Nervous about sky-high stock prices? Five ways to cope with “CAPE Fear”

Another month, another record close for the major stock indices on November 30. How long can this go on? Is this a bubble? The Shiller CAPE Ratio certainly looks “bubbly,” now that it’s solidly above 30, see the chart below. It’s almost as high as in September 1929, right before the crash. And significantly above the 2007 peak right before one of the stock crashes in recent history. Should we scale back our equity positions now? It sounds tempting now that we are so close to retirement. As of Wednesday morning, while doing the final edits it definitely looks as though stocks are off to a bumpy start in December!

Shiller CAPE: Closing in on the 1929 peak!

But hold your horses! Let’s look at some of the reasons not to throw in the towel yet…

1: The Shiller CAPE is notoriously unreliable for timing the equity market exit!

What exactly constitutes a CAPE high enough to scale back my equity position? Should we take the pre-financial-crisis peak of 27.55? We blew through that number in December 2016 and had we gotten out of equities back then we’d have missed 20% worth of returns year-to-date. Likewise, if you think that today’s CAPE of 31.3 is high, would we have sold equities back in the 1990s at a CAPE level of 31.3? That would have been in June 1997 when the S&P 500 stood at 885 points. The S&P had another 79% to go before the peak (dividends reinvested). The CAPE is not exactly the best measure for pinning down the equity market exit! Of course, in its defense, I would still maintain that the Shiller CAPE measure is a nice tool for adjusting the safe withdrawal rate, see Part 18 of the Safe withdrawal rate series!

2: When would I move back into stocks again?

One advantage of not selling stocks right now: I don’t have to worry about when to get back in again! Remember, we can’t sustain a 50 to 60-year horizon with U.S. Treasury bonds yielding slightly more than the rate of inflation. Eventually, I have to shift back into equities. But when? It turns out the CAPE is just as useless for timing the entry as it was for timing the exit. As we can see from the chart above, the CAPE didn’t even drop below 20 after the dot-com bubble. After the global financial crisis, we dropped below 15 but only very briefly before jumping back to above 20. So, this widely used CAPE rule-of-thumb out there – 10 is cheap, 15 is normal, 20 is expensive – would have deprived us of some pretty nice stock gains since 2010. In fact, in case of a normal, garden-variety recession and stock market correction in a year or two we likely will not even drop below 20. It would be just too risky to miss the entry point. I know folks who got out of stocks in 2015 during the whole mess with the Chinese devaluation. Good timing because in early 2016 you could have reentered when the S&P500 dropped to the low-1800s. But if you missed that reentry point, and a lot of folks did because they were nervous and didn’t want to catch the “falling knife,” then they would have potentially missed out on a lot of nice gains since then!

3: Depending on the measure we use to value the S&P, stocks aren’t even that expensive!

One problem with the historical CAPE comparisons: If we think that stocks are expensive, that’s fine. They may very well be. But after we sell our stocks, where do we put the money?

Where are the cheap undervalued assets to invest in after we sell stocks?

Bonds are expensive, too. Yields are still extremely low by historical comparison and with the U.S. Federal Reserve on the path to raising interest rates once more next week and three times next year, bond prices will potentially come under pressure. So the Shiller earnings yield (CAEY = 1/CAPE) may be low but relative to the bond yield it doesn’t look so bad.

So, let’s do the following experiment: Let’s look at not just the Cyclically-Adjusted Earnings Yield (CAEY) but also the CAEY minus the 10-year U.S. Treasury Yield and the CAEY minus the 3-month T-bill rate and compare the most recent value with the historical distribution, see table below. As we already knew, today’s CAEY (1/31.3=3.19%) is extremely low, 3.21% below the median and lower than in 97.1% of the observations in history. CAEY minus the 10-year yield is still low by historical comparison, but not outrageously so; 28% of the time it was even lower! Finally, the difference between CAEY and the 3M T-bill rate is pretty close to the historical median. I don’t want sell stocks and rush to bonds or cash that have below-average expected returns as well!

CAPE vs interest rates - Nov2017
Earnings yield and earnings yield relative to interest rates. The CAEY doesn’t look so elevated relative to 10-year government bond yields and it looks close to normal (median) relative to 3-month T-bill rates!

