Buffett Indicator at All-Time Highs: A Cause for Concern?
In 2001, Warren Buffett famously described the stock market capitalization-to-GDP ratio as “the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”
This ratio, now commonly known as the Buffett Indicator, compares the size of the stock market to that of the economy. A high ratio indicates an overvalued market—and as of February 11, 2021, the ratio has reached all-time highs, indicating that the U.S. stock market is currently strongly overvalued.
Today’s graphic by Current Market Valuation (CMV) provides an overview of how the Buffett Indicator has changed since 1950. We’ll also explain how the ratio is calculated, and why things might not be as dire as seem.
The Buffet Indicator, Explained
Before diving into the data, let’s cover the basics—what is the Buffett Indicator, and how is its value calculated?
The Buffett Indicator is a ratio used by investors to gauge whether the market is undervalued, fair valued, or overvalued. The ratio is measured by dividing the collective value of a country’s stock market by the nation’s GDP.
Measuring Total Value
CMV used the Wilshire 5000 index, along with data from the Federal Reserve for the historical component, to measure the collective value of the U.S. stock market. Here’s a look at the nation’s composite market value since 1950:
As the chart indicates, the market has experienced steady growth since 2010. And as of February 11, 2021, its total value sits at $49.5T.
For the data on GDP since 1950, CMV dipped into the archives from the U.S. Government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis:
While the Bureau’s data is published quarterly, it doesn’t provide the latest figures. So to find Q1 2021 GDP, CMV used data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and came up with an annualized GDP of $21.7T.
According to Warren Buffett, “if the ratio approaches 200%…you are playing with fire.”
And with the current U.S. ratio sitting at 228%—about 88% higher than historical averages, it certainly looks like things are heating up.
Will History Repeat Itself?
As the popular investing expression goes, the trend is your friend. And historically, the Buffett Indicator has predicted several of America’s most devastating economic downturns.
Here’s a look at some historical moments in the U.S. stock market, and where the Buffett Indicator was valued at the time:
|Date||Event||Buffett Indicator||Value (+/- Trendline)|
|October 1987||Black Monday||Fairly Valued||-13%|
|March 2000||Dotcom Bubble||Strongly Overvalued||+71%|
|December 2007||Pre-Financial Crisis||Fairly Valued||+18%|
|March 2009||Financial Crisis Bottom||Undervalued||-46%|
|February 2021||Today||Strongly Overvalued||+88%|
As the table shows, the ratio spiked during the Dotcom Bubble, and was relatively high in the months leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. But does that mean we should take the ratio’s current spike as a warning for a market crash in the near future? According to some experts, we might not need to sound the alarms just yet.
Why are some investors so confident in the current market? One main factor is low interest rates, which are expected to stay low for the foreseeable future.
When interest rates are low, borrowing money becomes cheaper, and future real earnings are theoretically worth more, which can have a positive impact on the stock market. And low interest rates mean smaller returns for low-risk assets like bonds, which lowers investor demand and ultimately boosts stock prices further. Meaning that, as long as interest rates are at record lows, the Buffett Indicator will likely stay high.
However, history has been known to repeat itself. So, while we might not need to fasten our seatbelts just yet, this historically high ratio is certainly worth paying attention to.
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Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country
Inflation rates are reaching multi-decade highs in some countries. How aggressive have central banks been with interest rate hikes?
Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country
Imagine today’s high inflation like a car speeding down a hill. In order to slow it down, you need to hit the brakes. In this case, the “brakes” are interest rate hikes intended to slow spending. However, some central banks are hitting the brakes faster than others.
This graphic uses data from central banks and government websites to show how policy interest rates and inflation rates have changed since the start of the year. It was inspired by a chart created by Macrobond.
How Do Interest Rate Hikes Combat Inflation?
To understand how interest rates influence inflation, we need to understand how inflation works. Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Over the last several months, this has occurred amid a surge in demand and supply chain disruptions worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In an effort to combat inflation, central banks will raise their policy rate. This is the rate they charge commercial banks for loans or pay commercial banks for deposits. Commercial banks pass on a portion of these higher rates to their customers, which reduces the purchasing power of businesses and consumers. For example, it becomes more expensive to borrow money for a house or car.
Ultimately, interest rate hikes act to slow spending and encourage saving. This motivates companies to increase prices at a slower rate, or lower prices, to stimulate demand.
