Bearish Tendencies and Silver Linings

2015 had many twists and turns, but from a financial market perspective, it was effectively a road to nowhere when looking across a variety of asset classes. In U.S. equity markets, large company stocks (large cap) barely moved as just a few sectors and stocks were big winners. In the broad market, many stocks performed far worse than the large cap averages and gave investors the false impression that the market was generally flat. On the contrary, a broader measure of the market which consists of 1700 equally weighted stocks was down roughly 7% on the year, and helps to highlight how skewed the major indices were, due to just a few large companies that had good years.

A Message to Clients from the Chairman of the Investment Committee

The S&P 500 Index is down over 12% from its high last May, which qualifies as a market correction but not a bear market. In fact, it’s been quite a while since we experienced our last bear, although it may not feel that way. From April to October of 2011, the stock market declined by 19.39% on a closing basis. While experts can debate whether this meets the definition of a bear market (which are typically defined as 20% declines), those who remember it will recall how scary it was. By the time the market bottomed in October, many were recalling the 2007–2009 bear market, which was gut wrenching for everyone. During that excruciating market decline, the S&P 500 Index fell by 55% and the economy tumbled into a deep recession. It is only in hindsight that we can see that both the market bottom in 2009 and the October low in 2011 marked important market bottoms. Since October of 2011, the S&P 500 Index rallied 94% to its eventual high set in May of last year.

What’s Going on with the Market?

It is hard to believe that in three trading days, the market has penned its first 10% correction in over 900 trading days. This decline may be an unfortunate reminder of the last bear market, and if you are feeling anxious about your portfolio, don’t worry—you have lots of company. In fact, the market has set a new record for the speed and breadth of market volatility.

Not only has the market dropped, but we have also witnessed several areas of the evidence we follow move into bearish territory. Given this recent downgrade, we now believe the probabilities are high that we are transitioning from a bull market to a bear market cycle.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll summarize our response to the recent market events in each of our three Pinnacle strategies.

A Turning Point in the Market?

Inflection Point: (N) – Mathematics – A point on a curve at which the curvature changes from convex to concave or vice versa.

In describing our current thinking, I have to resort to an investment writing cliché where the financial markets are described as being “at an inflection point.” While the mathematical definition for an inflection point is presented above, in the business of investing inflection points occur where there is a change in the long-term trend or momentum of the financial markets, economy, or price of an individual security. Inflection points are critically important because if you recognize one and if you understand the significance of the change, then you can make a lot of money.

The Market Correction is Upon Us

The overdue market correction analysts and pundits have been waiting for may have arrived with the breakdown of the S&P. It has been a two stage process, with Japan breaking first and the U.S. and the rest of the world following suit. One of the interesting aspects of this correction is that bond yields are moving higher as stock prices have been moving lower. In Japan the focus has been on a bond yield rising in a nation with very high debt levels. In the U.S. yields have been going up too, and the buzz has been that the Federal Reserve may start “tapering” down their $85 billion bond buying spree (known as QE Infinity).

Can the Data Be Trusted?

Just two days ago the 4th quarter GDP came out as a negative number, which was much worse than expected. In fact, not one of 83 analysts had anticipated a negative number, meaning they were all too bullish on the 4th quarter growth number. But yesterday the Chicago Purchasing manager’s index, a growth barometer, was way above expectations for growth, and not one of 48 analyst estimates was in the ballpark, meaning they were all too bearish on growth.

Current Thinking About Secular Bear Markets

Most Pinnacle Advisory Group clients are familiar with our view of secular (or very long-term) market cycles. My partner, Michael Kitces, and I first published a paper on secular bear markets in the Journal of Financial Planning in 2006, where we predicted correctly that stock prices were likely to deliver much less than average returns for years to come. In my 2009 book, Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Case for Active Portfolio Management in Dangerous Markets, I reviewed in some detail the rationale for why stock prices can disappoint investors ‘on average’ for decades. (In fact, the “(AGAIN)” in the book title referred to the fact that we’re currently laboring through the fourth secular bear market since the 1900’s.)