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Earnings Matter: S&P and Stock Market Investing

Aug 18, 2007
The S&P 500 is up about 7.5% thus far this year. That's a good return for just over six months. Will it keep going up? Consider this. The earnings of the S&P 500 companies are expected to grow by about 5% in 2007, according to a leading Wall Street brokerage firm. That means if the market was fairly valued at the beginning of 2007 and there were no big changes as to how investors think about the market, the S&P should only go up by 5% in 2007. Hence, game over. Come back next year.

But wait! Let's examine each of the above assumptions. Was the S&P fairly valued at the beginning of 2007? Well, for the 12 months ended June 2007, it's up 22%, so it had a pretty good run in the second half of last year and considering that 2006 was the fourth year of the current economic expansion, it's likely the S&P was around fair value at the beginning of 2007. Okay, but doesn't the market discount the future? And aren't all the Wall Street analysts talking about 2008 earnings? Yes to both (although December 31, 2008 is 18 months away, so maybe there's some uncertainty). 2008 S&P earnings are projected to grow by 7.5%. Amazing, the same percentage the S&P is up this year. I could end this report right now but I think it's a coincidence.

I don't know how far into the future investors look or whether they're looking at 2007 or 2008 earnings. Either way, though, there's not much of a case to be made for further gains in the S&P unless theress multiple expansion. (The P/E multiple has to expand when stock prices grow faster than earnings.)

So, will P/E multiples expand and the S&P continue to go up? Depends upon what makes multiples expand. Common factors include accelerating earnings growth (I don't think 5% to 7.5% qualifies), an improving economic outlook (balance of trade, energy prices, inflation), or a reduction in interest rates. The last one's a two edge sword. If interest rates fall (the Fed cuts rates) because of declining inflation expectations, that's bullish (along with an expanding economy that's the goldilocks scenario). If the Fed cuts rates because the economy is slowing down, that's not good. A Fed cut for good reasons appears unlikely.

Thus, the S&P is likely to be flat to down over the next few months, until earnings growth is ready to take it higher.
About the Author
Bill Byrnes is co-founder of MUTUALdecision, a website providing mutual fund data , and the author of the MUTUALdecision Blog. He's been an investment banker with Alex. Brown & Sons and a Finance Professor at Georgetown University. He's been CEO, chairman and served on the board of directors of several public and private companies. He holds MBA and JD degrees and is a Chartered Financial Analyst with over 30 years experience in the investment industry.
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