4: Corporate Earnings Growth looks very solid

The CAPE can fall if the index falls and/or earnings per share (EPS) rise. And recall that EPS in the CAPE construction refers to the 10-year rolling average inflation-adjusted earnings. Over the next 2 years, we will be rolling out some of the really awful earnings numbers from the Global Financial Crisis. And that would be true even if there was no earnings growth at all. But looking at the earnings projections from S&P Dow Jones (click on menu “Additional Info”, then “Index Earnings” to download the spreadsheet) EPS is projected to grow to above 130 by the end of 2018 and applying some moderate 8% growth in 2019, we’ll get to above 140. When we’re replacing an earnings number of 20 or below with a 100+ annual EPS, we will drag down the Shiller CAPE. Using the earnings projections in the chart below, I calculated the Shiller CAPE at the end of 2019, for a few scenarios of S&P500 returns:

  • S&P500 returns 4% p.a. (2% price return, 2% dividend yield), i.e., the Jack Bogle expected return assumption: The CAPE would drop to 25.4!
  • S&P500 returns 5.75% p.a. (3.75% price return, 2% dividend yield), i.e., the Big ERN return assumption: The CAPE would drop to 26.3!
  • S&P500 returns 10% p.a. (8% price return, 2% dividend yield): The CAPE would still drop to 28.6!
The average 10-year rolling EPS is bound to increase if we replace the horrendous 2007-2009 earnings with today’s figures. Source: Robert Shiller, S&P Dow Jones Indices, own calculations.

So, back to the issue of finding the right reentry point: If I’m getting out now to wait for a lower CAPE ratio down the road, I may get an entry point of somewhere between 25 and 30 in 2019, but still miss out on some pretty solid equity returns along the way! How crazy is that?!

5: Corporate tax reform

Corporate profits already look strong now. Forecasts for profit growth will be revised upward even more if and when tax reform is passed, hopefully in a week or two. I have heard estimates of a 10% jump in corporate profits. Because of the slow-moving 10-year average EPS in the denominator of the CAPE construction, this will take – you guessed it – 10 years to be fully priced into the CAPE. Along the way, there will be folks complaining about the sky-high CAPE but that’s because they only look at the past 10 years of earnings while ignoring the future path. When I drive I look out the front window 99% of the time. Only 1% of the time, I check the rear view mirror!


I agree that stocks aren’t cheap. But we still have an equity-heavy portfolio and we still invest new money in stocks. To be sure, we have also invested some of the new flows into some alternative asset classes: Real Estate and Options Trading. But the growth engine for the long-term in the ERN portfolio will always be the equity portion!

We hope you enjoyed today’s post. Please leave your comments and suggestions below.

55 thoughts on “Nervous about sky-high stock prices? Five ways to cope with “CAPE Fear”

  1. Awesome insight into yet another reason to not bother timing the market! I’m 26 so I’ve got 75+ years for this money to last, and I definitely need the stock exposure. No way am I going to bother trying to time the market, so I love the positive reinforcement. 🙂

  2. Big ERN, great analysis, as always. We all know a correction WILL come at some point, so it’s best to build it into our plans. We’re 60%E / 30%B / 10% Alts. Most importantly, a portion of our “30% Bonds” is in very short term bonds and comprises our “Bucket 1” reserve for 3+ years of living expenses. The market correction would have to be a real killer to outlast the “dry powder” we’ve set aside for 3-5 years of spending requirements. It may be painful, but we should be able to ride out all but the worst, and minimize our Sequence Of Returns risk.

    1. Just to be a contrarian on this… If I was closer to retirement I would consider longer bonds not short (but not as much as 30%). Because….? they provide a much better tail risk against the equity drawdowns that you fear. Whenever there is market panic people buy Treasuries. And they also provide a higher yield than the negligible yield on short bonds.

      However the risk here is that rates rise faster than is currently priced into the curve. Given the FED is now pretty good at telegraphing its intentions to the market then I don’t think there is high chance of that happening from monetary policy. I guess there is still risk from fiscal policy driving higher inflation expectations, but I think we saw all that happen last November, and there will be no more surprises on the horizon there.

