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The Buffett Indicator at All-Time Highs: Is This Cause for Concern?

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The Buffett Indicator - Stock Market Value to GDP

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:

US 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.

Measuring GDP

For the data on GDP since 1950, CMV dipped into the archives from the U.S. Government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis:

US GDP since 1950

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.

The Ratio

According to Warren Buffett, “if the ratio approaches 200%…you are playing with fire.”

The Buffett Indicator since 1950

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:

DateEventBuffett IndicatorValue (+/- Trendline)
October 1987Black MondayFairly Valued-13%
March 2000Dotcom BubbleStrongly Overvalued+71%
December 2007Pre-Financial CrisisFairly Valued+18%
March 2009Financial Crisis BottomUndervalued-46%
February 2020COVID-19Overvalued+49%
February 2021TodayStrongly 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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Markets

Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America

Compared to January 2020, 34% of small businesses are currently closed. This map looks at the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas.

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Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America

In the business news cycle, headlines are often dominated by large corporations, macroeconomic news, or government action.

While mom and pop might not always be in focus, collectively small businesses are a powerful and influential piece of the economy. In fact, 99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. qualify as small businesses, collectively employing almost half (47.3%) of the nation’s private workforce.

Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy amid the pandemic. From the CARES Act to the new budget proposal, billions of dollars have been allocated towards helping small businesses to get back on their feet.

Small Business Recovery in 50 Metro Areas

During the pandemic, many small businesses have either swiftly pivoted to survive, or struggled to stay afloat. This map pulls data from Opportunity Insights to examine the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas across America.

So, has the situation improved since the last time we examined this data? The short answer is no—on a national scale, 34% of small businesses are closed compared to January 2020.

San Francisco is one of the most affected metro areas, with a 48% closure rate of small businesses. New York City has spiralled the most since the end of September 2020.

U.S. Metro Area% Change in # of
Small Businesses Open
(As of Sep 25, 2020)
% Change in # of
Small Businesses Open
(As of Apr 23, 2021)
7-month change (p.p.)
Albuquerque-23%-34%-11
Atlanta-26%-35%-9
Austin-32%-38%-6
Bakersfield-31%-35%-4
Baltimore-28%-35%-7
Boston-33%-47%-14
Charlotte-18%-28%-10
Chicago-27%-38%-11
Cleveland-26%-34%-8
Colorado Springs-23%-28%-5
Columbus-21%-28%-7
Dallas-Fort Worth-21%-28%-7
Denver-25%-29%-4
Detroit-28%-38%-10
El Paso-25%-26%-1
Fresno-26%-30%-4
Honolulu-41%-25%+16
Houston-30%-34%-4
Indianapolis-25%-34%-9
Jacksonville-18%-28%-10
Kansas City-15%-26%-11
Las Vegas-22%-30%-8
Los Angeles-27%-34%-7
Louisville-23%-35%-12
Memphis-21%-24%-3
Miami-23%-34%-11
Milwaukee-22%-27%-5
Minneapolis-21%-29%-8
Nashville-21%-26%-5
New Orleans-45%-39%+6
New York City-21%-42%-21
Oakland-32%-35%-3
Oklahoma City-26%-35%-9
Philadelphia-24%-31%-7
Phoenix-19%-31%-12
Portland-34%-36%-2
Raleigh-16%-29%-13
Sacramento-33%-34%-1
Salt Lake City-18%-23%-5
San Antonio-34%-40%-6
San Diego-28%-38%-10
San Francisco-49%-48%+2
San Jose-35%-44%-9
Seattle-28%-30%-2
Tampa-22%-40%-18
Tucson-27%-28%-1
Tulsa-23%-32%-9
Virginia Beach--36%0
Washington DC-37%-47%-10
Wichita-15%-28%-13

Data as of Apr 23, 2021 and indexed to Jan 4-31, 2020.

On the flip side, Honolulu has seen the most improvement. As travel and tourism numbers into Hawaii have steadily risen up with lifted nationwide restrictions, there has been a 16 p.p. increase in open businesses compared to September 2020.

Road to a K-Shaped Recovery

As of April 25, 2021, nearly 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, even with this rapid vaccine rollout, various segments of the economy aren’t recovering at the same pace.

Take for instance the stark difference between professional services and the leisure and hospitality sector. Though small business revenues in both segments have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the latter has much more catching up to do:

Small Business Recovery Supplemental - Business Revenues

This uneven phenomena is known as a K-shaped recovery, where some industries see more improvement compared to others that stagnate in the aftermath of a recession.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit Endures

Despite these continued hardships, it appears that many Americans have not been deterred from starting their own businesses.

Many small businesses require an Employer Identification Number (EIN) which makes EIN applications a good proxy for business formation activity. Despite an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic spike in EIN business applications.

ein business applications

Even in the face of a global pandemic, the perseverance of such metrics prove that the innovative American spirit is unwavering, and spells better days to come for small business recovery.

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Markets

Pandemic Recovery: Have BEACH Stocks Bounced Back?

