The Stock Market Conundrum

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
By Gary D. Halbert
October 6, 2009

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Ball of Confusion

2.  The Gloom-and-Doom Argument

3.  Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!

4.  Is the Market Defying Gravity?

5.  What You Should be Doing

Introduction

The cover of the October 5, 2009 issue of Business Week magazine summed up the current dilemma for stock market investors perfectly.  It had a staircase running diagonally across the page, with one figure climbing up the stairs, and the other going down the stairs.  The “upstairs” view had the caption, “Why the Market Will Keep Going Up,” while the downstairs view was labeled, “Why the Market is Going Nowhere.”

The fact that both cases can be made in a single magazine article shows that there are good reasons for the market to go up, and equally good reasons for it to go sideways, or even down.  The fact that the S&P 500 Index has risen over 50% since the March lows has both bulls and bears scratching their heads.  And nobody knows what lies ahead.

There’s little wonder why $3-$4 trillion of investor assets are reportedly still sitting on the sidelines in cash, even though the market’s rally since the March 9th lows has been nothing short of spectacular.  You would think that even hesitant investors would now be piling into the market.  Some have, but much of this sideline money is staying put where it won’t be subject to another round of losses, should the market rally suddenly reverse.

This week, I’m going to discuss both the upside and downside potential in the stock markets.  In doing so, I’m going to lean upon the opinions of various market forecasters as well as my best economic resources.  I warn you, however, that there is no single oracle of truth and light that has all the answers.  George Bernard Shaw reportedly said if all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion, and I’m beginning to get the same feeling about today’s stock market analysts.

Ball of Confusion

The term “uncharted waters” as it relates to the stock and bond markets has probably never been as apt as in today’s environment.  Unprecedented federal government intervention in the markets has created a playing field that is, at best, significantly different than past market environments.  The Fed and Treasury have primed the pump, and we seem to be coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.  But no one knows whether the economy will continue on a path of sustained growth once these trillions of dollars are no longer flowing.

As we all know, however, the stock market and the economy are two different things and they sometimes move independently.  As a result, some feel that the stock market is giving the “all clear” signal for investors with its 50%+ run-up since the March lows.  Others, however, point to the fact that stocks haven’t risen this far this fast since 1933, and we all know what happened after that.  Plus, while this rally is impressive, it’s important to realize that the S&P 500 Index is still over 32% below its October 2007 peak value as of the end of September, so many buy-and-hold investors are still under water. 

Some analysts point to the fact that the market hasn’t experienced even a 10% downward correction since March as a reason for caution, thinking that such a correction could be in the cards in the near future.  Others, however, actually think that the market’s lack of a significant correction is a sign of the superior strength of this run-up in prices.

There is also a wide range of interpretations of the stock market’s current pricing.  Some say that the market is pricing in continued economic growth and, if such growth doesn’t happen, the market will fall again, possibly even re-testing the March lows.  Others, however, claim that the stock market is priced fairly at this point in time and investors need not be concerned.

A number of analysts pin responsibility for the market rally on corporate profits, especially as they continue to beat expectations.  Others, however, claim that expectations were so low that they were almost impossible not to beat.  Since we don’t track or recommend individual stocks, I can’t offer an opinion on this earnings discussion.  However, I do know that if you lower your expectations enough, earnings are bound to beat them sooner or later.   

The end result is that investors are now justifiably confused and there is no single authoritative source for market action going forward.  For every positive argument, there’s a negative opinion.  For every cheerleader, there’s a gloom-and-doomer and most are backed up with sophisticated statistical analyses supporting their predictions.  As always, the future is unknowable, but in this case it doesn’t even seem to be giving us the slightest hint of what might happen.

The Gloom-and-Doom Argument

I am always a little hard on the gloom-and-doom crowd, possibly because I have been exposed to them for so long that I know how wrong they have been over the years.  Many in this negative camp missed out on the greatest bull market in history in the 1980s and ‘90s because of their deep-seated fears that the sky was always falling.  At best, the old adage about even a stopped clock being right twice a day seems to be appropriate for this group.

