What’s Going on With The Markets? 3rd Quarter 2011


The headline on today’s Wall Street Journal says it all: “Stocks Log Worst Quarter Since ’09”, referring of course to the first quarter of 2009 before the start of the (current?) bull market run. Even quarter-end “window dressing”, where fund managers buy up the best performing stocks to make their holdings look good to shareholders and boost their chances of quarterly performance bonuses didn’t help at all. September 30th ended the day, week, month and quarter-end at an ominous level.
 
The shocks to the markets continue to come from the Eurozone debt crisis, worries of another recession starting, the Chinese economy slowing, and now, corporate earnings results for the third quarter coming in below estimates. Forward guidance, that is, how companies estimate their upcoming earnings, are expected to be pulled down a bit. With economic data continuing to soften or come in worse than expected, evidence is mounting that the economy continues to slow down, but not contract. Contraction for two straight quarters is the textbook definition of the start of a recession.
 
My most reliable source for forecasting a recession comes from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI). In the past, they have been spot on in identifying the conditions that precede the onset of a recession.  This week, although not confirming the start of a recession, the ECRI did confirm that evidence of a recession is spreading like wildfire and one would be almost impossible to avoid given current conditions.  Consumer confidence is at or near an all-time low due partly because of the whole debt ceiling debacle and political gridlock. Without confidence, and without jobs, people are not spending to help the recovery. Without spending, there’s no demand. Without demand, there’s no production and therefore no hiring. And you can complete that circle yourself.
 
As I’ve mentioned before, if we are headed for a recession, then stock prices will likely have to fall further before they are fairly priced. This is because earnings fall during a recession, and institutions only buy stocks when they’re fairly priced according to forward earnings. If we’re not headed for a recession, then stock prices are cheap and out to be bought hand over fist right here, right now. 
 
What we’ve witnessed in the stock markets over the past 8-9 weeks is extreme volatility brought on by the battle between those in the recession camp and those not in the recession camp (along with Eurozone worries).  Since the August 9th low in the markets, the S&P 500 has traded in a 100 point range and has basically gone nowhere.  This bouncing around will not continue forever (but can continue for months), and will give way to a big move up or down in the near future. The action during the past week tends to point to a downward move, but every downward move in this range looked like it was going to break down until buyers stepped in.
 
What I Believe and What We’re DoingAs evidence that points to a recession mounts, I’m becoming less convinced that we can avoid a recession in the next 3-6 months. This is a change from my previous stance of no impending recession in previous months. It’s become increasingly clear that the Federal Reserve is less able to influence what happens in the economy, and in my opinion, the less they do the better.
 
As the odds of a recession have been increasing, and world economies also slow, I have been slowly reducing client exposure to equities over the past couple of months. Our exposure to small cap stocks is now very small, and I began to reduce exposure to mid-cap stocks by up to 1/3 as of last week.
 
On Friday of this week, I increased our exposure to hedges via leveraged inverse exchange traded funds because I believe that we will test the August 9th low on the S&P 500 index of 1101 (current level of support) and may even break below it. I also believe that even if the market did decline by another 10% (should we break support) we still have a year-end rally in the cards.  Even if I’m wrong about reducing equity exposure and increasing our hedges, and the markets reverse and fly to the upside (not likely), prudent risk management based on the facts and circumstances warrant caution. It never hurts to reduce equity exposure when uncertainty and volatility rule the markets.
 
September 2011 was the 6th down month in a row in the stock markets, and bear markets typically last 6-18 months. If this is merely a correction and not a bear market, then 6 months is a good point in time to expect a bounce. My expectations, especially since this is the 3rd year of an election cycle, that somewhere along the lines of mid to late October, we begin to see the year-end bounce. 
 
As always, I offer my caveat: my crystal ball is in the shop and no one, including me, can forecast what the markets will do. I can only provide my best guess, and that’s what this is, a guess, based on all the information available to me and historical precedent, of what the markets may do. I could be totally wrong on both direction and timing, so no one should make any investment decisions based on my prognostications or forecast. Forewarned is forearmed.
 
I’m happy to answer any questions or comments you may have. If you already have a fee-only financial advisor (the only kind I recommend), then great. If you’re looking for an unbiased, fee-only financial advisor, don’t hesitate to contact us. Your first consultation is complimentary and comes with no pressure to act or sales tactics.  As fee-only fiduciary advisors, we act in your best interest and collect no commissions, trails or any hidden compensation.

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