Wednesday, 17 June 2009

'The market is as cheap as in 1953'

'The market is as cheap as in 1953'
When the market turns it will be one of the most stunning bull markets any of us has experienced.

By James Bartholomew
Published: 3:03PM GMT 19 Mar 2009

These are truly extraordinary times. Share prices of many smaller companies are almost unbelievably low. I was once told by an editor never to use the word "cheap" and he had good reason. You can say something looks "cheap" today and look pretty silly when it is even cheaper tomorrow. But really these times make it very difficult not to employ the "c" word.

There is no pleasing the market. On Monday, two of the companies in which I have serious stakes – worth more than 7pc of my portfolio – announced results. Aero Inventory, which manages aircraft parts for airlines, produced excellent profits – up by nearly half. How did the shares respond? They fell 17pc.

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Yes, there were one or two reasons for the fall. Above the rest, the company said it had not been able to agree terms for a new contract with a major airline. That was a disappointment. But the irony is in the past six months or so, I have been told that the share price has been weak because of fear of overexpansion leading to a need for capital-raising. So, one minute the company is distrusted because it is expanding too fast, the next it is spurned for not expanding quickly enough. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The other company that reported on Monday is safe and exciting. Healthcare Locums, an agency for health and social workers, still slumped 6pc on Tuesday morning.

Sometimes the market seems moody. Shares can rise or fall 20pc with no apparent cause. I wonder if it can be occasionally a single, relatively modest buyer or seller who moves the market a great deal because the turnover in shares has fallen so low. Some of my shares, REA Holdings for example, can easily go through a day without a share being bought or sold. I would also guess that sometimes the buying and selling is just because some people – or funds – need cash.

In theory, this should provide an ideal hunting ground for those seeking good long-term investments. Aero Inventory is forecast by Numis Securities to make earnings per share this year of 83p. The share price earlier this week was 168p. So the share price was only a fraction over two times forecast earnings. Normally my rule of thumb is to say that anything with an earnings multiple of less than 10 is lowly rated. A good company on a multiple of five I would normally regard as extremely good value. But a multiple of two? That is astonishing.

No, gritting my teeth, I won't use the "c" word. But what can you say? It is hard to do justice to how astonishing this kind of valuation is. And it is not as though the company is in any discernible danger. Yes, it is geared but it is profitable and has banking facilities right the way through to 2013. Aero Inventory is an extreme example of the market as a whole.

On the bad side, the chart of the FTSE 100, like the chart of Aero, offers no encouragement. There has been no break in the downward trend. On the other, by any traditional measure, shares are excellent value. The redemption yield on 15-year government stock is currently 3.6pc, whereas the dividend yield on shares is 5.3pc.

Normally, it is the other way around: the dividend yield is lower than the return on government stock for the simple reason that, over time, dividends have historically risen whereas the yield on a government stock does not. True, some companies are reducing or cutting their dividends but this is at the margin. On this method of valuation, as far as I can discover, shares have not been such good value compared to government stock since about 1953.

My view is simple: shares are extremely good value, but it is impossible to know when the turn will come. When it does arrive, from this low valuation, it will be one of the most stunning bull markets any of us has experienced.

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