Happy days?

Wall Street parties on, but the good times could stop soon

The stock market’s upward move this year has humbled many analysts and perplexed even the most optimistic financial experts. Take the all-tech/all-emotions Nasdaq as an example: it’s up a mind-boggling 73% from its October 2002 lows, a tempting sign to many that it’s safe to invest again. But are Wall Street’s happy days here to stay, or is the stock market’s upswing operating on borrowed time?

It is crucial when looking at the market to keep an eye on the big picture, which in this case is that stocks cracked in 2000 and have embarked on a massive bear market. Any moves up within this bear market have to be analyzed in the context of the larger force in action: the bear. In fact, for the SP500 index, the bear market is in the earlier stages of its decline. The Nasdaq, although on the rise – some Nasdaq dream makers are up two, three, even five-fold – it is still down 60% from its March 2002 numbers. This latest rally has brought little real solace for the buy and hold crowd, as they are still down. The short-term punters that have played the move up, however, have cleaned up nicely. But in the meantime, the individual investor must ask the following question: “Is it for real and do I keep my money in?” The answer to both is a resounding “no”.

The move up, from a technical perspective is not so irrational – there have been three other moves up since the crash started, and all had been mistaken for a real revival. This latest surge came with a whole media blitz on how “the US economy is recovering” and in three months, the word “recovery” replaced the word “recession”. The current mainstream view is that the recovery in the US will lead to ever-higher asset prices, but there are two important cautionary factors that should be considered. The first is that the sentiment is extremely positive. This may seem counter-intuitive, but with market participants feeling so buoyant, there is ample room for disappointment. Ever forgetful of the past, the public and the media are being lured into a false sense of security. The market never bottomed at multiples beyond seven or eight and we are currently at 28 times earnings on the SP500. The second factor is that with consumption being the catalyst of any recovery, it is hard to imagine it staying robust without improvements in job creation. Job growth, especially weak in Europe, has faded significantly in the US, with the unemployment rate increasing from 4% at the height of the mania, to near 6%. Chances are, unemployment will continue to rise given the massive overcapacity in most sectors.

The technical factors abound, but the most relevant for the individual investor, is that the bear market is not over. People should be looking at their portfolios and cutting stock exposure to a bare minimum, and while the media and large financial institutions will have you believe that “cash is trash”, this advice will likely turn out ruinous. The notion that people must invest in the stock market is outdated. From 1982 to 2001, the markets were hugging a near perfect up trend (see chart). Since then, it has gone back and forth, sometimes with inebriating speeds, but the market remains below the trend line broken three years ago. What does that entail? It simply reinforces, visually, that despite the recent large move up in stocks, and the hope driven discourse about elections, recoveries, and the “new world”, the markets are still in dangerous territory. Even the sexiest alternative investment will not dodge the coming deflation in prices across the global markets, especially in US stocks and corporate bonds. It is much simpler to adopt the optimistic scenario, as it flows strongly in the ambient media. But one must be more cautious than ever before of the dream of long-term prosperity in stocks. Having been devastated by hope on multiple occasions in the past, it is an elixir that should be passed up. Stay in cash, invest where you live, and preserve hard-earned money. Cash, far from being trash, is the ammunition for investing when no one, including CNBC, will be positive on stocks. For now, stay liquid for the stormy winter.

 

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