Bull markets have corrections. Specifically, long-term uptrends often hit roadblocks where stock assets may pull back by 10%, 14%, even 19%. Those who may have been holding some cash typically benefit from buying into weakness at significantly lower prices.
Bear markets have bear market rallies. Selling pressure typically abates long enough to allow buyers to push stocks higher by 10%, 14%, even 19%. During long-term downtrends, however, attempts at "bargain purchases" can exacerbate portfolio losses and damage psychological resolve.
Consider what transpired in 2008. In the first half of the year between March and May, the Dow rallied 11% off its lows from 11,740 to 13,028. The ten weeks of "good vibes" had convinced many people that the worst was behind them. They were wrong.
Now look at the epic one-week period from October 27, 2008 through November 4, 2008. The Dow catapulted from 8175 to 9675 for a monster 18% rally. Surely the worst had to be in the rear-view mirror, right? Unfortunately, many buyers who bought in those early days of November later found themselves with assets worth roughly 70 cents on the dollar. (Again, attempts to eat directly out of a bear's paw can exacerbate overall portfolio loss as well as kill one's psychological commitment to market-based investing.)
Not surprisingly, there was a third head-fake. The Dow's late November mark of 7550 jumped all the way back up to 9034 by the first trading day of 2009. That's a 19.6% bear market rally that, ultimately, failed to inspire investor confidence.
"But Gary," you protest. "The Dow and the S&P 500 are currently trading between 13%-14% off of there all-time highs. How do you know this isn't just another stock market correction in a longer-term uptrend?"
I don't know for sure. Nobody can. I may have made the case for the strong probability that the market had hit the top in the summertime. (Review August's Market Top? 15 Warning Signs, or July's 5 Reasons To Lower Your Allocation To Riskier Assets.) Nevertheless, there are no certainties when it comes to percentage moves for stocks, bonds, currencies or commodities.
There's more. If the Fed came to the rescue on a shining white unicorn with QE4 tomorrow, then a bear market for these two indexes might be stopped in its tracks. That is not an endorsement for quantitative easing; rather, it is an acknowledgement that an open-ended 4th iteration of electronic money creation could indeed inflate asset prices yet again.
On the flip side, the evidence for why the bear market likely began in May of 2015 is colossal. For example, in bear markets, impressive rallies fail to recapture former high-water marks. Both the S&P 500 and the Dow failed to eclipse respective highs initially set in May - first in July, then again in October. What's more, the long-term (200-day) moving averages of the indexes began sloping downward in August-September. The failed rallies as well as the negative slope for the Dow Jones Industrials are shown in the chart below.
Failed rallies and downward sloping trendlines are only part of the story. In a bull market, investors embrace a wide variety of different risk assets. People go after growth, momentum, small caps, foreign, high yield, MLPs, REITs, IPOs; there is very little in the way of discrimination. As a bull market matures, many gravitate to the safest and largest stocks, eschewing asset groups that they once owned with reckless abandon; they crowd into fewer and fewer companies in fewer and fewer economic sectors. As a bull market transitions to a bear market, falling prices across an array of individual securities and key economic sectors eventually drag down market-cap weighted benchmarks.
An observer of U.S. stocks can see the transition from indiscriminate risk-taking to guarded skepticism via breadth indicators. For example, when the bull market is robust, an equal-weighting of stocks in the S&P 500 usually outperforms the market-cap weighted index. As participation in the bull market wanes, and as fewer and fewer corporate shares succeed, equal-weighted proxies typically under-perform their market-cap weighted benchmarks.
Not surprisingly, then, by July of 2015, the Guggenheim S&P Equal Weight ETF (NYSEARCA:RSP) had struggled to make any progress for eight months, even as the SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF (NYSEARCA:SPY) was close to an all-time record high. Similarly, RSP outperformed SPY right up to April of 2015. The RSP:SPY price ratio demonstrates that it has been in a downtrend ever since.
