The Really Real S&P 500

I wrote a post called “The Real Dow” a couple of months ago about how the press almost always fails to put stock-returns in real-dollars context—something that fools people into thinking stocks are better investments than they really are. I mentioned transaction costs, but had limited data on them, so didn’t emphasize them.

But Bloomberg has them in its Chart of the Day story, and it’s a doozy, culled from a Bank of America Merrill Lynch report that analyzes stock returns after inflation and transaction costs, but also taxes. This is ugly:

While the S&P 500 returned an average of 9.5 percent annually for the 50-year period, the comparable figure after all the adjustments was a mere 1.3 percent, according to Bianco’s calculations. Both averages are geometric, a multiplication- based method often used to calculate average returns.

You’re not getting rich on 1.3 percent. Will you retire?

Of course, Wall Street being Wall Street, Merrill uses these numbers as an argument for why stocks are, you guessed it, cheap:

“Current levels of inflation, investment taxes and equity ownership costs are lower” than in past years, Bianco wrote. “We expect them to remain so for the foreseeable future.” The shifts justify a so-called forward price-earnings ratio for the S&P 500 that’s seven points higher than the 50-year average of 15, in his view.

A twenty-two P/E is a long way from fifteen—and doesn’t quite smell right. Bloomberg quotes this but doesn’t give us the data to back it up and to let us see for ourselves. It should have.

Still, it’s good to have this issue covered, however minimally. Just remember when those financial advisers tell you to expect 8 percent to 10 percent annual returns that in real money over the last 50 years, you took home a measly 1.3 percent. As I wrote in January:

You have to wonder if there’s a connection to be drawn between the low savings rate and the idea that took hold in the last three decades, which still hasn’t been extinguished even after this miserable decade, that investing in stocks means you’ll get big returns on your money.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.