Is the massive market rally of the past two years just a temporary recovery that has tricked many investors to jump back into stocks right before the next plunge? And how can the Great Depression reveal what may happen to the markets this year, almost 80 years later?
As we enter the third year of what has been a very impressive "bull" market, many are left wondering whether this incredible run of as much as 100 percent on the S&P 500 can continue - and for how long. Yet while the economy seems to have rebounded very strongly off of its early 2009 lows, accompanied by improving fundamentals, increased company earnings, and a more optimistic consumer, many investors fail to at least consider the thought that this entire "recovery" could, in fact, be just an extreme overreaction to the 2008 market crash. In other words, the huge rally we have seen in the global stock markets since early 2009 could be just a temporary recovery and pause before the next - and possibly worse - market decline.
It was less than a year ago that the fear of an economic "double dip" - a plunge back down to recession - intensely gripped the markets. The "flash crash", BP oil spill, European troubles, high unemployment, and potential derailment of the economy all posed a severe threat to the viability of our recovery. Yet while many parts of the economy seem to have been improving, there are still so many issues surfacing daily that most of the world is basically ignoring. I am not saying that all these issues are guaranteed to pull us back into recession, but with such a huge rebound in stocks accompanied by so many potential derailers, it may not be so far-fetched to at least consider the possibilities of the tremendous upcoming turmoil.
The issues now: huge government debt, credit crisis, European troubles, high insider selling, Middle East turmoil, surging oil prices that threaten to hurt the economy, soaring commodity prices, surfacing inflation, uncertainty about the Fed's QE2 and QE3, billions of dollars of toxic assets on the balance sheets of many banks, emerging market weakness since the end of 2010, real estate bubbles from China to Singapore, rationalization of fundamentals and a strong complacency that things will continue to be just as positive as they have been, a very slowly-improving unemployment picture, and perhaps one of the most telling points - the average investor is finally getting back in, and maybe right at the end of the rally.
So why should investors at least consider the possibility of a "double dip"? What are the potential scenarios if this tremendous market rally was, in fact, a "fool's rally"? And what can the Great Depression teach us about our current situation?
First, we must understand what a "fool's rally" is:
Otherwise known as a "Dead Cat Bounce," the fool's rally is a corrective bounce or temporary rebound that follows a severe decline in an individual stock or broader market. Following a severe decline, stocks and markets can sometimes see sharp bounces off of the lows as a rapid overreaction to the downside is followed by an overreactive bounce to the upside. In other words, a market crashes quickly and sharply but rebounds temporarily as much of the bad news takes some time to fully sink in.
This phenomenon is has been termed the "Dead Cat Bounce," based on the statement that "even a dead cat will bounce" if dropped from high enough. Here's an image of what this looks like:
The Dead Cat Bounce is just a temporary recovery, however. The scenario is as follows: 1) the market drops sharply; 2) after an extreme downturn, the market recovers as some investors buy up what they consider to be "value"; 3) the market cannot make it all the way back up to where it started its down move, however, because the economy is nowhere near as healthy as it was; 4) the investors who have pulled their money out of the stock market or who have missed the recovery now jump back in, thinking the market is going back up; 5) since this has been a dead cat bounce, and therefore just a corrective rebound before the dead cat falls back down, many investors were tricked into thinking the recovery was underway - but the market enters the next phase of decline or recession. A double dip takes place.
Think of a tennis ball dropped from the top of a building: as it drops, it gains momentum, hits the ground, and bounces up - but the bounce can not be as high as its original point. And following that bounce, it will ultimately be pulled back down by gravity. So too the Dead Cat Bounce - the market drops from above, falls sharply, hits the "ground," bounces back up (but not as high), and ultimately falls back down.
I bring the Great Depression up because it is one of the best examples of a Dead Cat Bounce. We often think of the Crash of 1929 as the biggest event of the Great Depression, and perhaps also consider it to be the biggest drop in the market. But that actually wasn't the case.
Here's how the Dead Cat Bounce played out in the Great Depression:
Compare the above chart to what we have recently seen in our market:
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Like the Dow from 1904 to 1921, the Dow of 1960 to 1983 was also stuck in a long sideways trend. It eventually broke out above the 1,000 level in 1983 and began one of the greatest bull markets we have ever seen. Like the 1929 top before the Great Depression, the 2007 peak marked the top before the Great Recession we find ourselves in. The two charts above look eerily similar, and make dismissing the relationship between the Great Depression and Great Recession almost a fool's move.
Now take a look at the 1929 stock market crash:
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After reaching a peak of 380+, the Dow tumbled to under 200 as the Crash of 1929 sent markets into a free-fall. Following the Crash, a Dead Cat Bounce took place - raising the market approximately 50 percent.
Compare the 1929-1930 Crash-Dead Cat Bounce scenario with what we have just seen:
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After a bull market from 2003 to the end of 2007, the Dow reached a peak of over 14,000. As the housing market collapsed, so did the stock market - sending the Dow below 6,500. As in the Dow of 1929-1930, a potential Dead Cat Bounce has followed since 2009 and continues until today.
The question remains - what followed the Dead Cat Bounce of 1929-1930, and will our market follow the same course?
Here's how it played out in 1930:
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The Crash of 1929 was almost negligible in comparison to the Great Depression that followed. The Crash sent the Dow tumbling from 380 to 200, and was followed by a Dead Cat Bounce which recovered over 50 percent of the Crash; but the real damage was done beginning in April 1930 and lasting until late 1932 - where the Dow toppled from nearly 300 to less than 50 - a loss of over 83 percent.
The Dead Cat Bounce in 1929 and 1930 was just a corrective overreaction to the steep plunge that the Crash of 1929 brought to the market. But as we can see, the Crash and the ensuing bounce were nothing compared to the huge drop that followed and carried through until the end of the Great Depression.
We now find ourselves in perhaps a similar situation - a market that saw a very impressive bull run for years, and reached a lofty top followed by a severe downturn in 2008 and early 2009. It has since shown signs of improving, and many investors and economists are optimistic for the future - thinking the worst is behind us. But with so many negative and potentially devastating issues constantly surfacing, are we just in the middle of a Dead Cat Bounce before reality sets in and the market plunges back down into recession? I do not yet know the answer to that question. But with the very strong similarities between our market and that of the Great Depression, it would be very wise to at least pay attention.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
Additional disclosure: We are currently invested in our favorite stocks near support while heavily protected through options.