If the answer were "yes" or "no", this would be a short column.
I don't write short columns.
First of all, we have to decide what we mean by "cheap".
I. Ancient History
Going back to the last quarter of 1936, you would have paid an average of $15.82 for every dollar of earnings for the Standard and Poor's 500 Index (more diverse than the better known Dow Jones Industrial Average, which consists of 30, as compared with 500 companies). That average price is the numerator (top number in the fraction) of the Price/Earnings, or P/E ratio. The denominator (bottom number in the fraction) is the amount the S&P 500 earns. So, the average P/E (or amount you pay for every dollar of earnings you're buying) has been 15.82
Last Friday, the S&P 500 average was $1028.93. That's the price. S&P projects the next twelve months' earnings to be $48.67.
1028.93/48.67 = 21.14 Right now, you're paying $21.14 for every dollar the S&P 500 is projected to earn for the next year. That's 25% more than the average price has been since 1936. So, using that measurement, no, the market is not cheap.
II. Last Year
A year ago last Friday, the S&P 500 average was 1282.83. Earnings over the last year were $33.60.
1282.83/33.60 = 38.18. $33.18 is 80% more than $21.14, so the market is a lot cheaper than it was last year. You may have heard something about this. The market is down a lot.
III. Forward vs. Trailing Earnings
Many of you are racing to your Wall St. Journals and saying, "Hey, Kitty, what gives? Their P/E ratio is different from yours!"
Some financial publications do the math this way:
Right Now Price divided by Last Year's Earnings
I do my math like this:
Right Now Price divided by NEXT YEAR'S EARNINGS
Why do I do that? Last year's earning were earned by people who bought the market last year. When I talk about earnings, I am talking about now - not last year. I get my earnings projections from Standard & Poor's - not some Wall St. schlub who's trying to talk me into buying or selling. Standard & Poor's doesn't care if I buy or not, so I trust their projections more than I trust those who have a stake in how the answer looks.
IV. Comparable Yields
The Federal Reserve, and a lot of other really smart people determine the value of the market by comparing it with what you'd get if you invested someplace else.
Since you're much too smart an investor to jump in and out of the market, paying short term capital gains taxes on all your sales, you are a long term investor. Short term investors don't belong in the stock market. Stock markets can correct, as you've seen recently, and short term investors can get their heads handed to them in corrections.
So, the long term investor compares the price they pay for the market to another long term investment - the 10 year Treasury Note. That's a loan to the US Treasury for that collection of deficits we've been running up lately.
The ten year Treasury Note is paying 3.48%. So, what is the market paying?
It's the reverse of the P/E, it's E/P. Again, the projected earnings are $48.67 and the market is trading at 1028.93.
48.67/1028.93 = 4.73%
4.73% is 26% more than the 3.48% Treasury Note yield, so your return on the stock market looks a lot better than your return on a 10 year bond. And it should.
Those stock market earnings aren't guaranteed. Something bad could happen. There's risk in the market. That's why you should get paid more.
But 26% more is pretty good under anybody's measurement.
V. So, is the market cheap?
Historically cheap? No
Cheap compared to last year? Yes
Cheap compared to comparable yields? Yes
More yes than no.
If this stuff were easy, everybody would be rich.