Another measure of breadth is the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Advance/Decline (A/D) Line. It measures the extent to which advancing stocks are outpacing declining stocks, and vice versa. When the Dow and the S&P 500 are near their highs, but the A/D Line is falling, participation in the bull market is becoming increasingly narrow. It follows that narrow participation by stocks listed on the NYSE regularly precedes bearish downturns.
In July of 2015, the NYSE A/D Line's 50-day moving average crossed below its 200-day moving average for the first time since the beginning of the euro-zone crisis in 2011. (See Remember July of 2011? The Stock Market's Advance Decline Line Remembers.) The Fed launched "Operation Twist" to lower longer-term borrowing costs in late September of 2011 and, in October of 2011, the European Central Bank (ECB) provided a series of bailouts to ailing countries and banks in the European Union. Today, there are no plans for extraordinary U.S. central bank stimulus, only "gradual" stimulus removal. The ongoing deterioration in the A/D Line since July increases the likelihood that the bear will officially come out of hibernation.
Unfortunately, the problems are not solely technical in nature. There are precious few bright spots for the U.S. economy. Manufacturing has contracted for 4 consecutive months. The services sector (non-manufacturing) is at a 27-month low. Major financial institutions have raised the odds of a U.S. recession to 40%-50%. Even strength in jobs data ignore the declines in both household income and labor force participation.
There's another way to gauge economic weakness versus economic strength. Specifically, one can examine the spread between 10-year U.S. Treasury bond yields and 2-Year Treasury bond yields. The spread tends to widen during expansion; it typically narrows when there is economic distress. The current spread of less than 1 basis point (.99) is the narrowest since 2009.
Meanwhile, going into 2015, nearly every traditional measure of valuation (e.g, price-to-earnings P/E, price-to-sales P/S, CAPE PE10, Tobin's Q, market-cap-to-GDP, etc.) placed stocks at extremely overvalued levels. Going into 2016, very little had changed because corporate earnings had declined for three consecutive quarters and corporate revenue had declined for four consecutive quarters. The contraction in both top-line sales and bottom-line profits may not mean as much when treasury spreads are widening and/or market breadth is strengthening. However, when these market internals are deteriorating, fundamental valuation suddenly starts to matter again.
Many of my moderate growth and income clients at Pacific Park Financial, Inc. remain significantly less exposed to stock risk than they had eighteen months earlier. Then, the reward for a typical allocation of 65%-70% stock (e.g., large-cap, mid-cap, small-cap, foreign, etc.) was worthy of the risk. Since that time, a gradual scaling back toward our current allocation of 45%-50% stock - only large-cap U.S. stock - has been decidedly beneficial. We continue to own lower volatility securities via the iShares MSCI USA Minimum Volatility ETF (NYSEARCA:USMV), better balance sheet corporations via the iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (NYSEARCA:QUAL) and dividend aristocrats via the SPDR Dividend ETF (NYSEARCA:SDY).
Would I make a tactical decision to lower the current allocation to stock even further? If market internals (e.g., breath, credit spreads, etc.) continue to weaken alongside increasing economic strain, I would use the inevitable bear market rallies to lower the allocation from 45%-50% U.S. stock to 35%-40% U.S. stock. Moreover, I might increase exposure to ETFs that track the FTSE Multi-Asset Stock Hedge Index. The "MASH" Index currently boasts a 20% differential with the S&P 500 over the past 3 months.
Disclosure: Gary Gordon, MS, CFP is the president of Pacific Park Financial, Inc., a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC. Gary Gordon, Pacific Park Financial, Inc, and/or its clients may hold positions in the ETFs, mutual funds, and/or any investment asset mentioned above. The commentary does not constitute individualized investment advice. The opinions offered herein are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell or hold securities. At times, issuers of exchange-traded products compensate Pacific Park Financial, Inc. or its subsidiaries for advertising at the ETF Expert web site. ETF Expert content is created independently of any advertising relationships.