      1. Good point. But it depends on what kind of recession we get: deflationary (then bonds help) or inflationary (CPI rises, Fed raises interest rates, sinks both stocks and bonds). If it’s the latter, you’re better off with just holding bonds that hedge/fund the cash flows for the next 3-5 years. I can see pros and cons for both…

      2. I own some GLD for the eventuality. The best would be to hold the VIX on the day eventuality happens (not VXX but VIX) but the carry charge is too high, so GLD is a reasonable substitute for that. I also own some AQR market neutral funds which have reasonable returns but zero correlation to the market (similar to the options spread technique, a smart move IMHO) These also have the option to go long or short, do arbitrage, fixed equity and other strategies. I also own some low beta as a volatility hedge since I believe in diversity along asset classes and volatility. I own a tiny bit of REITS but I don’t consider REITS to be much in the way of diversity and are quite volatile. Maybe 19% in these alternatives.

        1. I like the low-beta stock strategy! GLD seems like a very steep opportunity cost. I’d rather just buy the pure gold beta through a futures contract rather than shift money from equities into a Gold ETF. Did you ever consider that?

  3. Couldn’t’ agree more. Sure the CAPE is high, but it could revert to the mean after a quick crash, or slowly over time as earnings catch up with prices. Either way, I’ll sleep well at night knowing that the biggest risk to my portfolio (myself) remains out of the loop 🙂

    Great analysis!

  4. I agree with all of the above. I took a slightly different approach as I am 3 years from full retirement (57 now) and working very part time now. As my plan for asset allocation is to follow a ‘reverse glide path’ I took this opportunity of high CAPE to rebalance to 50/47/3 stocks bonds cash over the past month. When I retire I will then greadually increase my stock exposure back to 65-75% over 10-12 years. For younger people ignoring the market noise is almost always the best course and what I advised my kids to do.

  5. Hi ERN,
    Really enjoy your Wednesday posts. With low inflation and only gradually rising rates, can we lever bonds (via futures) to make a safe distributing portfolio?

    10Y: 2 x 2.35% minus 1.5% inflation = 3.2% real!
    5Y: 2 x 2.15% minus 1.5% inflation = 2.8% real.


    1. You can buy Treasuries on margin and the most efficient way to do so is through futures. Buying physicals (e.g. bond ETFs) on margin is not recommended at most brokerage companies is not advised because the margin interest is wiping out the entire excess return.

      But careful! With futures you can’t just buy a 10Y and hold it to maturity. You have to roll the contract every three months into the next expiration. And if interest rates rise you can very quickly wipe out that small term premium (10Y yield over cash yield).

  6. I can’t argue your facts. I’m still nervous though. I have backed off on my equity allocation. I think I’m just cheap and would prefer to buy stocks at a lower price. I realize this is more emotional than logical, but I have no need to take the risk and so I choose not to.

    1. That “buying at a lower price” is a tough one. I feel that way too. If it’s any help, I’ve been feeling that ever since the S&P500 crossed 1200 points again after the global financial crisis. 🙂
      I just plow money in automatically to get over that!

  7. It’s definitely about time in the market and not timing the market. If stock prices fall this would be my first experience of a bear market so I don’t know what it feels like to go through. I just need to remember I’m in it for the long term.

  8. Fascinating reading about the EPS stuff / impact on CAPE – by removing the 2008-2009 and projecting for much higher EPS in 2018/19, CAPE moves quite a bit. Wow!

    I was also struck this week with another post I read over at “Of Dollars and Data”

    The plot where he showed that CAPE is less meaningful for future returns when looked at through the lens of a longer time period (30yrs vs 5yrs) was also a big learning for me.

    All good stuff!

    1. Thanks, Dr. PIE! Hadn’t seen the other site, thanks for the link! Of course, in defense of the CAPE I’d have to point out that for safe withdrawal rates, it’s the return over the first 10Y, not so much the return over the entire 30Y. So, folks closer to retirement still have a reason to be nervous.
      But for long-term investors just starting out saving for retirement? Fuggeddabout the CAPE! 🙂

  9. This was a nice refresher to counter all the doom and gloom I’ve been seeing lately about the high prices in the market. Appreciate the thorough analysis, as always!