However, it’s not just the usual suspects who are sounding warnings about the current state of the stock market.  Bill Gross and Mohamed A. El-Erian, both with the PIMCO family of mutual funds, are touting a “new normal” where stock market returns will be less than the long-term averages as economic growth is likely to be below-trend (3% or less in GDP) for at least the next couple of years.  El-Erian expresses his skepticism of the stock market’s recent rally, saying “Interest rates are at zero, there’s $2 trillion plus on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and yet the economy is still losing jobs.  What exactly is the stock market romancing?”

Of course, El-Erian and Bill Gross are well-known bond guys, so it is not unusual for them to be a bit biased against stocks.  However, many of my best sources over the years share the view that stocks are likely to under-perform their historical averages over the next several years.

Ned Davis Research recently issued a report noting that all previous rallies of the magnitude we’ve seen over the past six months or so took place in the 1930s and the 1970s.  Davis notes that none of those rallies were sustained over the long haul.  In essence, Davis points out that anyone who missed out on the first six months of such powerful rallies, and then jumped back in the market, would have been subjected to losses as the bull market ran out of steam and started falling.  This data suggests that the current rally will run out of steam later on this year, but that remains to be seen.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that Tim Hayes, chief strategist for Ned Davis Research, believes that there is a good chance that the stock market could have another big decline in 2010.  Mr. Hayes is known for having forecast the current market rally, so his opinion does carry some weight.  Likewise, Jordan Kotick with Barclays Capital in New York expects a repeat of the 1970s, where the rally fizzles and we end up with an extended range-bound market.

A separate article in the October 5 Business Week noted that high unemployment and low inflation might lead to a decline in pay, which could slow consumer spending in the next year and, in turn, the economic recovery.  Mainstream economists downplay the probability of this happening, but it is a possibility, and stock prices could suffer if it comes to pass.

As for consumer spending, a recent Careerbuilder.com survey indicated that 61% of Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck, up from 49% a year ago.  Even among those making over $100,000 per year, 30% say they are just scraping by, compared to 21% a year ago.  With a growing number of families strapped for cash and unemployment expected to peak at over 10%, please tell me how consumer spending is going to rebound sharply.

A final cautionary word comes from those analysts who are tracking the massive spending by the federal government.  As I have mentioned a number of times, this short-term spending could lead to long-term catastrophe, especially if the Treasury has to raise interest rates paid on its debt to attract foreign buyers.  Higher interest rates could stifle an economic recovery already facing headwinds from curtailed consumer spending and high unemployment.

Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!

While there are many reasons to be cautious about the market’s recent strong rally, the number of analysts and professional money managers who are cheerleaders for the new bull market is growing.  A recent Financial Advisor Magazine article noted that such luminaries as Byron Wien (Chief Investment Strategist for Pequot Capital Management), Barton Biggs (Manager of the Traxis Partners hedge fund), Steve Leuthold (Leuthold mutual funds manager) and Michael Price (billionaire value investor and fund manager) are all now firmly in the bull market camp.  Despite the 50+% spike since March, these well-known stock market mavens believe the bull market should continue.

The primary supporters of a continued market rally are those who believe that the market will revert back to its previous long-term mean return.  These analysts admit that the last 10 years have been anything but normal, but they believe that long-term stock market fundamentals should regain control as the economy continues to get better.

Of course, when these “normalists” speak of a return to the mean, they are talking about a 12.9% annualized gain like the stock market produced from 1900 to 1999.  But some ask how we can return to “normal” when consumer spending is expected to remain suppressed as the rate of savings continues to increase.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief market strategist for Charles Schwab, says that many investors have underestimated the “bounce-back effect,” referring to the tendency of the market to rebound from artificially low points such as the March 2009 lows, which were spawned by panic about the ongoing credit crisis.  She also predicts that US exports will rise sharply over the next year, which in her view will help to offset slower consumer spending.  She, too, is bullish.

Likewise, Neil Hennessy, chief investment officer of Hennessey Funds, not only thinks that the current market rally will continue, but also believes that we are at the start of a 10-year bull market that will see the Dow Jones Industrial Average doubling by the time it’s done.  He cites low interest rates that make stocks far more attractive than government bonds, and large amounts of cash waiting on the sidelines as the main reasons for his optimism.

