Excerpt from the Hussman Funds' Weekly Market Comment (7/2/12):
In the first week of March, the U.S. stock market established a set of conditions placing it among the most negative 2.5% of historical observations (see Warning: A New Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest) – a short list that includes the major peaks of 1972-73, 1987, 2000, and 2007. Since then, we’ve seen an increasing set of indicator syndromes that are associated with historically hostile market outcomes, maintaining us in a hard-defensive stance that is as rare as it is imperative. Last week, the market reconfirmed the “exhaustion syndrome” that I discussed several months ago (see Goat Rodeo). Prior to 2012, there were 112 weeks in post-war U.S. data where our investment strategy would have encouraged a similarly defensive position with that syndrome in place. Following those instances, the S&P 500 plunged at an average annual rate of -47.5%.
So far, hopes for massive bailouts and monetary interventions have allowed the market to forestall the more violent follow-through that it experienced in 1973-74, 1987, 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 from similar conditions. Yet the market impact from various monetary actions has become progressively weaker, and the exuberance from various “agreements” out of Europe has become progressively shorter. More importantly, in data spanning more than a century, including Depression, two world wars, rapid inflation, credit crisis, and numerous bubbles and crashes, we’ve seen that relevant global events show up in observable data such as market action, credit spreads, valuations, economic indicators, sentiment, and specific syndromes of conditions. As a result, we don’t need a “Euro breaks up” indicator, or a “Bernanke bubble factor” in our data set, nor do we need a live feed showing constantly refreshed CT-scans of Angela Merkel’s spine.
Last week, the market re-established the “exhaustion syndrome” that we observed several months ago. The associated rally was uncomfortable, not only because banks and financials advanced (where we hold very little exposure), but also because the advance took our staggered strike put option hedges from in-the-money to out-of-the-money while the CBOE volatility index dropped to just 17. It is easy to forget that we experienced much the same thing near the 2000 and 2007 market peaks. As I noted in the March Who’s Who piece: “A word of caution… When we look at longer-term charts like the one above, it's easy to see how fleeting the intervening gains turned out to be in hindsight. However, it's easy to underestimate how utterly excruciating it is to remain hedged during these periods when you actually have to live through day-after-day of advances and small incremental new highs that are repeatedly greeted with enthusiastic headlines and arguments that ‘this time it's different.’ For us, it's particularly uncomfortable on days when our stocks don't perform in line with the overall market, or when the ‘implied volatility’ declines on our option hedges.”
Though our level of defensiveness will remain sensitive to any improvement in our measures of market action, my opinion remains that the global economy is entering a new recession, and that stocks are already in the beginning of a bear market. Because bull and bear markets can only be confirmed in hindsight, we prefer in practice to focus on the broad set of observable evidence at every point in time. Our investment stance is based on that evidence, not my views about recession or bear market status.
As veteran market analyst Richard Russell has noted, investors often equate the concept of a bear market with the expectation that prices will continuously fall. Indeed, if you think back to the 2000-2002 bear, or the 2007-2009 bear, that is probably the memory that those bear markets invoke. In fact, however, those bear markets can be seen on a smaller scale as a constant process of hope and disappointment, with periods of risk-seeking abruptly punished by fresh waves of risk-aversion. This can make it very difficult to live through a bear market day-after-day with a clear sense of the larger picture.