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Cheap stocks in an expensive market

Broadly speaking, equity markets may appear somewhat stretched. The S&P 500 trades at about 22 times its last 12 months' earnings versus an historical average of about 16.5. Indeed, the S&P has soared a remarkable 280 per cent since falling to its nadir in March of 2009.

While it may still be a bit early to call the end of the one of the greatest bull markets ever, failure to consider both absolute and relative equity valuations at this point in time could be hazardous to your wealth.

Financial analysts like to slice and dice the markets in various ways, but one popular methodology divides stocks into the two distinct categories of “value” and “growth”. The Russell 1000 Value and the Russell 1000 Growth indices are widely accepted benchmarks for these groupings and right now investors should pay attention to this dichotomy.

As the term suggests, growth investing focuses on companies expected to grow faster than the overall economy. Businesses in this category typically reinvest excess cash flow back into themselves rather than pay large dividends to shareholders. Generally, growth companies are admired for their future potential and therefore trade at higher multiples of their earnings than value stocks.

Constituents vary over time, but in today's market, software, internet, semiconductor and biotechnology industries are among the largest components of the growth classification. Buying and holding great companies such as Amazon.com or Apple has rewarded shareholders handsomely over time, but paying too high a price for anticipated future growth can backfire in a big way if a company fails to deliver. Witness the once high-flying GoPro, which has now tumbled more than 80 per cent in the past two years after hitting a plateau.

Value investing may be a somewhat less risky play on the market but comes with its own set of challenges. These companies tend to exist in mature industries and because of their slow-moving nature may be left behind in roaring bull markets. Also, some value plays are cheap for a reason and there is no guarantee that management can turn around a sluggish business. Ideally, mature companies will prefer to pay high dividends while increasing their payouts over time.

The Russell 1000 Value index is concentrated in banks, oil and gas, insurance, pharmaceuticals and electric utilities. Altogether, financial services comprise about 26 per cent of the total. The value benchmark trades at about a 20 per cent discount to the growth index on price-earnings ratio basis and its dividend yield of 2.45 per cent is almost double the rate paid by the average growth stock.

Both growth and value investing have been productive strategies during different historical periods, but over the long run, their returns have been remarkably similar. For the past three decades ended in 2016, the growth benchmark provided an annualised return of 9.17 per cent, while the value benchmark advanced at an annual rate of 8.98 per cent.

This year, however, market leadership has clearly favoured growth over value. As of the end of last month, the Russell 1000 growth index had gained 23.9 per cent compared to value index which increased by just 6.5 per cent — a difference of 17.4 percentage points! History would suggest a reversion back to the mean at some point.

Drilling down into the value category, we see a few industries which are likely to hold up in a downturn or have the potential to catch up if the market remains lofty. For example, we like the global financial services sector which stands to benefit from both rising interest rates and less government regulation.

At current prices, the MSCI World Finance index trades at just 1.26 times its book value versus an historical median of 1.82 times over the past 22 years. Price-to-book value is a preferred metric for evaluating financial stocks. Also, while the major averages are hitting new highs across the board, the global financial index still trades about 25 per cent below its 2007 peak.

Other promising sectors within the value index include healthcare and energy. Despite the rather confusing political rhetoric in Washington and public concerns over pricing, demand for healthcare goods and services remains robust and will only increase over time. Meanwhile, the energy sector has been a dramatic underperformer in 2017 despite a recent rally in oil prices and a return to cost discipline across a wide spectrum of companies in this industry.

If markets hold current levels through year end, 2017 will go down as a lucrative year for risk assets. While the global economic backdrop remains healthy, relatively high-equity market prices should give investors pause. Paying attention to valuations and rotating some funds into out-of-favour industries may mean the difference between success and failure in the months and years ahead.

Bryan Dooley, CFA is the senior portfolio manager and general manager of LOM Asset Management Ltd in Bermuda. Please contact LOM at 441-292-5000 for further information

This communication is for information purposes only. It is not intended as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, investment product or service. Readers should consult with their brokers if such information and or opinions would be in their best interest when making investment decisions. LOM is licensed to conduct investment business by the Bermuda Monetary Authority

Seeking value: growth stocks have outperformed recently, but value stocks should be considered

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Published November 22, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated November 21, 2017 at 11:50 pm)

Cheap stocks in an expensive market

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