  10. Thanks for the work on this. Personally I focused on #3, and to me this feels like an Equity Risk Premium type of measure. I’m a financial economist at heart, and so this way of thinking makes sense to me. I like to believe there is some internal consistency between equity and bond pricing, and equity investors will get rewarded for taking on the extra risk. So confirmation here that the “ERP” is around 2%, is low, but not outrageously poor compensation for taking the additional risks of stocks over bonds.

    But I’m not as close to ER as you are. So I am pretty relaxed about SORR at the moment….

    1. The ERP does look a little compressed at this moment (somewhere in the 200 – 300 bps range is my estimate), but nobody really knows.

      I personally will be taking a hard look at making extra payments towards the mortgage if tax reform passes. Maybe something like 25% or so of our monthly savings until the market looks more attractive. A 3.5% after tax risk free return looks pretty good in this environment.

      1. Good point! I agree. The mortgage interest deduction is toast! They can’t get rid of it all at once. First, raise the standard deduction, so only very few people will itemize. Then get rid of the mortgage deduction completely. In a few years when only a few people will miss it. Very sneaky!
        So, paying down the mortgage doesn’t look like a bad financial decision. I certainly wouldn’t want to have a mortgage in retirement, see SWR series, part 21. 🙂

  11. Thank you for doing this. A lot of people are saying the markets are too high, but ‘too high’ compared to what? If EPS are equally ‘too high’ then the market bubble isn’t growing, it’s staying the same.

    I like your prediction analysis. I didn’t know how low the EPS numbers were 10 years ago – wow, how things have changed. As the low EPS numbers fall off and get replaced with high EPS numbers, it doesn’t look like the CAPE will spike.

    1. Thanks! Yes, the earnings recession in 2008/9 was one of the worst ever! Of course, if the S&P keeps going up at 20% p.a. the CAPE will continue to rise, but with some decent moderate returns we should see some slow deflation of the CAPE soon!

  12. I will say we first entered the market during the Chinese crisis. It was a total fluke. We didn’t even know enough to know what falling knifes were. Just like that we caught it under 1800. We didn’t even know it at the time that it was good haha.

    1. Awesome! Glad to see that new investors get over their fear and take the first step. And now that you have some capital gains already it’s probably a lot easier to keep contributing! Thanks for sharing!!!

  13. Hi Big ERN. Something I’ve wondered about re SoRR, looking forward to your thoughts:

    Does ‘the first few years of retirement’ (or is it the first 5-10 years?) window depend on when one retires? I mean if you have a 60 year retirement and I have a 30 year retirement, is the concept of SoRR the same for both of us? Are we both golden if the markets don’t tank in the first few years after we each retire? Or does someone with a longer retirement have more (a longer?) SoRR somehow? Along the same vein, if one or both of us decided to work a few more years and the markets did well during that time, are we still as vulnerable to SoRR when we finally do retire? Didn’t we just work thru what would have been the vulnerable years if we had retired as originally planned? Would we still be as vulnerable once we finally retired? And last question, is it correct that SoRR is the biggest threat in year one and then decreases in each subsequent year?
    Thanks for any help on understanding this.

    1. Very good point. There is no fixed time frame for that. In fact, during the 1965-1982 episode, markets didn’t tank until 5Y into the retirement and the real pain ensued in 1973-1982 (=years 8 through 17). So, there’s no guarantee.

      In fact, in a hypothetical 60Y retirement, if after 30Y you still have “only” your initial principal (inflation-adjusted), not more not less, then potentially years 31-40 are very risky from a SoRR perspective.


  14. I think the Case/Schiller is something to look at, but if you look at other S&P P/E ratio’s (e.g. forward earnings) is certainly less than that. Now the market is certainly expensive and we will have a bear market, but that will happen probably another 1/2 dozen times in my life time. I am not that worried. Of course I am nowhere close to FI.

  15. I love seeing this after our back and forth over the bad numbers rolling out of the CAPE.

    I dislike the 10 CAPE specifically right now because many of the financial losses in 2008-2009 were mark to market or in real estate and the subsequent “adjustments” (gains) were realized by private real estate investors or hedge funds.

