With only one trading day left in the month, this January has seen the worst start to the year in the stock markets since 2008. Down just a tad under 10% year-to-date, after a stellar and steady 2021, could the auspicious start in the S&P 500 index portend a poor 2022 for the markets? After all, a popular market aphorism is “as January goes, so goes the rest of the year”. Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t ascribe much value to these popular sayings.
Much of the recent market volatility can be attributed to: 1) angst over COVID-19 variants; 2) worries about a federal reserve that has all but telegraphed 2-4 interest rate hikes in 2022; 3) the suspension of monetary stimulus (to combat inflation); 4) the absence of any significant fiscal stimulus expected from Washington; and 5) concerns over a potential Russian incursion into the Ukraine.
In this write-up, I’ll try to explain my viewpoint of what is going on in the economy and markets, and whether I think we’re heading for a much deeper pullback in the markets, or perhaps an economic recession.
Pullbacks, Corrections and Bear Markets
Enduring volatile markets is the price we pay for outsized returns that we ultimately earn for risking our money in the stock markets. Why even bother? Because cash and savings accounts pay us nothing, and bonds, which on average yield low single digit annual returns, ultimately lost a little money in 2021. Simply put, we need an alternative to stashing our money under the mattress. That’s especially true at a time when inflation is finally rearing its ugly head in a higher-than-expected way.
We need to invest in a way to at least overcome the depreciating effects of inflation on the buying power of our cash. Of course, we also need to be adequately compensated for taking the risk of investing in the stock markets.
In the media, you’ll hear about pullbacks, which is essentially any decline in prices of less than 10% from the last peak in the index, fund, or stock. Next, you’ll hear about a correction, which is a decline of 10%-19% in prices from the last peak. Finally, a bear market is a decline of 20% or more from the last peak.
2021 was such a smooth and steady uptrending year, where we barely had a couple of 5% pullbacks. By comparison, we generally experience between one and three 5% pullbacks a year. 2021 had no corrections, although we generally get one every 10-12 months. The last bear market we experienced came in February-March 2020 in the form of a 35% decline from peak to trough in the S&P 500 index, attributable to fears over COVID-19. We generally see a bear market every 3-7 years on average.
It seems obvious and unnecessary to state that the stock market is truly a “market of stocks”. Then why even say it? Because to understand what leads to pullbacks, corrections, and bear markets, you must drill down into the details of the indexes and see what’s really happening with individual stocks.
Despite an obvious uptrend in the indexes in 2021, digging into the details, you could see that there was trouble brewing under the surface. The number of uptrending stocks (stocks going higher) peaked in February 2021. So did the number of stocks making new 52-week (one-year) highs. At the same time, the number of stocks making 52-week lows bottomed and turned upward. A truly healthy market does the opposite of all this. But in fairness, after a very strong finish to 2020, the market was overdue in 2021 to take a “rest”.
In stock market parlance, we call the number of uptrending stocks relative to downtrending stocks, and the ratio of stocks making 52-week highs relative to those making 52-week lows, components of “market breadth”.
For most of 2021, despite the stock market indexes making new highs on a regular basis, it was doing so with fewer and fewer stocks participating. An estimated 10%-15% of all stocks, which were quite strong, were masking weakness in the other 85%-90% of stocks. Small capitalization stocks, which make up the largest sub-segment of the stock market (in terms of number of stocks, not company size), peaked in March 2021 (note that small stocks attempted and failed in a rally attempt in November 2021).
All throughout 2021, we also observed more and more stocks making 52-week lows, and fewer and fewer making 52-week highs. Many stocks were down 20%-70% or more from their peaks, and those new low counts were increasing almost daily. Some COVID related and stay-at-home stocks which were the heroes of 2020 were being smashed. How can that be? After all, we were still making new market index highs on a regular basis throughout the year.
Without going into a long-detailed explanation about the structure of market indexes, let’s just say that the biggest companies such as Apple and Microsoft (called large or mega capitalization stocks) have the biggest effects on the indexes, even if they are smallest in number. That’s how a cohort of 20-25 stocks could fool you into thinking that all was going great in the markets. Dig deeper–and you saw healthcare, industrial and communications stocks deteriorate as the year wore on.
If you wondered why your diversified portfolio didn’t return anywhere near the returns on the indexes, the above partially explains it. If you didn’t own enough of the chosen few outperforming stocks, your portfolio no doubt underperformed the market averages. That’s called stock investing for the long term, and it’s typical of many periods in the stock markets.
You’ll rarely if ever hear about the deterioration of market breadth on the evening news; you’ll only hear about new record highs in the indexes. Now you know a little better.
Pluses and Minuses
What does this mean for the market going forward? Are we headed for an economic recession? A bear market? Another double-digit return year? I’ll first discuss the pluses and minuses and then tell you what I see when I consult my broken crystal ball for the rest of the year.
- The economy is quite strong and continues to exhibit growth, with estimates of 3%-4% gross domestic product growth expected for 2022. Before COVID-19, our economy was growing at an annual rate of 2%-3%, but due to unprecedented stimulus, we have temporarily skewed the economic picture. I would expect the economy to return to normal levels of growth in 2023.