Trillions of Dollars Sitting in Cash

The amount of money on the sidelines in cash and money market accounts is a recurring theme when researching stock market analysts with bullish views.  As noted earlier, there is reportedly anywhere from $3-$4 trillion sitting on the sidelines, much of it waiting for a signal to jump back into the market.  Like Hennessy, many analysts believe that investors will tire of earning little or no return on this money, and then move back into the market, thus leading to higher stock prices.

I have to agree that so much money on the sidelines is a potentially good bullish argument.  In fact, some of this money is already flowing back into mutual funds, but industry data show that most is flowing into bond mutual funds, not stock funds.  Therefore, it may be a little early to pin too much hope on the herd instinct driving the market up.

Plus, much of this money belongs to Baby Boomers whose retirement funds have already endured two major bear markets in the span of a decade.  Many of these individuals may feel that the bulk of the bull market has passed them by, and fear that getting back into the market may expose them to even further losses.

As for government spending and deficits, there is no doubt that much of the economy’s growth since the 9-11 terrorist attacks has been fueled by government spending of one kind or another, aided along the way by the housing bubble.  As the Fed continues to hold interest rates to near-zero, it is essentially making cash and money market funds unattractive to investors in hopes of driving them to other investments.  The question then becomes what happens after the government stops priming the pump?

Fed chairman Bernanke has indicated that interest rates will stay low for a long time.  In the past, this liquidity has gone to fuel bubbles – first the tech bubble and then the housing bubble.  This time, the bulls believe it will take the form of a stock market bubble, which could send the market much higher in the weeks and months to come.  That remains to be seen.

Looking at the Big Picture

As discussed above, there are compelling arguments for both the bullish and bearish cases at this time.  However, there is little disagreement that the major stock market averages are “overbought” at this time.  As noted earlier, there has not been even a 10% downward correction since the March lows.

DJIA Chart 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked in October 2007 at just over 14,000.  It then experienced the largest numerical decline in history over the next 18 months to the low on March 9, 2009.  The percentage decline from peak-to-valley was apprx. 54%.  From the March low, the Dow spiked up to above 9,800 briefly in late September, marking a recovery of just over 50% without so much as a 10% downward correction along the way.

This is why most market forecasters agree that the stock markets are overbought.  From the highs in late September, the Dow retreated to just under 9,500 in early October, but is again rallying so far this week.

One point is clear from the chart, however.  Buy-and-hold investors who rode the market all the way down have not recovered even half of their investment losses, despite the latest 50% rebound.  And there is no guarantee that the market will continue higher.

Investors that bailed out of the market late last year or early this year, and have not gotten back in, are between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes.  They are understandably reluctant to jump back in the market after a 50% spike up.  Yet they are earning next to nothing in cash.  I’ve had plenty of people voice this concern to me: Well, if I get back in now, that means the market is sure to go down again.  Those on the sidelines are in a really tough spot right now.

Is the Market Defying Gravity?

As I have mentioned many times, my firm recommends a number of actively managed investment programs that have the flexibility to move to cash or hedge long positions.  To provide the most value for our clients, we are also constantly tracking other active money managers to see if their strategies might have a place in our AdvisorLink® Program. 

This tracking of current and prospective investment programs allows us to see a lot of daily trading activity generated by a wide variety of systematic approaches, which I believe supports the idea that there are a lot of contradictory signals being given by the market.  From our experience, it’s not uncommon for the various systems to disagree about the market’s direction.  After all, they use a variety of technical and statistical data to generate their trading signals, but not all systems use the same data.

However, when we see most of the various programs we track line up on the same side of the market, it usually means there is a good chance the market will move in that direction.  Yet as noted above, the current market has been giving numerous contradictory signals, and thus some of the managers we track (and even some we recommend) have been on both sides of the market recently. 

This makes it even more difficult to have a strong view of the market’s overall direction going forward, other than the consensus that it is currently overbought and overdue for a downward correction.  Whether or not we are in such a correction as this is written is uncertain.

The last time something like this happened was back in the late 1990s when the tech bubble was being inflated.  Most everyone agreed that the markets were overbought, but stocks, especially tech stocks, continued to soar.  New-age market gurus claimed that we were in a “new paradigm” and that the old rules no longer applied.  Eventually, the market did collapse under its own weight, but only after an extended period of impressive gains.

