Recessions, Bear Markets Need Time to Develop

Is this a Dead Cat Bounce or End of the Bear market?

My method for understanding which is admittedly peculiar: I concoct a novel, often unpopular narrative whose construction yields insight into what is unfolding. It helps if this “variant perspective” is both plausible and not widely held. The less people who share this particular view, the more likely it is not reflected in market prices.

Step two considers the opposite point of view:  What if the counter to this outlook is more accurate, and the entire prior thesis is incorrect? As is so often the case, the truth may be found somewhere between these extremes.

Last week, we considered one scenario: perhaps the Coronavirus didn’t end the bull market. The drawdown is merely a counter-trend rally within a longer secular bull market; it is similar to the 1987 crash, a temporary setback within the longer 1982-2000 secular bull market. If the economy is merely experiencing a temporary contraction, once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, it will quickly recover. Pent up demand will send 330 million Americans, all with a bad case of cabin-fever, out to shop, dine, play and celebrate! Companies will rehire 10 million+ workers. The bull resumes its prior trend, eventually making new all-time highs. Happy happy, joy joy!

My colleague Batnick is somewhat incredulous about this thesis. But our investigation does not end there. Step two in our methodology is to consider the opposite position: What if the economic expansion is over, and the secular bull market is dead?

We have had prior crashes, economic collapses, and recoveries before. Winding our way through this unprecedented period of 10 million jobs lost in a month, and a 35% collapse in market prices (plus the recent 21% recovery), there is simply nothing comparable in prior experience. Pearl Harbor? Stagflation? Tech Wreck? GFC?  None are parallel, but the one commonality in these prior events is time.

These events all unfolded over a long period, both in the run up to- and the subsequent recovery from- each.

As an example, the diplomatic, trade, and economic factors that preceded the Pearl Harbor Attack, bringing the United States into World War 2, were years in the making. The 1960s and 70s bear market had multiple price shocks, high inflation and high unemployment that unfolded against a decades long malaise of the Viet Nam war and the Watergate scandal. Or consider the dotcom boom – by many measures, the market was overvalued years before the peak. The “irrational exuberance” speech  by Fed Chief Alan Greenspan was in 1996. The causations of the GFC were literally decades in the making.

Time might just be the most important, yet least well-understood aspect impacting how investors behaved during these prior market crashes.

We are pattern-recognizing creatures, looking to make sense out of a jumble of confusing and often contradictory information. Out of the chaos, the human primate confabulates a comforting narrative (as I try to do above). We are so uncomfortable with the idea that our lives are random, we desperately seek a storyline that is cohesive, understandable, and fair. We collectively lose our minds when some form of rationality is not present.

We find repeatable patterns.

Our psychology is such we keep doing what works until it no longer does. Since the end of the great financial crisis in 2009, the “Buy the dip” mentality has been amply and consistently rewarded. Every pullback has eventually led to new highs; each 10, 15, 20% drop has proven temporary, at least so far.

Traders recognize this pattern, whether it turns out to be random, temporary, or destined to eventually fail. When confronted with what trade set ups that have worked in the past, we mice run through the maze to get our pieces of cheese. This behavior is unlikely to stop until the behaviors stops getting rewarded.

Consider what traders did following the tech peak in March 2000. It took several years to see the dip buying behavior end. Before that top there was nearly two decades of new all-time highs. (Even the 1987 crash was a temporary 31% setback within the longer 1982-2000 secular bull market). When the Nasdaq peaked at 5100, the subsequent fall saw repeated recover attempts. The Nasdaq 100 Index, a popular trading ETF of the era, fell 30% from 107 to 75, rallied back 30% to 101, fell 15%, then rallied 18% to 102, before saw-toothing all the way down to a ~80% drawdown at $22 in October 2002.

Hope springs eternal among those who have been rewarded in the past for their faith. It takes time to break those money-making habits.

It is unclear if this has occurred yet.

The speed of this collapse is part of the reason why. Psychological damage that occurs in “normal” bear markets typically takes time to surface. Consider the Great Financial Crisis (GFC). U.S. equity markets peaked in October 2007; they made their final lows in March 2009. Over the course of those 18 months, investors became worn down by a relentless flow of bad news. Banks were imploding, massive layoffs were being announced, mortgage defaults were exploding. It really felt like the economic world was ending. But that did not happen in a month – it took 18 months before investor negativity turned into panic, culminating in capitulation. The definition of the word capitulation is surrender: Investors simply give up. They had to do something, anything, to stop the pain. This exhaustion of sellers is how lasting bottoms are made.

We have yet to see anything remotely like that in 2020.


Transcript: Jonathan Miller

     The transcript from this week’s, MiB: Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants, is...

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