weak indicator of returns over the next 12 months.