If you follow financial news, you have probably noticed pundits warning of the flattening yield curve recently. In fact, they say, someday soon it will invert and part of it has already! Furthermore, when the yield curve inverts, these pundits claim, it predicts a recession almost perfectly!!! If you are like many people watching these shows, your anxiety spiked on the word "recession" and you forgot to ask what the yield curve even was. Our team is fairly level headed and analytical, and as a firm we reject market timing, so we think this kind of hyperbolic commentary should be analyzed rather than taken as simple fact.
but the short-term experience is always surprising.”
- Charles Ellis, author, Investment Policy – How to Win the Loser’s Game
How was your Thanksgiving holiday? You might answer by recalling the joy of family, the bounty of delicious food, the giggles resonating from the ‘kids table’, and maybe even the post-meal walk around the block. How wonderful! But it’s much more likely you’ll reply with details about the overcooked turkey, Uncle Murray’s (very) public argument with Aunt Millie, the short-term power outage, and the food poisoning experienced by your less-than-favorite daughter-in-law. Unfortunately, as holiday-goers, and investors, this is often exactly how we think; more likely to remember the anxiety of setbacks than the joy of progress.
The highly unlikely 2017 and the more typical 2018 that has followed has me contemplating the difficulty of forecasting how the market will do in the future. I don’t remember anyone anticipating, in December 2016, a banner year in 2017 via a nice straight line. Indeed, predicting any given future year’s stock market performance is very difficult, but why don’t you try!
We can’t help but contemplate unlikely events, both good and bad. When you buy a lottery ticket, you know you will almost certainly not win, but you enjoy the minute-long fantasy of what you would do if you did win. The Tigers could get something going this season and win the World Series, says a hopeful sports analyst on the radio. The medical website shows that your symptoms indicate seasonal allergies, but it could be the rare disease that killed a man last year. There are many books in the world of investing, but many of the bestsellers are about the huge losses that most people thought were impossible. We call these unlikely scenarios extreme tail events or black swans.
Have you heard about the ivory tower academics who unilaterally made a huge decision affecting billions of dollars last year? To make matters worse, if investors fall into the trap of trading like automatons, this will trigger untold millions in taxable gains in the process!!! I presume you hadn't heard about this investment earthquake, but I bet I have your attention now.
We spend much of our time in our writings here discussing high level topics like the importance of financial plans, why working with a fiduciary is so valuable, and the traps of behavioral finance. Rightfully so, as these are the big decisions we need to get right to achieve our goals. Nonetheless, I expect most of our readers go a level deeper in their interest and keep track of the stock market (and maybe the bond market) over long periods of time, and we write on broad market behavior now and then to help articulate what we see in our research. Sometimes, though, the market watchers among us notice market movements like we experienced at the beginning of this month and wonder "why the heck did that happen?!" Completely answering that question is almost impossible, but I believe two things:
When speaking with clients, peers, and friends alike, there are some common questions: "When will this bull market end?" or "It's too late to buy stocks, right? They have to go down from here." Sometimes they even use the word "bubble!" The short answer is: I have no idea and anyone who tells you they do is probably lying, misguided, or foolish. The long answer is more complicated, and involves taking many factors into consideration, especially global interest rates. Also, bubbles require exuberance and leverage. The fact that the questions above are being asked so often indicates that exuberance is low and leverage likely is too.
In conversations regarding the markets this year, some have asked me: what do you think will happen to the stock market if the Trump Presidency runs into significant legal problems or even impeachment? My candid and apolitical response: all else being equal, stocks will rally after a period of distress, because markets hate uncertainty and while the current administration already has lots of it, the process of its downfall would create more.
If history tells us anything, it's this: an administration under fire can cause some pain in the markets, resolution will take a lot longer than most people expect, and the markets seem to like it when that resolution is found. Meanwhile, other things easily create more distress in the markets than the political scandal itself. For two useful points of reference, let's examine how the markets have previously responded to beleaguered modern presidents.
The United States of America Certificate of Naturalization
Petition Volume: 147
Description: Age: 23, Height: 5 feet, 6 inches, Color: White, Complexion: Light, Eyes: Blue, Hair: Brown, Distinguishing marks: None
Name: Charles Patrick McVeigh
In Testimony Whereof, the seal of said court is hereunto affixed on the 1st day of June, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Six, and of our Independence, the One Hundred and Fiftieth.
--James L Hotchkiss - Clerk of Supreme Court, Monroe County, New York
I’m too privileged. Too privileged to have a genuine understanding of what it took for my grandfather to make the journey. A journey where memory begins as an orphaned youth, wanders without formal education toward the Irish Calvary, and ultimately through Ellis Island to the United States of America.
I’m too cloistered. Too cloistered to imagine what he must have felt when the formless took shape. Different elements coming into focus, horizon growing visible, and the crystallizing view of Liberty Island and our revered sentinel, Lady Liberty.
Despite the differences between my grandfather’s start in life and my own, I have come to understand, and embrace, his most important personality trait. Optimism. He expected the good. He believed hard work, resilience, discipline, and a commitment to deferred gratification, would ensure a brighter tomorrow. To him, a healthy sense of optimism was not only important; but indeed a necessity.