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The Economic Message from Equity Markets

Everyone – not just those who hold stocks – should be concerned about a major stock-market plunge. While it is impossible to predict such a plunge, or whether it will coincide with the next recession, it is now clear that last year's unusually low financial and economic volatility is over.

CAMBRIDGE – The recent stock-market correction – the first in the United States in two years – has invited substantial commentary about what investors should do, the role machines have played, and the implications for the real economy. But only some of what has been said is useful.

Many investment advisers have emphasized the need to think long term, rather than panicking when prices fall. They are right: the decline in early February is not a good reason to sell. What is a good reason to sell is that stocks are too high from a longer-term perspective.

The fact is that prices are still very elevated relative to fundamentals. As the Nobel laureate Robert Shiller pointed out two weeks before the correction, the US cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio has been higher than it is now only twice in the last century: at the peaks that preceded the stock-market crashes of 1929 and 2000-2002. The implication is that the rate of return on stocks is likely to be substantially lower over the next 15 years than it was over the last 15 years.

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