Happy Birthday Bull Market

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 |  Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Wade Slome, CFA

Birthdays are always fun, but they are always more fun when more people come to the party. The birthday of the current bull market started on March 9, 2009, and as many bears point out, volume has been low, with a relatively small number of investors joining the party with hats and horns. This skepticism is not unusual in typical bull markets because the psychological scars from the previous bear market are still fresh in investors’ minds. How can investors get excited about investing when we are surrounded by record deficits, political gridlock, a crumbling European Union, slowing China, and peak corporate margins?

Bears Receive Party Invite but Stay Home

Perma-bears like Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, John Mauldin, Mohamed El-Erian, and David Rosenberg have been consistently wrong over the last three years with their advice, but in some instances can sound smart shoveling it out to unassuming investors.

While nervous investors and bears have missed the 125%+ rally (see table below) over the last three years (mitigated by upward but underperforming gold prices), what many observers have not realized is that the so-called “Lost Decade” (see also Can the Lost Decade Strike Twice?) has actually been pretty spectacular for shrewd investors. Even if you purchased small and mid cap stocks at the peak of the market in March 2000, that large swath of stocks is up over +100%…yes, that’s right, more than doubled over the last 12 years. If you consider dividends, the numbers look significantly better.

Doubters of the equity market rally also ignore the three-year +135% advance in the NASDAQ (see also Ugly Stepchild) in part because the 11-year highs being registered still lag the peak levels reached in March 2000. Even though the NASDAQ increased 9-fold in the 1990s, if you bought the NASDAQ index in the first half of 1999, you would have still outperformed the S&P 500 index through the 2012 year-to-date period. Irrespective of how anyone looks at the performance of the NASDAQ index, it still has outperformed the S&P 500 index by more than +200% over the last 25 years, even if you include the bursting of the 2000 technology bubble.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The point of all these statistics is to show that if you didn’t buy technology stocks at the climax of late 1999 or early 2000 prices, then the amount and type of available opportunities have been plentiful. The table above does not include emerging markets like Brazil, Mexico, and India (to name a few) that have also about doubled in price from the 2000 timeframe to 2012.

Heartburn can Accompany Sweet Treats

Being Pollyannaish after a doubling in market prices is never a wise decision. After three years of massive appreciation, those participating in the bull market run have eaten a lot of tasty cake. Now the question becomes, will investors also get some ice cream and a gift bag to go before the party ends? With the sweetness of the cake still being digested, there are still plenty of scenarios that can create investor heartburn. Obviously, the sovereign debt pig still needs to work its way through the European snake, and that could still take some time. In addition, although macroeconomic data (including employment data) generally have been improving, the trajectory of corporate profits has been decelerating – due in part to near record profit margins getting pressured by rising input costs. Domestically, structural debt and deficit issues have not gone away, and perpetual neglect will only exacerbate the current problems. On the psychology front, even though investors remain skittish, those still in the game are getting more complacent as evidenced by the VIX index now falling to the teens (a negative contrarian indicator).

Despite some of these cautionary signals, the good news is that many of these issues have been known for some time and have been reflected in valuations of the overall large cap indexes. Moreover, trillions of dollars remain idle in low yielding strategies as investors wait on the sidelines. Once prices move higher and there is more comfort surrounding the sustainability of an economic recovery, then capital will come pouring back into equity markets. In other words, investors will have to pay a premium cherry price if they wait for a comforting consensus to coalesce.

Limited Options

The other advantage working in investors’ favor is the lack of other attractive investment alternatives. Where are you going to invest these days when 10-year Treasuries and short-term CDs are yielding next to nothing? How about investing in risky, leveraged, illiquid real estate, just as banks unload massive numbers of foreclosures and process millions of short sales? If those investments don’t tickle your fancy, then how about pricey insurance and annuity products that nobody can understand? Cash was comforting in 2008-2009 and during volatility in recent summers, but with spiking food, energy, leisure, and medical costs, when does that cash comfort turn to cash pain?

Easy money and low interest rate policies being advocated by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and other global central bankers have sucked up available investment opportunities and compelled investors to look more closely at riskier assets like equities. With the large run in equities, I have been trimming back my winners and redeploying proceeds into higher dividend paying stocks and underperforming sectors of the market. Skepticism still abounds, and we may be ripe for a short-term pullback in the equity markets. For those rare birthday party attendees who are called long-term investors, opportunities still remain despite the large run in equities. The cake has been sweet so far, but if you are patient, some ice cream and a gift bag may be coming your way as well.

Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market, international, and bond/treasury ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VXX, MXY, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.