AAII Investor Update: Stocks Are Pricey, But Inexpensive

Thursday, May 24, 2012
Charles Rotblut, CFA
AAII Journal Editor

AAII Resources

Stock Splits vs. Stock Dividends
Our financial statement FAQ explains the difference.

Will the Real P/E Please Stand Up?
Price-earnings ratios are not all the same.

AAII Discussion Boards
Is there a limit to what you will pay for a stock?

Most Popular AAII Articles

  1. “Notes on the Current State of the Muni Bond Market”
  2. “5 Memorable Mistakes and the Lessons I Learned”
  3. “Screening for Stocks With Strong Secular Growth”


Sentiment Survey

This week’s AAII Sentiment Survey results:
  Bullish: 30.5%, up 6.9 points
  Neutral: 30.9%, up 0.4 points
  Bearish: 38.7%, down 7.3 points

Long-term averages:
  Bullish: 39%
  Neutral: 31%
  Bearish: 30%

Take the AAII Sentiment Survey »


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March 03, 2011

The average price for S&P 500 companies hit a record high in April, even as the index itself traded at just 13.2 times projected 2012 earnings.

S&P 500 stocks traded at an average price of $58.52 on April 30, 2012, according to the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. This was 9.1% higher than the average price of $53.66 registered when the large-cap index hit its all-time high of 1,565.15 in October 2007. As of May 15, 2012, 48 S&P 500 stocks commanded share prices in excess of $100—the largest number since at least 1990. (Bloomberg’s data goes back to 1990.)

Behind the higher share prices is a dearth of stock splits. To date, just four companies have split their shares this year. Last year, only 16 companies split their stocks. In comparison, an average of 35 companies split their stock each year between 2004 and 2007, according to the article.

The reasons are not completely clear as to why companies are not splitting their shares. One reason may be fear about another downturn in the markets. Companies don’t want their stocks falling below certain price levels. (A share price below $5 can cause a stock to be delisted from the major exchanges.) Some CEOs may see high share prices as a sign of success. Yet another possibility is that shares of Apple (AAPL) trading in excess of $600 last month signals that triple-digit stock prices are not a deterrent to buyers. Most likely, a combination of factors, including these, are at play.

It is very important to understand, however, that price and valuation are two very different things. It is human nature to view Apple’s price of $565.32 as high and Micron Technology’s (MU) price of $5.74 as low, but neither number tells you anything about the stocks’ valuations. Rather, the tendency to view a stock as cheap or expensive based on price alone is a behavioral error known as anchoring. We base our opinion of the price on a mental benchmark, even though the price reveals nothing about what a stock is actually worth.

This is why it is critical to focus on valuation and not price. A stock can be cheap at $500 if its price-earnings multiple is low and a stock can be expensive at $5 if its price-earnings multiple is high. The tables below put this in more concrete terms. Table 1 shows the 10 highest-priced stocks in the S&P 500. Table 2 shows the stocks with the highest price-earnings ratios based on projected 2012 earnings. As you look at the two tables, ask yourself which truly has the most expensive stocks.

Table 1. S&P 500 Stocks Sorted by Price
Company Ticker Price Forward P/E
Priceline.com, Inc. PCLN $632.00 20.0
Google, Inc. GOOG $600.40 13.8
Apple, Inc. AAPL $530.38 11.3
Intuitive Surgical, Inc. ISRG $511.24 34.7
Mastercard, Inc. MA $394.56 17.8
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. CMG $392.13 44.1
AutoZone, Inc. AZO $372.45 16.0
Washington Post Company WPO $333.00 16.5
CME Group, Inc. CME $258.00 15.7
Amazon.com, Inc. AMZN $213.85 182.0

