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The Buffett Valuation Indicator: Market Cap To GDP

  • Written by Syndicated Publisher No Comments Comments
    January 10, 2014

    From time to time I’m asked why I don’t include Market Cap to GDP among the long-term valuation indicators I routinely follow. The metric gained popularity in recent years thanks to Warren Buffett’s remark in a 2001 Fortune Magazine interview that “it is probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”

    My friend and guest contributor Chris Turner offered some analysis along those lines last year using the S&P 500 as the surrogate for the market (When Warren Buffett Talks … People Listen). For a broader measure of Market Cap, VectorGrader.com uses line 36 in the Federal Reserve’s B.102 balance sheet (Market Value of Equities Outstanding) as the numerator. Since both GDP and the Fed’s data are quarterly, the folks at VectorGrader.com do some interpolation and extrapolation to produce monthly estimates. Their latest chart is available to the general public here.

    The four valuation indicators I track in my monthly valuation overview offer a long-term perspective of well over a century. The raw data for the “Buffett indicator” only goes back as far as the middle of the 20th century. Quarterly GDP dates from 1947, and the Fed’s B.102 Balance sheet has quarterly updates beginning in Q4 1951. With an acknowledgement of this abbreviated timeframe, let’s take a look at the plain vanilla quarterly ratio with no effort to interpolate monthly data or extrapolate since the end of the most recent quarterly numbers. Here is a chart I created using the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) data and charting tool.

    That strange numerator in the chart title, MVEONWMVBSNNCB, is the FRED designation for Line 36 in the B.102 balance sheet (Market Value of Equities Outstanding), available on the Federal Reserve website here in PDF format.

    For those of you who may have reservations about the Federal Reserve economists’ estimation of Market Value, I can offer a more transparent alternate snapshot over a shorter timeframe. Here is the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Full Cap Index divided by GDP, again using the FRED repository charting tool.

    A quick technical note: To match the quarterly intervals of GDP, for the Wilshire data I’ve used the quarterly average of daily closes rather than quarterly closes (slightly smoothing the volatility). The vertical axis in the chart above is the result of using an index scale for GDP set to 100 at the US Recession Peak in December 2007. I also used the 2007 date for the Wilshire index. Regardless of how you chain the index values, the chart contour is unaffected. Here is a link to the FRED page containing my calculations.

    What Do These Charts Tell Us?

    Both the “Buffett Index” and the Wilshire 5000 variant suggest that today’s market is at lofty valuations. In fact, the latest quarter in the Wilshire version is the third highest in its history, fractionally topped by two quarters in 2000.

    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    My original dshort.com website was launched in February 2005 using a domain name based on my real name, Doug Short. I’m a formerly retired first wave boomer with a Ph.D. in English from Duke. Now my website has been acquired byAdvisor Perspectives, where I have been appointed the Vice President of Research.

    My first career was a faculty position at North Carolina State University, where I achieved the rank of Full Professor in 1983. During the early ’80s I got hooked on academic uses of microcomputers for research and instruction. In 1983, I co-directed the Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities. An IBM executive who attended the conference made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.

    Thus began my new career as a Higher Education Consultant for IBM — an ambassador for Information Technology to major universities around the country. After 12 years with Big Blue, I grew tired of the constant travel and left for a series of IT management positions in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I concluded my IT career managing the group responsible for email and research databases at GlaxoSmithKline until my retirement in 2006.

    Contrary to what many visitors assume based on my last name, I’m not a bearish short seller. It’s true that some of my content has been a bit pessimistic in recent years. But I believe this is a result of economic realities and not a personal bias. For the record, my efforts to educate others about bear markets date from November 2007, as this Motley Fool article attests.
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