Party Like It's 1982

Remember a few years back when it seemed like the entire stock market was overpriced? Well, the tide has certainly turned, and you can now pick up some bargains on even the biggest, most solid stocks in the market.

What a recovery may bring
The lack of strength in the economic recovery has economists and investors alike nervous about the future. But when it comes to individual stocks, you'll find a huge disparity between the pessimism that traders have in bidding share prices down versus the optimistic views that analysts have about their prospects for future earnings.

In particular, Barron's took a look over the weekend at valuations for some of the biggest stocks in the S&P 500. Looking at the cream of the crop, you'll find a bunch of stocks that currently trade for less than 10 times the earnings estimates that analysts have for 2011. Here's a partial list:

Stock

Stock Price

2011 Earnings Estimate

Forward P/E Based on 2011 Estimate

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  )

56.57

6.89

8.2

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  )

23.27

2.31

10.0

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  )

14.14

2.26

6.3

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  )

19.20

1.97

9.8

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  )

35.83

4.69

7.7

AT&T (NYSE: T  )

24.29

2.45

9.9

Merck (NYSE: MRK  )

34.22

3.84

9.0

Source: Barron's.

Those values have some salivating over stocks right now, with some drawing comparisons to 1982, the beginning of a huge 18-year bull market. And especially with bond yields at such low levels, the incentive to take on risk by moving money into the stock market is high right now.

A look back at 1982
But before you go pull your Journey albums out of the closet and start working on your hair-band look, you should remind yourself about some key traits of the 1982 investing environment. At between seven and eight times forward earnings, stocks were definitely bargain-priced during that dicey period almost three decades ago. But a lot of things were much different than they are now.

The most striking difference is where interest rates are now versus then. Back then, then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was fighting his famous battle against soaring inflation, which caused interest rates to top the 20% mark at their peak. Now, deflation appears to be the potential menace, as the longest-term Treasury bond costs the government less than 4% in interest right now.

In addition, investors have a lot more choices in where to put their money now. Back then, apart from U.S.-traded stocks and vanilla mutual funds, most investors didn't have much access to different types of investments. Now, with the explosion in ETFs and other more complicated investment vehicles, it's a lot easier to dial in exactly where you want your money to go. With investor attention focused well beyond solely the U.S. stock market, there's no guarantee that U.S. stocks will benefit from a long-term recovery as much as they did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Do you believe in the bull?
Perhaps the biggest concern, though, is how much you trust forward earnings estimates. Analysts are notorious for overestimating growth, especially well into the future.

Even so, with the gloomy mood in the stock market, you might expect analysts to be reining in some of their projections for next year. That's the case with Exxon, which definitely hasn't benefited from the BP oil spill and potentially increased regulation on the oil giant's domestic activity. Merck and Pfizer are also dealing with the potential impact of health-care legislation. Surprisingly, though, Microsoft, Intel, and AT&T have seen expectations rise in the past three months.

Don't hold back
For stocks to be a good value right now makes plenty of sense. Investors are still shell-shocked from the plummeting market in 2008 and early 2009, and while they were more than willing to ride the rally as long as they could, any whiff of losses reawakens bad memories.

Even if things are a lot different now than they were in 1982, it's still worth taking a close look at blue-chip stocks. Although valuations are still somewhat higher than they were back then, not being able to get a guaranteed double-digit return on Treasury bonds like you could back then should have you carefully considering a decision to take on more risk right now if you can afford it.

Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is always looking for great value. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Intel, Microsoft, and Pfizer are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. The Fool has created a covered strangle position on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy knows that in the heat of the moment, you'll find yourself in 1982.


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  • Report this Comment On July 07, 2010, at 2:07 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    1) Exxon has one single well in the Gulf, as far as I recall. Less exposure than any other major. Other regulation in other areas may hurt though, particularly re: fracking.

    2) While these stocks may not be cheap, assuming analysts' expectations are (as is typical) too rosy, how much more so is that true of many more glamorous stocks, and/or of many stocks which, unlike most of these, do not have the rock solid balance sheets to whether a potential period of deflation? Deflation kills debtors. Most of these companies, at least relative to many others, are not debtors. And expectations are already low (not that that is per se good). It's all relative. I would certainly love to see the same analysis in this article applied to names like AMZN, FCX, Netflix, Intuitive, Peet's Coffee, Boeing, CAT, and others, for a variety of reasons....

    3) As you allude to in your final paragraph, the fact that interest rates are not at 20% is in some sense bullish for these stocks, at least on a relative basis. Of course, the fact that people are still not buying them is worrisome, and speaks more fundamental concerns about our economy.

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