Table 2. S&P 500 Stocks Sorted by Forward P/E
Company Ticker Price Forward P/E
Netflix, Inc. NFLX $69.96 842.9
WPX Energy Inc. WPX $15.37 189.8
Amazon.com, Inc. AMZN $213.85 182.0
Motorola Mobility Holdings, Inc. MMI $39.20 95.1
salesforce.com, Inc. CRM $145.58 90.5
Host Hotels and Resorts, Inc. HST $14.11 77.5
Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation COG $34.27 71.0
Boston Properties, Inc. BXP $100.87 68.9
Range Resources, Corp. RRC $61.46 67.7
Crown Castle International, Corp. CCI $52.86 65.4

Invest Based on Dollar Amounts, Not Share Counts

When deciding how many shares to buy, think in terms of dollars invested, not the number of shares purchased. It might be mentally satisfying to own nice, orderly blocks of 100 shares, but doing so will cause your allocation to be askew. Purchasing 100 shares of a stock trading at $50 requires a $5,000 investment; purchasing 100 shares of a stock trading at $20 requires a $2,000 investment. As you can see, investing solely on share count can cause you to invest 150% more in the stock with the higher price.

A better strategy is to determine the dollar amount you want to invest and then divide that by the current share price. It will make no difference to your broker if you by 73, 169 or 242 shares—your commission will be the same. Investing by dollar amount, instead of share count, however, will keep you from being over- or under-allocated to specific stocks, thereby lowering your portfolio’s risk.

More on AAII.com

  • The Difference Between Stock Splits and Stock Dividends – Our FAQ on financial statements explains what a stock split, a stock dividend and a reverse split are.
  • A Cautionary Note About Robert Shiller’s CAPE – Just as prices can be misleading indicators of worth, a valuation multiple can be also be misleading if you don’t fully understand what’s influencing it. A good example of this is the CAPE ratio.
  • Will the Real P/E Please Stand Up? – There is more than one way to a calculate a price-earnings multiple.
  • Is There a Minimum or Maximum Price You Will Pay for a Stock? – Tell us on the AAII Discussion Boards.
  • Don’t forget to take the Sentiment Survey.

  • The Week Ahead

    The U.S. financial markets will be closed on Monday, May 28, in observance of Memorial Day.

    The only S&P 500 members scheduled to report earnings next week are Joy Global (JOY) and SAIC (SAI), both of which will announce results on Thursday.

    The week’s first economic reports will be the Conference Board’s May consumer confidence survey and the March S&P Case-Shiller housing price index, both of which will be published on Tuesday. Wednesday will feature April pending home sales. The May ADP Employment Report, the May Chicago PMI and the first revision to first-quarter GDP will be released on Thursday. Friday will feature the May jobs report—including the unemployment rate and the change in nonfarm payrolls—plus the May ISM manufacturing survey, April personal income and spending and April construction spending.

    Three Federal Reserve officials will speak publicly on Wednesday: New York President William Dudley, Dallas President Richard Fisher and Boston President Eric Rosengren. Cleveland President Sandra Pianalto will speak publicly on Thursday.

    AAII Sentiment Survey

    Bullish sentiment rebounded as bearish sentiment pulled back from unusually high levels in the latest AAII Sentiment Survey.

    Bullish sentiment, expectations that stock prices will rise over the next six months, rose 6.9 percentage points to 30.5%. This is the eighth consecutive week that bullish sentiment has been below its historical average of 39%.

    Neutral sentiment, expectations that stock prices will stay essentially flat over the next six months, edged up 0.4 percentage points to 30.9%. The historical average is 31%.

    Bearish sentiment, expectations that stock prices will fall over the next six months, fell 7.3 percentage points to 38.7%. Even with the drop, bearish sentiment is above its historical average of 30% for the sixth time in seven weeks.

    The level of pessimism declined from the unusually high readings registered during the last two weeks as the market's downside volatility paused. Nonetheless, individual investors remain concerned about the short-term direction of stock prices. Europe and the pace of U.S. economic growth remain key concerns.

    This week’s special question asked AAII members which sectors or industries they like right now. Energy was named by the largest number of respondents, followed by technology, health care, and consumer staples. When the same question was asked last February, members said they liked energy, technology and real estate [real estate investment trusts (REITs) and home building stocks].

    » Take the sentiment survey