We often hear these days that stocks are overpriced and due for a correction. Despite the fact that the S&P 500 is hitting all-time highs after climbing 250% in eight years, it’s clear that the rally has not quite captured the heart of investors. Analysts were never really convinced either and have issued similar warnings for years. Meanwhile, the bull market marches on.
Is it too late to join in? That is certainly a risk: it is a well-known fact that investors abandon caution at the worst possible times. But when the current rally is put in context with past performance, the case for extreme caution loses some of its potency. Stocks have been known to climb far more than the 250% registered since 2009, such as when they soared 1,000% between 1942-1966 and 1982-2000. Both rallies eventually died, of course, but false calls that the end was nigh were issued many times before the bull-slaying busts finally arrived.
Booms can be confoundingly persistent. The ten-fold rise from 1982 to 2000, for example, did not ebb gradually: instead, it sped up in the mid-1990s as investors became increasingly bullish and optimistic.
Conversely, busts come along with violence, often just after people stop recognizing that markets can do just that. In the late 1990s, for example, nobody could foresee the brutal 3-year bear market that started in March 2000.
Market crashes are a feature of how markets behave, and have always been around. The 2008-09 financial crisis or the 2000 dot-com crash, for example, were no more devastating than the Crash of 1929, or the long-forgotten Panic of 1873 that forced the first stock market closure.
These booms and busts come in unpredictable cycles of different duration. Nobody has a way of forecasting market turns.
But about 90 years ago an intriguing pattern of market behavior developed, and it has held remarkably well to this day. It goes like this: weak stock market returns in a 17-year period follow 17 years of very high returns, and vice versa. This might be nothing else than a coincidence, and we do not know whether it will hold in the future. But the cycle is quite clear.
In 1929, for example, stocks had returned a remarkable 13.4% average in the previous 17 years, the highest it had been up until that point, and investors were euphoric. But in the next 17 years stocks yielded a miserly 1.3% per year including dividends. Fast forward to 1942: stocks had returned less than 4% during the prior 17 years but went on to yield a stunning 18% annual average return during the next 17.
Since then, the market pendulum has swung between despair and euphoria, taking market returns from trough to peak. It seems that just when optimism reaches its highest point a new era begins, marked by low returns, and affirming the dictum that investor sentiment is best seen as a contrarian indicator.
Despite the market strength, conditions today can hardly be described as “euphoric”. Political dysfunction, global terrorism, rogue states and the rise of global protectionism are just some of the concerns discussed in today’s news. Sentiment is rather weak, illustrated by the prevalent idea that the stock market is too high and ripe for a fall. And the past 17-year average market return has been low by historical standards.
So, according to the despair-euphoria cycle we described, current conditions seem to be consistent with strong future returns. If so, what would it mean for market levels?
The most conservative way of measuring this is to start the calculation at the trough of 2009. To arrive thus to a 17-year average total return of, say, 15%, the S&P500 would have to be around 7000 sometime in 2026, assuming dividends of about 2% per year. A 16% average annual total return would take it closer to 8000, or well above three times its current level.
This may sound unreasonably high, but as observed earlier the stock market has gone up much more than that in the past, and tenfold twice. Going from 700 in 2009 to 7000 in 2026 would not lack precedent.
Looking elsewhere for clues we note that the last 8 years saw weak economic growth, a condition proven to be cyclical; if so, we may be on the threshold of a new period of environmentally sustainable expansion aided by new technologies (think renewable energy and artificial intelligence). This could be a shot in the arm for the global economy.
We insist: it is impossible to know whether this pendulum-like cycle will hold. The stock market moves in patterns that occasionally repeat themselves for a while and then vanish, a feature common to unpredictable systems.
Even if the pattern holds, there is nothing to prevent the market from tanking and then recover to produce a strong 17-year average return by 2026. The 20%-plus Crash of October 1987, for example, happened five years into the tenfold stock rise of 1982-2000.
So the cycle we described does not say anything about where the market may be this year or the next. But those who wonder about the long term may find the idea of being in the initial stages of a really long rally quite exhilarating.
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