As if we didn’t have enough adjectives to describe the week before last’s market action (unprecedented, brutal, relentless), there must be no more words to describe the terrible equity markets again last week, as a massive 4000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was second to only one other over the last nine decades.
The other indexes (S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) didn’t fare much better either, as the losses posted by the average stock and every market gauge over the last month have been staggering. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: this has been one ugly market.
Indeed, we are now in Bear Market #26 over the last 90+ years, and though the speed of this sell-off has been unparalleled, the magnitude of the decline (at least for the S&P 500 index) at present is a bit less than average. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse, but it also doesn’t mean it can’t get better.
Over the past year, as I met with clients for our annual reviews, I sheepishly explained the large cash positions and growing hedges (options sold against the portfolio and bear market funds), why I and other portfolio managers felt that there were very few good values in the market and that we were under-invested for good reasons. Heck, even the most seasoned of portfolio managers weren’t buying the best value stocks out there, and growth stocks trounced the returns on value stocks for years. Stocks like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Google, Amazon, Netflix all marched higher on a seemingly daily basis, while great blue-chip value stocks like Haliburton, Schlumberger, CVS, and IBM languished in the bargain bin.
As I met with prospects over the past year, I know that I lost the business of at least two of them that had 90%+ exposure to the stock market. When I was asked what my plan would be for their portfolios, I explained that their portfolio risk far outweighed their personal risk tolerance and that I would immediately and significantly lighten up on stocks and stock funds. Needless to say, when I heard back from them, they said my approach was too conservative and decided to “go in a different direction”. I can only hope that they heeded my warning.
Day after day, week after week, month after month (after the December 2018 low), the markets would question my defensive stance, and no doubt quite a few clients were unhappy being under-invested and not making as much money as the markets were. Every market pullback from a new record high was aggressively bought up, and we had no choice but to nibble here and there, knowing that we might have to stay close to the exits on those purchases. I’ve been doing this a long time, and as I’ve said before, I’ve not witnessed such persistent selling without a robust bounce ever in my career, making unscathed exits nearly impossible.
That’s enough about what’s happened. Most are interested in what’s ahead. More pain or gain?
Unfortunately, the market loathes uncertainty, and with the COVID-19 shutdown of most swaths of the nation’s economy, uncertainty is what we have in droves. Stocks trade on corporate earnings forecasts, and to-date, most companies have withdrawn their forecasts because of so many unknowns.
The stock market is what’s known in portfolio management vernacular as “a forward-looking discounting mechanism”, where the crowd sniffs out what’s to come 6-12 months in the future. Everything you know as fact today is already factored into the market, or so goes what’s known as “Modern Portfolio Theory”. When the markets are rising, they’re looking ahead 6-12 months out and forecasting what’s to come, and they must be positive on the intermediate-term future. The opposite is true as well.
What we’re witnessing in the daily “thrashings” up and down in the stock markets is the manifestation of the uncertainty as everyone tries to price stocks for “what’s next”. My best guess is that we’re still in for a rocky bottoming period with new lower lows likely ahead.
But it’s not all gloomy. While last week’s markets closed on the lows, we did see some “green shoots” to indicate that the volume of selling was waning, and there was some risk appetite returning to the markets. The small-capitalization stocks, often the riskiest of stocks, outperformed their “peers” on Friday. The volatility index did not make a new high on Friday. The number of stocks hitting their 52-week lows did not expand into the end of the week. And the number of stocks going up versus those going down got better (it’s called breadth in this business).
When Should We Buy?
I’m heartened and encouraged that, among the calls and e-mails that I received last week, the preponderance of them were asking, “when should we buy?” It’s the right question now, as we continue to navigate this volatile bear market, of when it will be safe to start buying. In that regard, history can provide valuable guidance.
The 1987 bear market is one historical precedent that is perhaps most like today’s. Major indexes came off an equally frothy rally (as we’ve seen since December 2018) with the S&P 500 showing a strong year-to-date gain leading up to the August 25, 1987 peak. The bear market unfolded quickly after the top, losing 20% in just 38 days (this one in 2020 took 19 trading days). The bear market bottomed in December 1987 as selling pressure abated significantly and buying pressure took over. That led to one of the longest-running bull markets in history.
The Financial Crisis from 2007 to 2009 was a more protracted downturn that lasted 18 months. The lessons from that bear market include the observation that there are often enticing rallies on the way down which are called “bull traps”, such as the rebounds in March and July of 2008. Don’t get sucked into them.
As market losses deepen, it’s crucial to remember that headlines are the gloomiest near the market bottom, so paying attention to the media in March 2009 would have kept you out of the market for months, and you would have missed out on a 50% rally within just a few months. This time it’s no different — the fear mongers are out in full force with their 50% negative growth forecasts and S&P 500 index going to 1100 (down 75%) prognostications.
Stock market leadership is one of the most reliable indicators that a bear market bottom is in place. As a new bull market emerged in 2009, abating selling pressure and emerging buying pressure again provided the timeliest signal to start buying. Our client portfolios back then were defensively allocated with an invested position of about 50% (of maximum risk) at the March 9 bottom. As the selling abated and buying pressure ramped up, we quickly stepped up to 77% and then moved to 97% invested in June 2009 as other proprietary indicators confirmed the buying opportunity of a lifetime.
The important lesson is: Don’t try to second guess the bottom and don’t try to anticipate it. With no evidence of selling pressure abating and buying pressure pretty much absent currently, I will let the weight of evidence tell me when the time is right to start increasing our invested allocation. Now is not that time; it’s far too soon to buy in my opinion (and that could change, tomorrow, next week or the week after).
Today, unfortunately, every indication is that this bear market probably has further to run as the economy comes under increasing pressure. As I wait for the evidence to drop into place, our high cash and hedged positions are now two of the most valuable assets in our portfolio as we approach that future buying opportunity, probably the best one we’ve seen in over ten years. Meanwhile, try not to get sucked into bear market rallies-use them to lighten up on positions if you’re overallocated to the stock market.
Never lose sight of the Warren Buffet quotation, “Unless you can watch your stock decline by 50 percent without becoming panic-stricken, you should not be in the stock market,” and we know that bear markets are not an unusual part of the investment process. It’s the price we pay for superior returns over the long term.
Of course, legendary investor Peter Lynch said it best: “The real key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.” I’ll add, as I paraphrase well-known TV host Jim Cramer, no one ever made money in the markets by panicking.
Please be safe and stay healthy during this difficult period of time in our lives. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or if I can be of any help.
If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.
Source: Investech Research