We may, again, be dealing with an irrational market that neglects proven technical indicators and, instead, believes that we have entered a new era of government funded gains in the stocks of companies deemed “too big to fail.”  However, I think there is still a lot of risk for those considering traditional buy-and-hold investment strategies.

It may be that the recent uptrend in stocks continues for a while as it does appear that we are coming out of the recession, and corporate earnings have been surprising on the upside, generally speaking.  Consensus opinion has turned significantly higher and, as noted above, there are trillions of dollars looking to get back in that could limit downturns and drive prices even higher.

But with the Obama administration on track to double the national debt in the next 10 years, I don’t see things ending pretty at some point, probably soon after all those sidelined trillions jump back in the market.

Conclusions

As I researched material for this article, I found it interesting that the current opinions about the strength of the current market rally somewhat parallel what was going on back in the late 1990s.  Back then, all of the fundamental analysis was showing that the market shouldn’t be going up like it was, while the “new paradigm” crowd was saying it’s different this time.

Now, we have many of the same arguments.  The fundamental analysis camp is saying that the market is fairly priced and should continue to go up based on profit expectations.  All the while, those promoting the “new normal” are claiming that even if the market continues higher, it will struggle and will under-perform its historical averages.  It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, there is a third possibility that could prove both camps wrong.  There is a distinct possibility that the stock market could get caught up in a broad trading range in which it moves generally sideways for an extended period of time.   Maybe we’re already in it: the Dow’s close at 9,487.67 on Friday, October 2nd was actually lower than the index’s closing value of 9,505.96 back on August 21st.

Such a market environment does not mean that stock prices do not change, but rather that short-term upward trends could be followed by similar periods of downward price movement, and vice versa.  Over the long haul, the market could grind slowly higher or lower, but any such move could be gradual, at best. 

Of course, these arguments don’t help investors who are trying to figure out what to do with their money.  Have they missed out on most of the market’s gain, or is there plenty more to go around?  Unfortunately, no one knows for sure, and anyone who tells you they do is either dishonest or delusional or both.

As always, I suggest that you have most of your stock and bond portfolio professionally managed by Advisors that have a proven system, complete with the ability to move to cash or hedge long positions during major market downturns and bear markets.  More sophisticated investors may also want to consider a small allocation to investment programs that can go “short” if market conditions warrant.

Two of the programs I have mentioned most often are Niemann Equity Plus and Potomac Guardian.  These are managed accounts that invest in a wide variety of mutual funds in up markets, but also have the ability to move to cash or hedge positions during major corrections or bear markets.  We recently presented a webinar on the Potomac Guardian Program that featured a member of its Investment Committee explaining their approach to the market.  If you would like to learn more about this program, I would strongly suggest that you listen to the recorded version of this seminar at the Potomac Webinar link.

For anyone interested in the Niemann Equity Plus Program, we’re having a live webinar tomorrow, October 7th, at 12:00 PM Central Time.  In this webinar, Travis Silberman, one of Niemann’s co-founders, will discuss the strategy Niemann employs in managing money.  If you would like to sit in on this webinar, click on the following link to access the Niemann Webinar Invitation.

And don’t forget about the Columbus High-Yield Bond Program that I wrote about in my September 15 E-Letter.  This actively managed high-yield bond fund strategy offers a fixed income exposure for your portfolio along with the ability to move to cash in down markets.  For a more aggressive fixed income program, you may want to check out the Hg Capital Long/Short Government Bond Program that trades the 30-year Treasury bond both long and short.

These are in addition to our other AdvisorLink® recommended programs like Third Day Advisors and Scotia Partners that I have also written about in the past.  If you’d like to find out how these programs could bring additional diversification to your portfolio, check out our website at www.halbertwealth.com.  Better yet, give one of our Investment Consultants a call at 800-348-3601 and let them explain our various investment options and how they might fit within a diversified portfolio.

Very best regards,

Gary D. Halbert

SPECIAL ARTICLES

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Democrats Brace for the Hardest Part of Health-Care Reform
http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1927787,00.html

Obama Caves on Iran
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703628304574452933624279114.html


Read Gary’s blog and join the conversation at garydhalbert.com.


Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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