What Is The Buffet Indicator And Why It Matters In business

The Buffet Indicator is a measure of the total value of all publicly-traded stocks in a country divided by that country’s GDP. It’s a measure and ratio to evaluate whether a market is undervalued or overvalued. It’s one of Warren Buffet’s favorite measures as a warning that financial markets might be overvalued and riskier.

Understanding the Buffet Indicator

Developed by billionaire investor Warren Buffet, the indicator is a broad measure of whether a given stock market is overvalued or undervalued. It rose to prominence after Buffett once noted that it was “probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”

In the United States, most experts use The Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index which represents the value of all stocks in all U.S. markets. At the end of June 2020, the U.S. stock market was valued at approximately $35.5 trillion. The estimated GDP at this time was $19.41 trillion.

Therefore, the market value to GDP ratio is calculated by dividing 35.5 by 19.41 and then multiplying by 100 to express the value as a percentage. In this case, the Buffet Indicator is 182.9%.

Interpreting Buffet Indicator values

Broadly speaking, Buffet Indicator values describe stock markets that are:

  • Undervalued near 50%.
  • Modestly undervalued in the range of 50-75%.
  • Fairly valued in the range of 75-90%.
  • Modestly overvalued in the range of 90-115%.
  • Overvalued above 115%.

Returning to the example in the previous section, we see that the U.S. stock market is currently overvalued. However, there has been much conjecture over whether this stock market is overvalued given its sustained increase in value over recent decades.

Implications of the Buffet Indicator for investors

When the total market value of a stock market is less than GDP, investors see an opportunity to buy. Conversely, when the total market value is worth more than GDP, investors are more wary and likely to sell.

Corrections in overvalued markets – where investors sell en masse – have also historically preceded recessions. The dotcom crash of 2000 and the global financial crisis of 2008 are two such examples of the Buffet Indicator correctly predicting a correction and subsequent stock market devaluation.

Potential flaws of the Buffet Indicator

The Buffet Indicator has some potential flaws, including:

  • Misleading data. While the Buffet Indicator is a great broadscale metric, this can make its calculations relatively crude. In other words, the indicator does not take into account the profitability of a business – only its revenue.
  • Lack of flexibility. As previously mentioned, the Buffet Indicator is perhaps less useful in positively trending markets such as in the U.S. that has enjoyed a sustained increase in value. The blanket categorization of 100% equating to an overvalued market may no longer be relevant as baseline levels of valuation shift.
  • Lack of scope. Since the Buffet Indicator only tracks publicly listed companies, it does not take into account private companies when assessing whether a market is over or undervalued according to GDP.

Key takeaways

  • The Buffet Indicator is the ratio of total stock market valuation to GDP, most commonly associated with the US stock market.
  • The Buffet Indicator gives the degree of over or undervaluation according to the exact percentage value obtained.
  • The Buffet Indicator has several disadvantages owing to a lack of scope and flexibility in calculating its values.

Connected Business Concepts

Economic or market moats represent the long-term business defensibility. Or how long a business can retain its competitive advantage in the marketplace over the years. Warren Buffet who popularized the term “moat” referred to it as a share of mind, opposite to market share, as such it is the characteristic that all valuable brands have.
The circle of competence describes a person’s natural competence in an area that matches their skills and abilities. Beyond this imaginary circle are skills and abilities that a person is naturally less competent at. The concept was popularised by Warren Buffett, who argued that investors should only invest in companies they know and understand. However, the circle of competence applies to any topic and indeed any individual.
Sustainable competitive advantage describes company assets, abilities, or attributes that are difficult to duplicate or exceed. The qualities of these attributes mean the company that possesses them can enjoy a superior and long-term position in its market or industry. In business theory, sustainable competitive advantage is associated with cost leadership, differentiation, or cost focus.
Warren Buffett is an American investor, business tycoon, and philanthropist. Known as the “Oracle of Omaha”, Buffett is best known for his strict adherence to value investing and frugality despite his immense wealth. He is among the wealthiest people in the world. Most of his wealth is tied up in Berkshire-Hathaway and its 65 subsidiaries.
Bill Gates is an American business tycoon, software developer, investor, and more recently, philanthropist. After dropping out of Harvard University and founding Microsoft in 1975, Gates has at times been the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $129 billion. He founded Cascade Investment in 1995 to manage his investments outside of Microsoft. The firm employs over 100 people and has significant stakes in hotel, rail transport, beverage, and waste management companies. To further his philanthropic causes, he founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. The foundation holds almost $47 billion in assets and tackles entrenched global issues around poverty, healthcare, and climate change. The foundation also has several trust investments in companies such as Berkshire Hathaway, Caterpillar, FedEx, Walmart, and UPS.

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