So far in 2015, the bulls and bears have been in a tug of war on the direction of the stock market. The first quarter has fluctuated between the S&P 500 posting new record highs and turning in a negative return for the year. Both sides have compelling arguments for stocks heading lower or higher in the near term. The bears argue stocks should head lower, because most measures of economic performance have come in below expectations. The economy rather than taking off, as was widely anticipated, is ebbing closer to stall speed. Obviously a recession would be a huge negative for stocks. On the other hand, the bulls have several reasons for why disappointing economic data should not stand in the way of stocks making new highs.
Unwilling to yet call a bear market, I have nevertheless become increasingly negative on this bull market. But despite a rough January, the stock market, as measured by the S&P 500, remains above its 125-day moving average—a level it has held for over a year. As such it would still be premature to call the current bull market over. But it’s not too early to examine why a meaningful move down with a breach of important technical levels, such as the 125-day, will be a reason to adopt a defensive posture, rather than “buy the dip” as so many are already advocating. In the spirit of my first “A Scary Looking Market” post I’ve included some new charts that argue against many of the currently popular bullish arguments. There is good reason to believe that optimism for the ability of the Federal Reserve through monetary policy to engineer strong economic growth is misplaced. Also unlikely to be realized is the hope that stock price multiples will grow further in a Great Rotation of investors moving from cash and bonds into stocks.
As the stock market makes new highs, there are many reasons to worry that the fall could be particularly hard when it comes. I’m no permabear and have not been constantly arguing a bear market is around the corner. Even if I haven’t been the biggest cheerleader of stocks I have been an advocate. For example in August of 2011 I wrote about how, despite negatives, stocks were the best investment options available to most and in my February post this year I argued that despite rising risks investors should continue to hold stocks and a decline was unlikely to transpire until 2014. At the same time, starting in May of this year, as the stock market kept making new highs, I began to argue that risks in 2013 were rising and investors should use the strength to raise cash levels and sell some stocks, particularly money involving a low risk threshold and time horizon. As I look at where the stock market stands at the end of the year, I continue to believe the risks of a bear market being sooner rather than later have only grown.
Earlier this week the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of the economy, declared that the so-called Great Recession ended in June 2009. Having started in December 2007 and lasting for 18 months, it represented the longest recession since the end of the Great Depression. The NBER found that a mix of economic indicators it tracks began a period of sustained growth starting last June, driving the economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) higher. But whether you consider the recession over depends a lot on your definition of a recession.