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Architectural Sway Points And Current U.S. Stock Market - Weekly Blog # 611

by: Mike Lipper, CFA
Summary

Most of the time very tall buildings and highly valued stock prices don't fall, but history shows that it is smart to worry about the possibility of it happening.

Can we compare the attack on tall buildings and their ultimate collapse to the current US stock market?

I clearly don't know, but the life-altering experience of 9/11 causes me to wonder. Which assurances given will be proven to be somewhat faulty due to unexpected changes in conditions? As a professional investor for others, I feel compelled to consider the fall from high stock prices.

Most of the time very tall buildings and highly valued stock prices don't fall, but history shows that it is smart to worry about the possibility of it happening.

Buildings that are over 100 floors are largely a U.S. phenomenon. During the early days of New York's World Trade Center, I was asked to join a luncheon club on the top floor of one of the towers. In the ride up to the club the elevator noticeably swayed. Upon arriving at the top, I could see for many miles out of the windows. I watched planes flying up the Hudson River that were below where I was standing. When pressed to join the club I commented that international clients were important to me and my business. I felt that these clients would be nervous due to the lateral movements of the elevator and the thought that they were above planes in flight. I was told not to worry as the lateral movements in the elevators would be dampened, and they were. As the planes could clearly see the World Trade Center Towers, they wouldn't fly too close. The increase in wind velocity from ground level to the 100th floor was anticipated by the architects, who allowed the building to sway in order to absorb the energy of the winds.

Unfortunately, as with many assurances, they did not address all risks that could befall those in the higher floors of the WTC. I had neglected to consider the landlord being the Port Authority. As its own governing body, the Port Authority did not need to abide by the stricter rules of the New York Fire Department regarding the width of the stair wells and some other fire precautions. Nor did I contemplate Boeing (NYSE:BA) developing commercial aircraft capable of carrying more fuel than other airliners. Most importantly, I did not consider those planes being used as guided missiles. Nor did anyone else.

This is not the first time a structure tilted measurably. The leaning Tower of Pisa has become a teaching site in terms of soil movement, foundations, and architecture. We are now assured that tall buildings constructed after the tragedy of 9/11 will have a far lower death count and will probably remain upright.

Can we compare the attack on tall buildings and their ultimate collapse to the current US stock market? I clearly don't know, but the life-altering experience of 9/11 causes me to wonder. Which assurances given will be proven to be somewhat faulty due to unexpected changes in conditions? As a professional investor for others, I feel compelled to consider the fall from high stock prices.

Being a numbers guy and learning from the great educational institution of the racetrack, the first thing I do is look at the long-term odds. From 1928 through 2019, there have been 92 years of data. Breaking the data into performance slices, the 30% gain for the S&P 500 Index in 2019 ranks in the top 21% for all periods. To expect similar results for 2020, or any subsequent year, is like betting on favorites at the track. It is generally not consistently a rewarding approach.

For the last decade, S&P 500 Index Funds have grown at a 12.98% annualized rate. Mutual funds that did well during this period were growth oriented and had substantial investments in technology and consumer services. The worst performing funds were invested in natural resources. These trends appear to be continuing in 2020. Through Thursday, 13 of the top 25 mutual funds for the week were growth focused and 6 were technology oriented.

One of the lessons learned from the track is that good near-term performance brings more money, a bet on the continuation of the trend. At the track, the weight of money lowers the pay-off odds, which must be split among more bettors. In the investment races, popularity attracts competition, as well as more scrutiny from governments and others who seek to share in the gains of investors.

One way to avoid some of the risks inherent in today's large-cap growth stocks and funds is to re-examine small-caps and emerging markets. You could also examine a group like natural resources which has not had positive performance for a decade, with a particular focus on energy.

Question for the week: If you made a list of your fundamental investment beliefs and were forced to rank them, which of your top five could prove to be harmful due to changing of conditions?

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Editor's Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.