On Bulls and Bears - Is it an Age Thing?

 |  Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Lloyd Sakazaki

Old bulls versus younger bears. This could be entirely coincidental. Has anyone noticed that bullish sentiment seems correlated with age?

Bullish and Buying

The most prominent U.S. stock market bull to surface in recent days is highly respected Mr. Buffett, who was born in 1930 and grew up during the Great Depression years. If as a child he was too young to comprehend the hard times and economic turmoil of the era, we can at least presume that, in his early adult years as a student of Ben Graham, Buffett absorbed the first-hand lessons garnered by his teacher, who had lost everything during the stock market crash of 1929, which apparently was the life-changing event that led Graham to formulate his well-known value-investing methodology. Below is a quote from Buffett's op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Warren Buffett (age 78): October 16, 2008. "Buy American. I Am:"

The financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad. So . . . I’ve been buying American stocks. . . . I previously owned nothing but United States government bonds. If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.

Also notable is so-called "perma-bear" Grantham, whose switchover into the bullish camp can be considered significant, since he spent the past couple of decades marauding with the bears:

Jeremy Grantham

(age 69): October 18, 2008. "Silver Linings and Lessons Learned:" 

[We] "have moderately cheap U.S. and global equities for the first time in 20 years. . . . We at GMO [Grantham's investment management company] are already careful buyers. We are reconciled to buying too soon, but we recognize that our fair value estimate of 975 on the S&P 500 is, from historical precedent, likely to overrun on the downside by 20% to 40%, giving a range of 585 to 780 on the S&P as a probable low.

I am not sure how much weight Glickenhaus's opinion carries today in the investor community, but he is said to be the lone voice who boldly spoke out when stocks fell 23% on Black Monday in 1987, confidently calling a market bottom and the start of the next bull market. FOX Business has interviewed Glickenhaus twice during the past few weeks, highlighting the relevance of his experience of having lived through the stock market crash of 1929 and seen how the government's actions (or inaction) impacted the severity of the Great Depression.

Seth Glickenhaus (age 94): October 27, 2008. "On the Verge of a New Bull Market:"

We are making a painful but meaningful low. . . . This is a rare opportunity to buy stocks at substantially below their intrinsic values. . . . We are on the verge of a new bull market beginning within a week or two.

(Note: On October 15, 2008, on Neil Cavuto's show on FOX Business, Glickenhaus indicated that a new bull market would start "next week." That day, the S&P 500 closed at 908. Today, a week and a half later, the S&P 500 closed at 849, a fresh, new five-and-a-half-year low.)

Bearish and Avoiding Stocks

As might be expected, so-called "Dr. Doom," Marc Faber, sees the U.S. and world mired in a serious recession that will last a few years. However, he also sees potential for a near-term rally within the longer-term bear market:

Marc Faber (age about 60?): October 20, 2008. "Stocks May Rally, Won't Reach Records:"

"We're extremely oversold at the present time. The market is in a position to rebound." However, Faber holds only a small equity position: "stocks make up 7 or 8 percent of his holdings, with cash, bonds and gold, his biggest position, accounting for the rest."

Also, his opinion on the U.S. economy remains gloomy:

To rebuild economic health in the United States, you need a serious recession that will last several years. The patient that got drunk on credit growth needs to go into rehabilitation. To give him more alcohol, the way the Fed and the Treasury propose to do, is the wrong medicine.

Next, here's the opinion of a firmly committed, unwavering bear, who is calling for a significantly lower bottom:

Gary Shilling (age in 60s): October 22, 2008. "We Haven't Seen the Worst Yet:"

The economy hasn't hit bottom yet. Neither, in all likelihood, have stocks. . . . If you're an equity investor with a long-only portfolio, it's not too late to take some money off the table. Remember 777 - not the airliner but the low that the Standard & Poor's 500 hit in 2002. That's 21% beneath where we are today, but if it's breached, then all the stock rise of the last six years will have been but a bear market rally, and the bear market that started in March 2000 will still be with us.

Finally, representative of the diversity of opinion, here's a market commentator who is one of the few courageous enough to state publicly that Buffett is, whether we like it or not, just plain wrong this time around:

Diane Francis (age in 40s): October 27, 2008. "Buffett Is Wrong: Avoid Stocks:"

Far be it from me to contradict one of the world's greatest stock sages and business analysts. But I will. Seems to me that we are in uncharted territory with this panic until the U.S. election is staged on November 4 and until the global community demonstrates that it is going to appoint sheriffs to patrol the global economy and stop the kind of jurisdictional arbitrage that led to the casino-ization of banking. . . . For me, buying and selling should not be an option at least until the U.S. election and probably until January 2009.

Does Age Matter?

Admittedly, based on a sample size of just three opinions from each camp, we have at hand little more than anecdotal evidence and, consequently, cannot draw any conclusion that comes even close to being statistically significant. However, with the bull opinions coming from investors in approximately the 70-to-90 age group, versus the bear opinions from a younger cohort in the 40-to-60 age group, I suspect that investor age might be an indicator of stock market sentiment.

One interpretation is that the older generation, having closer first-hand experience with the crash of 1929 and economic hard times during the 1930s, have a deeper appreciation for today's unprecedented government efforts to stem the current financial crisis before it reaches depression-era proportions. If the bulls end up being correct, we will in a few years' time look back upon today and have to acknowledge that the older seers professed a certain "market wisdom" that the less experienced, younger generation lacked. On the other hand, if the bears win the battle and the actual market bottom turns out to be much lower, I can already almost hear the youthful crowd "writing off" the elderly bulls as having "gone senile," being "out to pasture," or at least being "out of touch" with these ever so "modern" times of ours.

For the sake of global economic stability, I certainly hope the old bulls really are the wiser. However, on days like Monday, with the market closing at a new low, we have to fear that the younger bears could be right in the short run.