June 17, 2013 Comments

It was a strong start to the week with the S&P 500 and Toronto both up 0.8%. Notably, we had Canadian Tire up 2.5%, and Toll Brothers up 2.4% and Couche-Tard was up 4.25%.

It’s worthwhile to think about what kind of stock returns to expect going forward. Firtsly the short term is alwasy unpredictable so it’s anyone’s guess. But in the longer term earnings per sgarea growth pushes up stock prices. If we start at a normal P/E level llike 15 or so then if earnings grow 10% per uyear for a decade we could expect our stock price to grow at 10% per year on average. ANd the total return would be expected to be the 10% plus the dividend yield. Which sounds pretty good.

The difficulty is project earnings growth. For individual companies earnings growth is very hard to project. But what Warren Buffett teaches is to focus on a select group of stocks for which it is more predictable (ideally almost certain) that over a decade or so the earnings will grow at an acceptable rate. This is why Buffett famously loves things like Coke and America Express and Wells Fargo and his rail road, Burlington Northern. Buffett did not “miss” any tech stocks like Apple, he simply chose to invest only in companies that he felt were relatively certain to grow earnings and which were available at decent prices. Based on his own knowledge he was just not as certain about Apple, or it was not available cheap enough buy the time he saw that it was a predictable stock.

For the stock market as a whole, we can say that logically we don’t expect earnings per share to grow much differently than the growth in the economy. And the data shows this is correct over the long run.

Unfortunately at this time the economy appears set to grow at only perhaps 3% real GDP. But that may translate to 4 to 5% nominal GDP. Not great but not too bad if we add in a 2% average dividend. (And I suspect in a low growth scenario companies will be able to increase dividends as they have less need to invest in growth). When look at the valuation of the S&P 500 I use growth in the 4 to 6% range.

But when I look at individual stocks I often use growth of more like 6% to 12% for the next five years. Perhaps I am being optimistic. (But this growth is just one input into the stock rating process, it does not determine the rating it is just one factor.)

But then again what has been the past average growth of adjusted earnings per share for the companies I am looking at? In the past ten years GDP in the U.S. has risen at an average compounded nominal rate of just 4.0%. Yet during that time here is the adjusted earnings per share of the companies on our list. These are the ones I have ten years of data for.

Canadian National 12.5% per year average

Canadian Western bank 14.4%

Stantec    17.7%

Canadian Tire 10.2%

Melcor 8.0%

Alimentation Couche-Tard 29.6%

First Service 8.7%

MicroSoft 19.1%

FedEx 11.9%

Berkshire 12.0%

Costco 10.3%

Wells Fargo 7.7%

Toll Brothers minus 10.5%

RioCan 2.8%

S&P 500 7.8%

Don’t get too hung up on the individual numbers but the point is that the stable of companies that I am following appear to have grown significantly faster, on average, than the economy did in the past ten years.

Therefore I am perhaps not out of line expecting them to continue to do so. But at the same time it is impossible for a ANY company to perpetually grow faster than the economy. That is why I am also often assuming that the P/E ratio will decline in the next five years. If I start with a P/E above average, I tend to expect that to come down to about the average P/E in five years.


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