Readers know there are two statistics that have caused me to worry for the past few years about the health of the economy and the market.
The first statistic is a macroeconomic indicator called the Employment-to-Population Ratio (E/Pop, to distinguish it from E/P or earnings yield). I prefer E/Pop to all other employment-health indicators because, unlike the unemployment and labor force participation rates, it takes the least amount of manipulation to calculate it.
E/Pop is simply the number of adults (16+ YO) employed in the US divided by the number of people 16+ living in the US who are not in institutions (jail, mental health facilities, etc.) or in the military. No one has to guess whether these people are “looking” for work or really “participating”. It measures the number of people truly working relative to the number of us relying on those who are working to pay our collective bills. After all, the money that pays our bills can only come from people who produce; it is not created from thin air.
If there is a weakness in this indicator, it is that it overestimates economic strength by including in the numerator those who work part time, especially now when the proportion of part time workers is elevated.
Robust economic conditions are indicated by relatively high E/Pop ratios and weak conditions by relatively low E/Pop ratios.
The E/Pop has indicated that the economy is weak and that this “recovery” since 2007 could easily be labeled “stagnation”. The E/Pop plummeted in the housing crisis and despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus, it has barely gotten off the mat since. May’s reading announced today is 59.4%. The last time (before the current stagnation) that it was this low was in April 1984 when the economy was still digesting Paul Volcker’s attempt to choke off the inflation debacle of the late 1970s.
The second statistic–one that continues to worry me about the stock market–is Robert Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted PE (CAPE) ratio. The latest reading shows that the stock market’s price equals 27.38 times its trailing ten-year earnings. The last time it was this high was July 2007, almost to the day that the housing crisis began and about one year before the stock market plummeted in response. It was higher only twice before in history, just before two of history’s most terrifying market crashes.
I write about these “macro” themes because, as Howard Marks says, it’s important for “intelligent investors” to know where the economy and market stand as they go about their business of evaluating businesses one-by-one and determining whether they can purchase those businesses at prices that deliver a Margin of Safety. Since 2011, the level of the CAPE helps explains why investors have found so few opportunities that possess a Margin of Safety. Invest appropriately.