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Santoli: Breakdown of the bubble vs bargain debate

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The value of the stock market has never been higher. Does that mean stocks are very expensive?

The market slouched sideways for more than a year while bonds soared in value. Might this make equities relatively cheap?

Getting a fix on stock-market valuation is both simple and mysterious. There are countless methods for calculating how shares are valued and sundry theories for what they "should" be worth. Valuation is such a malleable concept that we now simultaneously have professional investors calling stocks alternately a bubble and a bargain.

So here's an attempted run through the valuation maze, with a hope to emerge on the other side with a helpful perspective on what a buyer of stocks at today's prices is getting in return and might expect from the investment.