    1. A bit concerned, for sure. Now we’ve rolled out the Great Recession Earnings and we’re still at CAPE>30. That’s because the price index grew even faster than earnings and certainly than 10-year rolling earnings.
      So, for fresh retirees now, Sequence Risk is a concern greater than ever over the past 10 years.

    1. Some of the points are still valid: The timing issue: when do you get in again???

      We have already shifted out the very low earnings during the GFC in 2009/10, so that point is no longer valid. There’s also talks about higher corporate taxes on the horizon. Both don’t bode well for a stock market with a CAPE of 37. I would tread carefully in this environment.

      1. How would you suggest to tread carefully?
        I’m pretty close to FIRE but can’t rationalize pulling the trigger on it with CAPE being so high causing SORR to be a big concern.
        But that said it doesn’t look as though the CAPE has any chance of going down anytime soon, so what is one to do if they’re looking to RE at this point in time?

        1. Well, tread lightly as in using the historically fail-safe WR, i.e., closer to 3.5% instead of 4%. If it survived the Great Depression and the 1970s, early 80s, we will survive this one.

          1. Got it, thanks Big ERN. And yep that’s my plan.

            I was thinking I might also use your suggested 60/40 –> 100 rising glidepath approach (well actually probably will start with 70/30) but *not* adjust the SWR to the higher value it might otherwise afford but instead lock to the failsafe SWR that would be recommended without the glidepath. In a sense… pocketing the extra ~0.2% SWR or so as additional safety net rather than actually expanding my withdrawals up to the higher SWR that it might allow.

            Still feeling antsy that all of this might not be “enough” but I guess everyone feels that way when getting close to RE? It just feels extra scary with the CAPE where it is though.

            1. Well, with the GP and the a WR that’s lower than the historical fail-safe, you should be in really good shape, unless someone can convince me that the future will be worse than the Great Depression. Hard to imagine.

              1. My thinking was the same as Dave’s above. This site has been a tremendous wealth of information. I’m now convinced that once in the market and/or with a consistent plan of contributions, it’s best to just ride it out and forget about attempting to time anything. If I were in the market already I’d stick it out. However, I’m in a unique position of unexpectedly gaining a very large asset in real estate, such that I could contemplate retirement if I were to make it liquid by selling and investing instead in to the stock market. That’s what I would like to do. However, the CAPE is paralyzing! Can’t tell whether to sell the real estate (which is also at an all time high here in Australia) and get in to stock now or wait til the next substantial stock crash to sell the property and buy up stock when CAPE seems more reasonable? It seems like perhaps the same principles might apply in my situation and that one should dive in at any point, but I honestly can’t tell anymore, as I’m crippled by the daunting prospect of actively putting EVERYTHING I have in to stock at this point in time. Is there a sound strategy for one on the outside of today’s pool, peering in with anticipation and bewilderment?

                1. Thanks.
                  Yes, everything is mind-blowingly expensive. I wouldn’t want to do any large asset allocation moves for fear of getting the timing wrong. If I suddenly found myself with a large unexpected real estate asset I’d hold on and rent it out (if possible).

  16. I’m in kind of the opposite position to Simon. I have no property, but am FIRE’d, have a solid 60% of my net wealth in stocks and want to give myself the option to buy a property in cash. So I’m more fearful of stocks crashing whilst property remains ‘sticky’ (i.e. instead of falling, liquidity just dries up, no houses for sale etc).
    Given my lack of new income and the potential for a big stock market readjustment, I’m narrowing in on dialling back stocks a little. Even just to 55% might ease the potential squeeze if I hit the worst timing and buy a house with the stock market crashing.
    Just by the by, incredible to think that this post was written 4 years ago and many of us (myself included) were feeling back then that stocks were ‘due’ for a big fall – we’re up circa 80% since then.

    Heck, even since the newer comments here from April 2021 it’s up another 14%. It’s madness.

    1. 55% stocks plus a lot of the rest in real estate seems like a pretty good allocation!
      But as you say, it’s very hard to time the market. Who knows, maybe we’re still only in “1996” territory and got 4-5 more years to go. 😉

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