“You know how advice is. You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.” John Steinback, Author (1902-1968)
Recently, I’ve got invited to a Rotary Club to share my thoughts on current economic and market conditions. I chose instead, a topic more interesting and not as dry for many, and talked about the findings of a relatively new field of study called Behavioral Finance. It is a hybrid of psychology and economics and aims to understand how people make financial and consumption decisions.
The main premise of this field is that we are not rational beings, and in fact quite predictably irrational. A good book on this topic is called “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely. We are wired and conditioned to work really hard on avoiding cognitive dissonance, a mental state of stress when faced with conflicting information and a decision has to be made. So we’d rather look for information that supports our current opinions, pre-existing biases and choices, which behavioral finance calls “confirmation bias”. Having my thoughts around the topic, the opening quote by John Steinback caught my attention. I allowed myself to fall victim to confirmation bias and picked a quote on confirmation bias.
The bull market run in stocks, which started on March 2009 is now 5 years and 8 months old. Many call this the most hated bull market in history, and there is some truth to it. Usually investors love bull markets, this is when you see your investments grow, but why the hate?
The stock market correction and Global Financial Crisis that started in 2007 was so big, so deep and so wide spread, it wiped out many investors hard earned savings and/or cost them their jobs. From peak to trough, the S&P 500 index lost 56%, meaning if you had 100 dollars in Oct 2007, you had 44 left in March 2009. This trauma caused investors, both professional and individual, build such strong negative associations with the market, that they are having hard time adjusting to its 3 fold or 200% growth from the bottom.
From the get go, it was a lonely bull. During its first two months, a 50% knee jerk reaction jump caused many people to question its sustainability. A popular term at the time to describe it was “a sucker’s rally.”
Since then we had a dozen or so pull backs and corrections, and each time there were those who argued that this has been a rally stimulated by FED’s quantitative easing policy and a new bubble has been formed. Since we have just experienced what happens when we have a bubble in our hands, it is/was time to play it safe…and so goes the argument today just like yesterday.
The losses of 2007-2008 caused many to stay out of stocks all together or with less than usual allocation towards. This can be seen with striking numbers among millennials. Those who are between the ages of 14 and 34, are not interested in equity investing, in fact, investing in general. This lack of interest spills over to buying a home or a car and the popular trend among this age group is renting rather than ownership. They saw the consequences of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and they don’t want to fall victim to their parents’ mistakes. This attitude puts them in the spectator seat of a bull market that would have other-wise helped with growing their assets.
To be fair, the $1.2 trillion dollars of student loans hanging over their shoulders isn’t helping the situation, and of course there is always someone out there claiming fame after a pull back with a sign waiving “I told you so”.
At this juncture, approaching its 6th year anniversary, we need to answer whether we are close to the end of a short term bull market, or the beginnings of a long term bull. The difference between the two are the length and breadth (how wide spread) of the trend. The shorter term (cyclical) trends last somewhere around 3 to 5 years. Examples since the tech bubble burst are 2002-2007 bull followed by the 2007-2009 bear and 2009-present bull. The longer term (secular) markets last 10-15-20 years, like the 1982-2000 bull and 1966-1982 bear. Of course, there can and most likely will be cyclical bears and bulls within secular bears and bulls, only to last shorter, if they face against the longer trend.
If the bull market will prove to be a cyclical one, the end, by definition, can’t be too far in the distance. If however, we’re in the beginnings of a longer term trend, then even with 10-15-20 percent pullbacks and corrections, like the 2010 and 2011 16% and 19% corrections respectively, the bull can run for another decade or so.
The unfortunate reality is that we can only accurately know the answer to these types of questions after the fact. But that doesn’t preclude us from taking a calculated guess, and while doing so, we should always keep John Steinback in our minds and avoid confirmation bias.
Without looking for information confirming our hatred and death wish of this current uptrend, or our love and wishes of long and prosperous life, objectively how can we tell where we are right now?
We luckily have historical guidelines on our side to make and attempt to judge our coordinates. Here are some of the 10 indicators to watch:
1) Investor and trader sentiment
4) Cash ratios
5) Volatility index
6) Technical readings and seasonality
7) Economic indicators, demographics
8) FED Policy
9) Political risks, domestic and foreign
10) Interest and inflation rates
This list, of course can be broadened until cows come home but believe me, if you can make an objective analysis of these indicators, you will be ahead of many of your competitors.
When I look at these indicators, I see a mixed picture. In my next newsletter, I will get in to a deeper analysis of individual readings, but for now, this much I can say: stretched sentiment, valuations, cash ratios and technical, accompanied by high margin balances, are headwinds for the stock market.
On the other hand, seasonality, mainly post mid-term election period, low interest rates, low volatility, accommodative FED, low inflation rates, relatively calm politics and most importantly a growing economy are tailwinds.
This mixed picture, at least for now, is still in favor of a continuing bull market and a stronger argument for a secular trend. Once again, we can only have definitive answers in hind sight, but a 60/40 chance in favor of a secular trend versus a cyclical term makes more sense to me.
The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.
The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.
In my next newsletter, I will elaborate more on this topic with more details on the above indicators.