Rising Interest Rates and Inflation
With inflation rates hitting multi-decade highs in some countries, many central banks have announced interest rate hikes. Below, we show how the inflation rate and policy interest rate have changed for select countries and regions since January 2022. The jurisdictions are ordered from highest to lowest current inflation rate.
|Jurisdiction||Jan 2022 Inflation||May 2022 Inflation||Jan 2022 Policy Rate||Jun 2022 Policy Rate|
The Euro area has 3 policy rates; the data above represents the main refinancing operations rate. Inflation data is as of May 2022 except for New Zealand and Australia, where the latest quarterly data is as of March 2022.
The U.S. Federal Reserve has been the most aggressive with its interest rate hikes. It has raised its policy rate by 1.5% since January, with half of that increase occurring at the June 2022 meeting. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said the committee would like to “do a little more front-end loading” to bring policy rates to normal levels. The action comes as the U.S. faces its highest inflation rate in 40 years.
On the other hand, the European Union is experiencing inflation of 8.1% but has not yet raised its policy rate. The European Central Bank has, however, provided clear forward guidance. It intends to raise rates by 0.25% in July, by a possibly larger increment in September, and with gradual but sustained increases thereafter. Clear forward guidance is intended to help people make spending and investment decisions, and avoid surprises that could disrupt markets.
Pacing Interest Rate Hikes
Raising interest rates is a fine balancing act. If central banks raise rates too quickly, it’s like slamming the brakes on that car speeding downhill: the economy could come to a standstill. This occurred in the U.S. in the 1980’s when the Federal Reserve, led by Chair Paul Volcker, raised the policy rate to 20%. The economy went into a recession, though the aggressive monetary policy did eventually tame double digit inflation.
However, if rates are raised too slowly, inflation could gather enough momentum that it becomes difficult to stop. The longer high price increases linger, the more future inflation expectations build. This can result in people buying more in anticipation of prices rising further, perpetuating high demand.
“There’s always a risk of going too far or not going far enough, and it’s going to be a very difficult judgment to make.” — Jerome Powell, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair
It’s worth noting that while central banks can influence demand through policy rates, this is only one side of the equation. Inflation is also being caused by supply chain issues, a problem that is more or less outside of the control of central banks.
3 Insights From the FED’s Latest Economic Snapshot
Stay up to date on the U.S. economy with this infographic summarizing the most recent Federal Reserve data released.
3 Insights From the Latest U.S. Economic Data
Each month, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York publishes monthly economic snapshots.
To make this report accessible to a wider audience, we’ve identified the three most important takeaways from the report and compiled them into one infographic.
1. Growth figures in Q2 will make or break a recession
Generally speaking, a recession begins when an economy exhibits two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Because U.S. GDP shrank by -1.5% in Q1 2022 (January to March), a lot rests on the Q2 figure (April to June) which should be released on July 28th.
Referencing strong business activity and continued growth in consumer spending, economists predict that U.S. GDP will grow by +2.1% in Q2. This would mark a decisive reversal from Q1, and put an end to recessionary fears for the time being.
Unfortunately, inflation is the top financial concern for Americans, and this is dampening consumer confidence. Shown below, the consumer confidence index reflects the public’s short-term outlook for income, business, and labor conditions.
Falling consumer confidence suggests that more people will delay big purchases such as cars, major appliances, and vacations.
2. The COVID-era housing boom could be over
Housing markets have been riding high since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this run is likely coming to an end. Here’s a summary of what’s happened since 2020:
- Lockdowns in early 2020 created lots of pent-up demand for homes
- Greater household savings and record-low mortgage rates pushed demand even further
- Supply chain disruptions greatly increased the cost of materials like lumber
- Construction of new homes couldn’t keep up, and housing supply fell to historic lows
Today, home prices are at record highs and the cost of borrowing is rapidly rising. For evidence, look no further than the 30-year fixed mortgage rate, which has doubled to more than 6% since the beginning of 2022.
Given these developments, the drop in the number of home sales could be a sign that many Americans are being priced out of the market.
3. Don’t expect groceries to become any cheaper
Inflation has been a hot topic this year, especially with gas prices reaching $5 a gallon. But there’s one category of goods that’s perhaps even more alarming: food.
The following table includes food inflation over the past three years, as the percent change over the past 12 months.
|Date||CPI Food Component (%)|
From this data, we can see that food inflation really picked up speed in April 2020, jumping to +3.5% from +1.9% in the previous month. This was due to supply chain disruptions and a sudden rebound in global demand.
Fast forward to today, and food inflation is running rampant at 10.1%. A contributing factor is the impending fertilizer shortage, which stems from the Ukraine war. As it turns out, Russia is not only a massive exporter of oil, but wheat and fertilizer as well.
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