By Alexander Green
The market had a strong first quarter this year. The S&P 500 rallied 12% on the heels of an 11% gain in the fourth quarter of 2010. In fact, it has more than doubled from its bottom on March 9, 2009.
But lately the market has been wilting like last week’s roses, drooping in one session after another. Is the bull finally headed out to pasture?
Don’t count on it. While no one can forecast the short-term zigs and zags in the market, there are three good reasons to believe there’s still life in this bull:
- History shows that pullbacks don’t generally follow a strong first quarter. The S&P 500 has soared 10% or more in the first quarter eight times since 1945. According to Standard & Poor’s, the market rose three-quarters of the time in the following quarter. And the one other time the market rose 10% or more in both the fourth and first quarters, stocks gained 5% the next quarter.
- First quarter profits are likely to be another record. Don’t forget that corporate profits have hit all-time records in each of the last eight quarters. And – while the reporting season is just getting under way – this time isn’t likely to be any different. Yes, the gains will be more modest this time thanks in part to higher oil prices and tougher year-ago comparisons, but we’ll almost certainly see more all-time record profits for the first quarter and a few big surprises could send stocks higher again.
- Investors are still afraid. That’s actually a good thing. As John Templeton declared, “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, peak on optimism and die on euphoria.” You talk to anyone lately who’s euphoric about the economy and the stock market? Me neither. And people aren’t investing their money that way, either. According to The Investment Company Institute, investors yanked $1.2 billion out of stock funds in February after taking out $423 million in January. History shows a near perfect correlation between equity fund redemptions and stock market performance. It’s when investors starting throwing cash at the market that you need to worry. And we’re a long way from that.
When you look at the fundamentals, it’s surprising just how negative the average investor is. After all, we’re enjoying low interest rates, low inflation, expanding markets overseas (especially in the developing world) and all-time record corporate profits.
What’s keeping most investors at bay, of course, is volatility. And not just lately. Investors have been clobbered by two massive bear markets in 12 years. The 2000 to 2003 bear market took stocks down 49%. It was the worst market since the Great Depression – until the 2007-2009 bear market showed up. That ripped 57% from the leading market index.
Last year, the S&P 500 fell 3% or more six times, and on one gut-wrenching day in August, 6.7%. That made microscopic money market yields look attractive.
Of course, volatility is the price of admission in the stock market. If equity accounts rose as smoothly as bank accounts, everyone would be fully invested. But they’re not. Not even close.
Paradoxically, that’s another reason stocks actually look pretty good here.
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