- The job market continues to be robust and “tight”. Many more jobs are going unfilled than at any time in recent history, and that portends good starting wages for those looking for work. Companies that are expecting a recession would not be increasing posts for new and unfilled positions as they are right now. Higher wages mean that employees have more money to spend on goods and services, keeping upward pressure on the economy.
- Earnings estimates for companies, which are the primary driver of stock market returns, continue to impress and increase over 2021 levels. Consumers are still spending strongly.
- Many experts believe that the Omicron variant of COVID is the “swan song” of the disease, and that by mid-2022, the pandemic will be just another virus that is a part of our daily lives.
- Traffic, travel, hospitality as well as office occupancy are slowly showing signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels in many major cities around the world.
- Supply chain disruptions are easing around the world, taking inflationary pressures down with them.
- Used car prices, a leading contributor to inflation, could be easing as semi-conductor chip production ramps up and finds its way into automakers’ cars waiting for delivery on their lots.
- Consumer spending and demand for goods and services continues to be robust. Demand for travel and leisure services, considering the potential fading of COVID, can only be expected to increase.
- The recent market sell-off has shaved off some speculative fervor from the markets, and the market is oversold on many metrics, which portends at least a short-term bounce (which may have started on Friday, January 28th).
- The strength in the economy could be hurt in the 1st quarter of 2022 due to the Omicron variant disrupting production, increasing absenteeism, and reducing employee productivity.
- Job growth and employee shortages contribute to wage inflation, which is the leading contributor to overall inflation. This will continue to pressure the federal reserve to increase interest rates to cool the economy. Higher interest rates reduce corporate earnings via higher interest expense, and implicitly lead to reduced stock price multiples (price-earnings ratio).
- Although the recent sell-off has somewhat cooled the speculative fever in the stock markets, initial public offerings, special purpose acquisition companies, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens, relative excess enthusiasm around speculation remains.
- Housing prices may be in a bubble. With a continued short supply of available housing, this could also continue to exert upward pressure on housing prices for some time to come.
- Monetary and fiscal stimulus, the prominent catalysts in one of the quickest recoveries from one of the shortest recessions in history (2020), looks to be notably absent given Congress’ failure to pass the Build Back Better stimulus bill last year. The likelihood of passing significant alternate stimulus legislation in a mid-term election year seems unlikely.
My Broken Crystal Ball Expectations
Normally, I try and avoid speculation about the future of the markets and economy, because I’ll just be guessing like anyone else. But given that I manage million-dollar portfolios, and that I must make educated guesses about stocks, the markets, and the economy every day, I provide my thoughts for what they’re worth.
The weight of evidence points to a continuation of robust economic conditions that will lead to higher corporate profits. In other words, I don’t believe that 2022 will be the year we experience an economic recession.
This should lead to a stock market that’s higher at year-end than it is today. How much higher, if I had to guess, is probably less than 10%-12% from where we are today. That would mean we probably won’t make new highs in the markets for the rest of the year, which obviously means that I don’t think we’ll have a bear market this year.
Given uncertainty and angst over federal reserve short-term interest rate hikes and the ultimate lingering effects of COVID, I have near conviction that the volatility in the markets for 2022 will persist. That’s not saying much if I’m honest, because volatility is always expected in the markets. What I really mean is that the relative calm of 2021 won’t be repeated in 2022. But with volatility come opportunities to make new investments in stocks that become somewhat more fairly priced or undervalued.
As for the short term, Friday January 28th saw a robust market bounce after a very tumultuous week. While the bottom of this correction may have been seen at the lows made on Monday January 24th, we’ll only know that in hindsight in a few weeks. My best guess is that there may be one more re-test of that day’s low, but the real test right now is the robustness of the current bounce. If the recovery is solid and strong, then we may have seen the short-term lows for this correction.
Regardless, I don’t believe this means a straight up market and a full recovery of the immense damage done to tons of growth stocks, many of which won’t get back to old highs anytime soon, if ever. If you’ve been nibbling on stocks into this decline, be ready to withstand a lot of back-and-forth action that will frustrate both the bulls (optimists) and bears (pessimists). “The secret to success in stocks is to not get scared out of them” – John Buckingham
If you’re stuck with poor performing investments, especially when you’re sitting on large losses, ask yourself whether it makes sense to sell them into the strength that any upcoming/current bounce ultimately provides. Don’t think that they’ll eventually and automatically come back, because many won’t. In general, I have a rule: if a long-term investment underperforms for 1-2 years after I buy it, it’s time to consider cutting it. Don’t be too hard on yourself about it; just be ruthless in letting go of stocks that may have their best days behind them. Deploy the cash in better opportunities. If you found yourself too heavily invested coming into this decline, you may want to take advantage of the bounce to lighten up your exposure and take some risk off the table. Disclaimer: This is in no way investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any securities; please consult with your financial adviser (or us) for help.
For our client portfolios, we remain invested along with our portfolio hedges, which we adjust to changing market conditions. In addition, by using options to dampen volatility, reduce overall risk and generate income, we are well positioned to profit from whatever the year decides to throw at us.
For 2022, I believe that after 21 months of unusually calm and one way upward markets, this year will prove to be a more “normal” year with two-way market action, and likely single digit positive returns. But my crystal ball is still broken, so take this forecast for what it’s worth.
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.