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Falling Share Prices and the Outlook for the US Economy

Three forces will cause US long-term interest rates to continue to rise. But, in all likelihood, short-term rates will not increase fast enough to give the Federal Reserve sufficient room for monetary stimulus before the next economic downturn begins.

CAMBRIDGE – The Standard and Poor’s 500 index of share prices has fluctuated wildly during 2018 but has returned to nearly the same level that it was at the beginning of the year. The absence of a net fall for the year reflects the combination of a rise in corporate profits and a 12% decline in the price-earnings ratio. And the fall in the price-earnings ratio is an indication of the likely evolution of share prices in the next few years.

The price/earnings (P/E) ratio is now 40% higher than its historic average. Its rise reflects the very low interest rates that have prevailed since the US Federal Reserve cut the federal funds interest rate to near zero in 2008. As long-term interest rates rise, however, share prices will be less attractive to investors and will decline.

A key sign of this is that the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds has doubled in the past two years. But, at a little over 3%, it is still barely above the rate of inflation, which averaged 2.9% over the past 12 months. Three forces will cause the long-term interest rate to continue to rise.

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