Despite the steep, sudden fall in equity prices, the “experts”—Wall Street market strategists and traders—keep reassuring us with the following phrase, or something similar: “The secular bull market remains intact.”
In fact, the stock market in recent years is acting less like a bull than a terrified goat that bolts up a hill then sprints back down, and never gets out of the valley. Let’s examine the market’s effort to climb its own hill since the start of 2014. On December 31, 2013, the S&P closed at 1848. Aside from a 7% drop in October 2014, shares went pretty much straight up until May 2015, when the S&P peaked at 2135. At that summit, the index had gained 15.5% since the start of 2014, for an annualized return of around 11%, or almost 13% including dividends. At that point, the bull, if not raging, did at least look “intact.”
But since then, the S&P had shed 10.3%. Where does that leave the index from where we began at the beginning of 2014? Over the past 20 months, the S&P has added just 66 points, for a total increase of 3.6%; that 66 points is just 8 points more than more than the market lost on September 1. On an annualized basis, the S&P delivered a paltry gain of 2.1%. Investors also collected around 1.8% a year in dividends, on average. Hence, they’ve pocketed total annual returns of 3.9%. During the same period, the CPI has increased around 1.5% a year. So investors’ “real” returns, excluding inflation, come to 2.4% a year.
Put simply, virtually all the gains since the start of 2014 have disappeared. It’s hard to call this the kind of admirable, longer-term trend we want to see repeated by keeping the bull intact.
In fact, it’s unclear if we’re in a long-term bull market at all. It depends on how you measure it. If it’s from the lows of the financial crisis, then stocks still look great. If it’s from the heights that prevailed before then, the picture looks decidedly different. Guess how Wall Street measures it?
Since the S&P plummeted below 700 in the panic of early 2009, stocks have rewarded investors with annual returns of around 21%, including dividends. But that’s only because they’d collapsed over the previous 18 months. The S&P had climbed out of its turn-of-the-century tech bubble trough to reach a new peak of 1576 in October 2007.
So let’s use that previous pinnacle as a starting point. Since then, the S&P has risen by a total of 22.3%. Over those almost eight years, its annual gains come to about 2.6% a year, and 4.4% including dividends.
This isn’t the path of a relentless bull that occasionally stumbles but keeps marching impressively higher. On the contrary, it’s a sobering story of near frenzies driving prices to over-stretched levels, followed by gravity taking hold. And it just happened again.
If you measure from the valleys, you see a bull market. If you measure from the peaks, you see mediocre returns. Bull markets start with extremely depressed valuations, when stocks are an outrageous bargain. That was the case in the fall of 2009. Unfortunately, it’s not the case today. Prices simply rose too much, just as they did in the mid-2000s. Today, they remain extremely high compared with earnings.
It would be comforting to say that the current selloff signals a buying opportunity. It doesn’t, at least not yet. From here, expect a goat, not a bull.