Photo: Associated Press
The favourite forecasting tool of economists and investors is to extend whatever are the current conditions and recent trends in a straight line into the future. I was reminded of that by an article in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, which began with the following;”The U.S. economy remains almost comatose . . . The current slump already ranks as the longest period of sustained weakness since the Great Depression . . . Once-in-a-lifetime dislocations . . .will take years to work out. Among them: the job drought, the debt hangover, the defence-industry contraction, the banking collapse, the real-estate depression, the health-care cost explosion, and the runaway federal deficit.”
The article then discloses that was Time magazine’s analysis of the economy in its September, 1992 issue, when the Dow was at 3,390, and the economy was still struggling to pull out of the 1991 recession.
The S&P 500 then declined another 7% to its mid-October 1992 low, which according to seasonal analysis, was the beginning of the market’s next ‘favourable season’. Stocks then launched into a bull market.
Unfortunately, most investors missed out as they were still disbelieving that a strong economic recovery could soon be underway given those miserable surrounding conditions noted above – and especially with a newly elected Democrat in the White House.
But by 1995, with the market up 50% since 1992, sideline money finally began returning to the market in earnest with investors scrambling to catch up. In 1999, statistics showed that more than half of all the money in the stock market had flowed in just since 1995.
Similarly, we currently have the market muddling along, down 29% from its 2007 bull market peak, and down 9% from its April peak of this year. And, as is the historical pattern, ravaged investors who stayed in the market too long after the 2007-2009 bear market began, became disgusted with the stock market, and have steadily pulled money out of stocks and stock mutual funds since, even through last year’s big rally.
The Investment Company Institute, keeper of the statistics, reports that $40 billion was pulled out of U.S. equity mutual funds in 2009, making a total of $239 billion pulled out over the previous three years, and the outflow has continued this year. There is now an estimated $2.8 trillion in money market funds, while a dramatic $185 billion has flowed into bond mutual funds so far this year.
But when should they get back into the stock market? Can we learn anything by looking back at 1992?
The current similarities to the fall of 1992 are not confined to the similar surrounding economic conditions and fear in the stock market, but also to historical seasonal patterns, and even the political situation.
In November, 1992, a Democratic president was elected for the first time since 1977, succeeding a previously popular Republican president, George Bush Sr. President Bush had become unpopular by re-election time, as a result of the difficulty his administration was having pulling the economy out of the 1991 recession. In another eerie similarity, that recession had been the result of the bursting of a real estate bubble; a serious collapse of the banking system (almost 1,000 banks had failed and had to be taken over by the FDIC); and federal budget deficits that were at near record highs. The budget deficits in turn were the result of economic stimulus efforts, and the costs of the Desert Storm war to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Similar to the situation of our current president, the new president in 1993, Bill Clinton, became increasingly less popular as his efforts to revive the economy seemed to be taking too long, while he seemed to put too much effort into side issues like attempting to reform healthcare.
However by 1996, contrary to the fears of 1993 and 1994, the economy was recovering dramatically, and the stock market continued in what would become the longest and strongest bull market in history. Some of the economic highlights included the record budget deficits that were sure to bankrupt the country being reversed to significant budget surpluses.
Is it possible the present similarities to the early 1990’s could continue?
No one thinks so right now. The current opinion is similar to that of Time magazine in 1992, that the “once in a lifetime dislocations will take years to work out.”
I sure don’t have a crystal ball that’s tuned to look out five or 10 years.
But I have been saying for more than a year that the market should see an important low in the October/November time-frame this year, followed by a dramatic rally of 50% to its high next year. That expectation of a further decline from here, followed by an important buy signal, is based on indications that the degree of economic slowdown has not been fully factored into stock prices, my belief that it’s still too early for the market to anticipate an improving economy six to nine months out, the market’s annual seasonality, and the history of the Four-Year Presidential Cycle.
Being reminded of the similarities to the fears and conditions in 1992 has me even considering the possibility that before year-end we could even return to buy and hold being a viable strategy again. What would that be like after the ‘lost decade’ so many investors experienced?