Data Insights

The ASX 200 is hitting record highs, but are stocks cheap or expensive? Here’s the data

Fri 08 Mar 24, 2:17pm (AEST)
cheap or expensive MI
Source: Shutterstock

Key Points

  • The Australian share market is enjoying a record-breaking run in 2024
  • Broker research suggests the value of the overall market is decreasing
  • It’s important to fully understand how measures of value in the stock market work

Humans are predisposed to assuming an item that has risen in price is more expensive after the rise than before it. For example, if cauliflowers cost around $1.50 on the day before the world learned of the COVID-19 pandemic, one could argue that at $10 they are indeed “expensive” today.

cauliflower expensive
Image courtesy of @MPX_Trader on X (Twitter)

I argue it’s different for stocks. One of the most essential lessons new investors must learn is that a change in a stock’s price doesn’t automatically equate to a change in its value.

There's the real world, then there's the investing world...

The cauliflower example demonstrates how different the real world is from the investing world. When a stock’s price goes up, it’s entirely possible it’s either worse, the same, or better value than before the rise. This is because a stock’s value is tied to its earnings potential.

There are several metrics stock analysts use to measure value. The most common is the PE Ratio, where PE stands for “price to earnings''. The equation for determining a stock’s PE Ratio is dividing its price by its earnings per share (EPS). Check out this article for a refresher on the PE Ratio and how to use it to better understand the value of stocks and stock indices.

In short, a higher PE Ratio is usually associated with more expensive stocks, and a lower PE Ratio is usually associated with less expensive stocks. There are also relative valuation considerations. Some stocks and sectors naturally tend to trade at a higher PE Ratio because they have higher earnings growth potential. It’s important to compare PE Ratios of stocks with similar characteristics.

PE Ratios can also help us understand the value of whole stock markets. Here, analysts consider the aggregate EPS of all stocks within a benchmark index, such as the S&P/ASX 200, and divide this value by the index’s price.

There are a few widely accepted guideposts for benchmark index valuations. Typically, stocks have tended to experience corrections when a benchmark stock index’s PE Ratio has climbed above 20. Also, stocks have often experienced rallies when a benchmark index’s PE Ratio has dipped below 10.

Given the above, stock analysts have come up with a few rules of thumb regarding market PE Ratios and valuations. A market PE Ratio greater than 20 is usually considered “expensive”, while one below 10 is considered “cheap”. It follows that a market PE Ratio around 15 is usually considered “fair value”.

Aussie stock market valuation nearing “expensive”

One of the key benchmark valuation guideposts is starting to emerge, and Aussie investors should note that it’s not ideal. A report released this week from Macquarie suggests the Australian stock market is edging closer to flashing an “expensive” reading.

Macquarie compiles regular data for the Australian stock market, typically publishing a market PE on both a forward and historical basis. The broker’s forward market PER is based on their EPS estimates for Australian stocks for the 2024 financial year, which ends on June 30 (FY24). Their historical market PER is based upon actual reported earnings of Australian companies for the half year ending December 31 2023 (CY23).

Note; professional investors prefer to use forward PE ratios rather than historical ones, but it's important to remember we are only looking at one broker’s estimate for FY24 here. Other brokers will have different views of the earnings potential of Australian stocks over this period. The benefit of including CY23 data in this discussion is that it provides a consistent basis upon which we can consider the Australian stock market’s valuation.

Macquarie FY24 and CY23 Market PER data. Source - Macquarie Research
Source: Macquarie and Market Index

The above chart shows how Macquarie’s market PERs (left-hand axis) have changed since the major low in the S&P/ASX 200 in October last year. The benchmark index (right-hand axis) has staged an impressive rally from a low of 6751.3 to yesterday’s record close of 7763.7. That’s a 15% increase, and it doesn’t include any dividends paid along the way.

Remembering our stocks versus cauliflower analogy? The big question is whether the price increase in the index has been accompanied by corresponding earnings increases among its constituent stocks to maintain the benchmark’s PE Ratio. Macquarie’s data suggests this is not the case, on either a forward or historical basis.

Macquarie’s CY23 Market PER has risen from roughly fair value at 15.2 in October to 17.5 at the last observation on 5 March. The broker’s FY24 market PER has risen from 14.9 to 18.2 over the same time. This is potentially more concerning.

Basically, Macquarie are saying they don’t think the Aussie market’s earnings are keeping up with recent price increases and this is potentially making Aussie stocks more expensive. This is put into greater context given the old “20 market PE Ratio is expensive” rule.

Again, these are Macquarie’s assumptions here, but even on a historical basis, Aussie stocks appear to be considerably more expensive than they were at the start of the S&P/ASX 200’s big run-up.

Be alert, not alarmed!

Keep in mind stocks won’t automatically drop off a cliff should the market PE Ratio breach 20. It’s just a number, and the notion that stocks are expensive above this level is just a rule of thumb. Consider also that PE Ratios based upon one point in time, even if they are forward-looking, can be misleading. 

Macquarie only publishes data for its FY24 forecast. They may be predicting substantial growth in their market EPS forecast for FY25, which would cause their market PER for that year to be substantially lower than FY24’s 18.2. Remember, investors’ time horizons are much further out than June 30 this year, so FY25 and FY26 market PE Ratio estimates are likely more influential on views of current valuations.

But this is speculation. The fact is that beauty and value are in the eye of the beholder. We must assume that valuations are always appropriate in a fully informed and rational market; therefore, the market is always at “fair value”. You’ll have your own opinion on this, and that’s the beauty of integrating the data in this article into your analysis: to be forewarned is to be forearmed!

Written By

Carl Capolingua

Content Editor

Carl has over 30-years investing experience, helping investors navigate several bull and bear markets over this time. He is a well respected markets commentator who specialises in how the global macro impacts Australian and US equities. Carl has a passion for technical analysis and has taught his unique brand of price-action trend following to thousands of Aussie investors.

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