U.S. equity market valuation spreads suggest a value resurgence

March 30, 2017

Value indexes handily outpaced growth indexes in every global region in 2016, a trend we believe is worth noting. Our research suggests that a significant opportunity is in the offing for deep value investing, given the length and durability of previous value cycles and the significant width of current valuation spreads.

Value investing and the opportunity inherent in widening spreads

As value investors, we're focused on owning a portfolio of stocks that is cheap relative to a broad universe of stocks that is currently considered very expensive. The price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 Index has recently risen to historic levels-stock prices at more than 22 times trailing earnings as compared with just over 17 times earnings for the 5-year and 16 times earnings for the 10-year period-although earnings are expected to grow for a third consecutive quarter following six consecutive quarters of declines.1

Equity valuations have been at extremes for some time—cheap cyclicals and expensive dividend payers and bond proxies—and this divergence has been a hindrance for active managers, as volatility and fear have been driving the markets. Our research indicates that when spreads widen significantly, the excess return potential for value investors has been significant. The valuation spreads between the cheapest stocks and the most expensive stocks are at levels last seen during the tech bubble in the late 1990s and are among the widest spreads witnessed in the past 50 years.2

Putting the latest pro-value cycle in perspective

Our analysis suggests that deep value stocks are likely to outperform when valuation spreads cross one standard deviation, and we're currently measuring more than two standard deviations.3 Value stocks have outperformed 13 out of 14 times in subsequent three-year periods and 11 out of 13 five-year periods when spreads have become outsized. On average in the United States, value stocks have experienced outperformance of 44% and 71% over the three- and five-year periods, respectively, following a turn in the value cycle. These stocks have only gained about 21% since the cycle turned to value in February 2016, which gives them a great deal of room to grow, considering the average of 161% produced over the full value cycles.2

U.S. equity market valuation spreads suggest a value resurgence

Our analysis shows that pro-value cycles have lasted an average of 72 months since 1973. While we can't be certain if we're experiencing a true rotation to value, we believe there is significant opportunity embedded in the valuations of deep value stocks relative to the broad market.

Specific opportunities in certain sectors

We see opportunity in the financials sector, as valuations for many of the companies we've targeted don't reflect improving economic conditions or the numerous operating improvements completed by these companies. This self-healing process has led to improved profitability, and the potential for regulatory reform could benefit companies in this sector. Also, we've invested in mature information technology businesses that are making the transition to cloud computing, and we favor diversified integrated energy producers that should generate increased cash flow from the commencement of major projects that were previously on hold.

1 FactSet, as of 3/16/17.

2 Pzena Investment Management, as of 12/31/16.

3 Standard deviation measures the dispersion of a data set from its mean.

Important disclosures

No forecasts are guaranteed. The information contained herein is based on sources believed to be reliable, but it is neither all inclusive nor guaranteed by John Hancock Investments. Price-to-book and price-to-earnings ratios are valuation metrics measuring a stock's price relative to its book value and annual earnings per share, respectively.The S&P 500 Index tracks the performance of 500 of the largest publicly traded companies in the United States. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

Value stocks may decline in price. Foreign investing, especially in emerging markets, has additional risks, such as currency and market volatility and political and social instability. A portfolio concentrated in one sector or that holds a limited number of securities may fluctuate more than a diversified portfolio.