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August 26, 2015

Are We Entering a Bear Market?

Summary:

The recent free fall makes it feel as if we're entering a bear market, but stocks have actually been experiencing a correction for some time.

Photo Courtesy of Ahmad Nawawi

We promise, when we wrote our monthly discussion a few weeks back titled, “At the Margin,” we had absolutely no magical insight into the price correction U.S. stocks experienced last week and this, one of the more noticeable in quite some time. You may remember our early August discussion heavily detailed the frailties of human decision-making regarding investments, with particular light being cast on emotional crowd behavior. Greed and fear are two of the most emotionally dominant drivers of decision-making, and two of the greatest enemies of investors. We’ve learned after decades of experience in the financial markets that controlling our emotions is the most important personal exercise for investment decision-making. Having said this, we thought it was important to look at the bigger picture in light of the downward movement in the U.S. and global stock markets over the last several trading days.

Although it’s never fun to experience a price correction, we need to remember that price corrections are normal in financial markets. What is abnormal are markets that go straight up without corrections — or markets that go straight down, for that matter. With all major U.S. equity markets off 10% or more as of this writing, one of the longest periods in market history without a 10% correction has ended. The last time we experienced one was in 2011. The steep correction that has taken place in the last week in U.S. equity markets appears to be a combination of emotional selling and forced selling because of margin calls, as the fundamentals of the markets have not drastically changed in the past week.

Let’s step back for a second.

Is this the beginning of a bear market in US stocks? No one knows. For now, there is not enough “weight of the evidence” to suggest this, but we’re keeping score. Although few probably realize this, about a month ago 20% of the S&P 500 stocks had already fallen 20% from their highs, well before the recent correction in the major indexes. The fact is that a “stealth correction” has already been occurring for some time now. If you own the stocks that have corrected in this manner, you are fully aware. What happened in recent days is that a lot of the “winners” of this year sold off. Historically, market corrections have been nearer an end than a beginning once the leaders finally correct. We will be watching market character closely in the weeks ahead.

It has been so long since we have experienced any type of even semi-meaningful correction in the U.S. equity markets that we have been convinced, when it finally arrived, it would feel like a bear market and emotions would be highly charged. Sound familiar?

Is there plenty to worry about in financial markets and global economies today? You had better believe it, but there has been plenty to worry about for years now in the aftermath of the Great Recession. U.S. corporations and households are a lot healthier today than was the case a number of years ago. Perhaps ironically, it’s the government sector where we find balance sheets impaired. It’s a good thing we can’t buy share ownership in global governments.

The worries will never stop; there is always something to worry about with the flood of data tied to financial markets and global economies. The key is assessing the magnitude of the reality of these worry points and how they may affect real world economic outcomes.

For now, no one knows where the markets will travel with any day-to-day precision. We have been expecting a correction for some time now, although having it happen in just a few days feels like quite the dramatic event. That sense of “free falling” over a short time is never comfortable. We instinctively act to stop the feeling by any means possible; it’s just who we are.

We believe it is imperative to do two things as we move ahead – 1) keep our emotions in check while thinking objectively and 2) assess forward market character on a continuing and intensive basis. As we have stated many a time in our communications to you, risk management is the key to successful investment outcomes over time. We know emotions have recently run higher than has been the case for some time now, and because of this it feels the risks of being invested in the equity markets are greater. If the weight of the evidence tells us this for-now-short-term correction is to become something much deeper, we will not hesitate to take protective action. The key in investing is not pinpointing the market peak prior to a correction nor nailing an exact interim market bottom before a rally. The key is avoiding large bear market drawdowns and participating in favorable market environments to the greatest extent possible.

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About the Author

Brian Pretti is a partner and chief investment officer at Capital Planning Advisors. He has been an investment management professional for more than three decades. He served as senior vice president and chief investment officer for Mechanics Bank Wealth Management, where he was instrumental in growing assets under management from $150 million to more than $1.4 billion.

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