Nerve-Wracking Valuations

 | Apr 29, 2013 | 7:08 AM EDT
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Here's the current twinned narrative.

We should be worried about international companies if they have big exposure to Europe, because they will have shortfalls and slower revenue growth and are inherently risky. Or we should be worried about domestic growth stocks because they are overvalued and are therefore intrinsically risky.

You know this. I know it. It's the dialogue. No one comes on air or writes in these cyber pages that there's little earnings risk in PPG (PPG) or Alcoa (AA) because of Europe. No one says, "Right now I don't have to think about Europe or Procter & Gamble (PG) because things will be fine." That's simply not happening. Everyone is worried. In fact, we will accord it to a company like Kimberly Clark (KMB), which pulled out of the Western and Central European diaper market because it had had enough with the lack of profit or growth in what is basically a low-birthrate, totally cutthroat market.

No one is getting a free pass for Europe, so the idea that we should be worried about it is absurd. We are worried about it.

Similarly, do you know anyone who is saying that General Mills (GIS) is a "table-pounding buy" at 18x earnings? Or that you have to get into Wal-Mart (WMT) at 15x earnings, or that Coca-Cola (KO) is a "steal" at 19x earnings? The only steal in this market is what Warren Buffett and his Berkshire-Hathaway (BRK.A/BRK.B) got with Heinz (HNZ). He's paying only 1 to 2 multiple points above the price-to-earnings multiples of General Mills and Coca-Cola for the whole company.

I am not even going to go there with Verizon (VZ). Without a transaction that would accelerate its growth rate via ownership of all of Verizon Wireless -- at a price that wouldn't ruin its balance sheet -- I think you are taking a lot of price risk to pick up that 3.84% dividend yield. That's especially so after AT&T (T) has shown how things can go wrong and a stock can be knocked back on a subpar wireline quarter.

These stocks are expensive. All of safety is expensive when you consider, say, a stock like American Electric Power (AEP), with its anemic growth -- a five-year average of 3% and change. You do get a 3.88% yield with that name but, again, why couldn't that go to 5% on any sign that rates will back up?

It shouldn't be lost on anyone, either, that the ultimate in domestic-security stocks -- the homebuilders -- are trading at as high as 26x earnings. No one has said they are cheap at all, even though the market had been willing to bid up D.R. Horton (DHI) by $2 after its excellent report Friday. Homebuilders, the ultimate in cyclical stocks, trading like growth stocks? Give me a break.

The issue for me is that I can make a case about worrying over every stock. I can say that everything is overvalued and that you should own nothing. In fact, the only areas that are truly undervalued are tech, industrial and finance, and they are every bit as despised after this earnings period as they had been before it. They are the only stocks not worth worrying about on valuation -- and, at the same time, they are the killers of performance, as any owner of these names would know.

So we either buy expensive stocks or we lose money. All of the wags who say we shouldn't buy the expensive stocks don't seem to mind losing money or falling behind the averages -- because that's precisely what is happening if you own Caterpillar (CAT) or Dow Chemical (DOW) or U.S. Bancorp (USB) and Capital One (COF) or Avnet (AVT) or Apple (AAPL). In every one of these groups, I can pick some winners that have beaten the averages, but they are the diciest even as they are the cheapest.

So you can worry about the winners. But I am licking my wounds for owning many losers that are cheap for my Action Alerts PLUS charitable trust. As for the expensive ones? Even after this earnings period they remain the biggest winners, even despite all the hand-wringing and warnings from those who have definitely never bought a stock or who don't care one whit about performance.

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