BEACH stocks—bookings, entertainment, airlines, cruises, and hotels—were pulverized at the beginning of the pandemic. Here’s how they’ve bounced back.

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Pandemic Recovery: Have BEACH Stocks Bounced Back?

The travel and entertainment industries have had a volatile ride over the last year.

During the initial stages of the pandemic, when panic and uncertainty ran rife, BEACH stocks–booking, entertainment, airlines, cruises, and hotels—were left scrambling. Collectively, $332 billion in market cap washed away.

Now, it appears the tide might be turning for these companies, buoyed by vaccine breakthroughs and glimmers of hope for a return to normalcy.

This infographic looks at the growth in market cap value across BEACH stocks one year from when the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Washing Back to Shore?

BEACH stocks have gained a collective $376 billion in market cap in the year since the pandemic was declared, with about half the companies trading at their respective all-time highs.

In fact, about 70% of BEACH stocks have actually outperformed the S&P 500, which returned 43.7% during the same period.

CompanyTickerCategoryMarket Cap: 03/11/20 ($B)Market Cap: 03/11/21 ($B)Change
American AirlinesAALAirlines7.214.296%
Southwest AirlinesLUVAirlines23.534.446%
Alaska Air GroupALKAirlines5.78.142%
United AirlinesUALAirlines13.017.233%
Air CanadaACAirlines5.97.933%
Delta Air LinesDALAirlines29.130.96%
Expedia GroupEXPEBooking12.024.6105%
Allegiant TravelALGTBooking2.04.198%
Booking HoldingsBKNGBooking64.096.051%
Caesars EntertainmentCZRCasino & Hotel2.220.8824%
Norwegian Cruise LinesNCLHCruise & Casino4.310.9151%
Royal Caribbean CruisesRCLCruise & Casino10.822.4108%
CarnivalCCLCruise & Casino16.431.893%
Penn National GamingPENNEntertainment & Live Events2.620.4661%
Six FlagsSIXEntertainment & Live Events1.74.1142%
Live NationLYVEntertainment & Live Events10.819.379%
The Walt Disney CoDISEntertainment & Live Events201.2357.177%
Cedar FairFUNEntertainment & Live Events1.82.857%
HiltonHLTHotels25.034.638%
Marriott InternationalMARHotels35.648.235%
Choice Hotels InternationalCHHHotels4.55.930%
Hyatt HotelsHHotels6.78.729%
Marriott Vacations WorldwideVACHotels & Resorts3.87.7103%
Vail ResortsMTNHotels & Resorts7.113.488%
Park Hotels & ResortsPKHotels & Resorts3.45.358%
Wyndham Hotels & ResortsWHHotels & Resorts4.26.451%
MGM Resorts InternationalMGMResorts & Casino10.219.389%
Wynn ResortsWYNNResorts & Casino9.715.964%
Las Vegas SandsLVSResorts & Casino40.748.218%

BEACH Stocks Leaders and Laggards

When dissecting this basket of stocks by industry, it’s clear that much of the recovery story is lopsided. One reason for this, despite the pandemic, is that there are more granular, idiosyncratic trends occurring within these sectors.

Let’s look at what’s propelling the leaders, and dragging down the laggards:

Leading: Online Betting

There’s reason to be bullish on gambling stocks. Since late 2018, some 20 states have legalized sports betting, with more expecting to follow. Relative to other areas, the pandemic has been kind to gambling stocks. Many of those with an online presence have witnessed a spike in traffic, as more people continue to flock towards online betting.

Within the BEACH stocks basket, Penn National Gaming and Caesars Entertainment are clear outliers, having grown an epic 661% and 823% respectively. In addition, the broader industry (measured by the BETZ ETF) has nearly doubled the performance of the S&P 500 since its inception.

Laggard: Airlines

The return to normalcy will be much more delayed for airlines. Global RPKs, an industry metric, are not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Actions of insiders also seem to match this negative sentiment. Warren Buffett, once a staunch supporter of airlines, decided to call it quits during the pandemic—dumping his entire position.

Airline COVID RPKs

U.S. airline executives have collectively been selling their stakes much more aggressively than in the last few years. To add insult to injury, there’s significant shorting of airline stocks as well. At a short interest of 11.6%, American Airlines is most heavily shorted BEACH stock.

Laggard: Hotels

In a year where social interactions and gatherings have largely disappeared, so too has much of the business activity for hotels. For instance, Hilton sales suffered a 58% decline year-over-year.

But even without the pandemic, the hotel industry had their work cut out for them, through a growing and formidable competitor in Airbnb. Airbnb can scale its network beyond what any hotel can. This is evident in its room count, which is greater than the largest hotels combined.

Airbnb room count vs hotels

More Bumps On The Road Ahead?

The investing landscape today looks to be disconnected from reality, in part because of the forward-looking nature of markets. Even though things are dire today, there’s a belief that light exists at the end of the tunnel.

But the path to recovery isn’t quite so linear. When the dust settles, it’ll become more apparent which industries will “return to normal” and which have set out permanently on a new trajectory.

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