Fortune Magazine
by Geoff Colvin
February 21 2008: 9:17 PM EST
Email | Print    Type Size  -  +

A new way to value the market

The latest technology enables novel analysis of whether stocks are attractively priced now. (Hint: They might be.)

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large

(Fortune Magazine) -- Are stocks cheap yet? That slippery, eternal question is worth a look right now because a remarkable new set of data has just become available, allowing us to analyze the market in ways we never could before. I wish I could tell you that this new trove of numbers reveals that stocks are a screaming buy. It doesn't. But it does suggest that, amid all the recent tumult, just maybe the market is being rational.

The new data are derived from the most fundamental, capital-based way of analyzing a company's finances and value. How much capital is a company using? What is its return on capital? How much does the capital cost? Those questions hold the key to corporate performance, but finding the answers in most financial statements isn't easy, and many executives don't know the answers themselves. The Stern Stewart consulting firm began popularizing these concepts more than 15 years ago with the term EVA (economic value added), and the new data come from EVA Dimensions, a firm that is now the source of Stern Stewart's EVA data.

EVA-based analysis has proven extremely valuable in analyzing individual companies. I almost never make calls on specific stocks, but in late 1999 the EVA analysis of AOL was so compelling that I wrote a column declaring flatly that the stock price could not possibly be justified. That column was published on Jan. 10, 2000, right near the overall market peak (and the very day that AOL announced it was using its insanely overvalued stock to buy my employer, Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500) - but that's another story). I also used EVA analysis to write last summer that Google (GOOGLE) was overpriced at $540; that call looked wrong for a while, though as I write this the stock is at $501.

One thing you couldn't do with EVA analysis was use it to value the whole market. Compiling the data for a significant number of companies used to take months. But now, through the miracles of our networked world, EVA Dimensions can compile it every day for 2,669 companies in the Russell 3000 (those for which at least two years of data are available). This is essentially the U.S. stock market. So: Is it worth what it costs?

Look first at how well the companies are doing at their most basic task, which is earning a return on their capital that's greater than the total cost of that capital. Turns out they've been doing very well. The dollar difference between their return on capital and cost of capital (their EVA) was $375 billion over the past four quarters. It was only half that much in 2005, and in 2004 it was negative, which isn't surprising. Over time, for the broader market, EVA should be more or less zero since competition is always forcing high returns down toward the cost of capital, while companies that can't meet their capital cost will eventually go under. So America's publicly traded companies did great last year; in fact, with economic growth strong through the third quarter, it's safe to say that they were at or near the top of the business cycle.

Next question: How are they being valued? On a recent day when the Dow closed at 12,265, the 2,669 Russell 3000 companies had a total enterprise value of $29.8 trillion (equity plus debt). To judge whether that's a lot or a little, consider that over the past four quarters these companies produced after-tax operating profits of about $1.8 trillion. Even if we assume that earnings will only match, not exceed, that level in future years, then the companies' aggregate market value today would still be $22.5 trillion (note to finance wonks: that's their profits capitalized at their capital cost of about 8.1%), which is about 75% of their actual market value.

So now we reach the central question. About 25% of the current market value of these companies is based on expectations of future profits above and beyond the profits they earned last year, at the top of the business cycle. Does that seem reasonable? Actually, it just might. The math gets a bit tedious, but you can assume no profit growth for the next several years and very modest growth thereafter, and the valuation still looks okay.

Buying at today's prices may not make you rich. But - for the first time in a long time, in my view - it isn't crazy.  To top of page