Markets Comfortably Numb, or Confused?

Published at Oct 19, 2020, 12:00 AM in wealth management by Buğra Bakan

"It is easier to find man who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.” Julius Caesar

If you think the stock market was down 5% since November, then up 8%, then down 2%…and it’s been on a trade mill during which time the end result performance has been flat for the last 8 months – you’d be correct (you’d get a very similar result with Dow Jones). In more detail:

On November 26th 2014, S&P 500 closed at 2072.83. Lowest we’ve seen this large cap US equity index that we call “market” hit since then, was on December 16th at 1972.74. The highest point was on May 21st 2015 at 2130.82. The drop from November to December was 4.8%, and the increase from December to May was 8%. On Friday June 12th, this index closed at 2,094.11, 1% above November 26th high!

Well, then bonds must have done relatively well, right? No…20 year treasury (Symbol TLT) index is down 2.9% in the same period (Nov 26 – June 12) and in fact down 6.3% year to date…

How about commodities (Symbol DBC)? Down 17.8% since Nov 26th and down 4.7% year to date.

US small cap equity index (Symbol IJR) is up 5.6% since Nov 26th and up 4.9% year to date.

Lastly, a safer bet in stocks, utilities is down 6.9% (Symbol IDU) since November.

Emerging markets (EEM) is down 4.98% since November 26th and developed internationals (EFA) is up 2.6% (Please note that I look at investable ETFs instead of an index as they are better indicators of money flow.)

So what does this picture tell us about the present and the future of capital markets? Short answer: it’s a mixed message. Volatile and yet flat, not knowing which direction to take. Let’s dive deeper.

The U.S. Economy

The good and bad news about the US economy is that it’s growing at a moderate paste, or one can call it a “sluggish growth”. This is good because we are far from recessionary pressures as some fear mongers would like to argue, bad news because it is below the historical averages and expectations.

Every period has phrases that become short term clichés and sometimes for good reasons. Last quarter’s cliché reward goes to “Extreme Weather Conditions and Port Disruptions”, which was seen as the main root of the negative real annualized GDP growth of 0.7% during the first quarter. (Notice how I used negative growth as opposed to contraction…it should say something about our addiction with growth). Market reaction to this news was a “meh”…for two reasons 1 – The cliché accurately described the main reasons behind the contraction and both conditions dissipated, which signaled an expected stronger second quarter as a result. 2 – By some measures, there was no contraction. For instance if you look at Gross Domestic Income (GDI), which in theory should be the same with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as one’s spending is another person’s income. GDI grew 3.6% year over year versus 2.7% growth in year over year increase in GDP. The difference arises due to different data sources and these two figures converge in the long run. The gap suggests that GDP is not accurately capturing all the output in the economy and understating growth (Source: Ned Davis Research).

So first quarter contraction should largely be ignored and deservedly it was. The economy did slow down because of a shrinking shale gas industry, stronger dollar and the cliché mentioned above but there is a big question mark on contraction.

Second quarter and second half of this year is expected to bring stronger economic growth. I base this conclusion on forward looking indicators such as Purchasing Managers Index and most current data on revised retail sales to the upside, exceptional strength in auto sales, strong employment trends and rising incomes.

Stocks, Bonds and Commodities

The mixed message from the main asset classes is probably the following: the longer term uptrend in stocks is likely to continue. Shallow declines should be seen as buying opportunities. Long term bull markets in bonds and commodities are likely to be over.

When the stock market goes sideways for 3-4 months let alone 8, unless a catalyst for a deep correction is on its way, it usually builds up for the next up trend. Why? Because this period frustrates the investor, bullish sentiment quickly fades, patience is replaced by pessimism and negative sentiment is bullish for stocks (just like extreme optimism is bearish). Negative sentiment is bearish because it signals a built up of potential buyers if and when the tide turns.

Along with an improving US economy, negative investor sentiment is likely to turn into a tailwind for the stock market during the second half of the year.

Those who have been waiting for a correction may not be aware but one form of a correction is a long side-way trend. Is 8 months long enough? We shall see.


A few take-aways from the market action during the first half of the year are:

  • Long term bull market in bonds and commodities might be over.
  • Second quarter US economy and second half stock market may perform better than the prior period.
  • Small cap out performance gives hope for a sustained uptrend.
  • Utilities under performance confirms the possibility of an uptrend. Why? Because as the market matures, the defensive sectors outperform growth oriented sectors (a rotation towards lower beta). Defensive sectors’ under performance keeps the bulls in the game.
  • International opportunities may out shine US investments, but for only those with patience and longer time horizon, as the timing of this switch is impossible to guess.

The contrary view to the market building for the next uptrend argues that the valuations based on price/earnings ratios are stretched, margin debt (to borrow and invest) is at extreme highs, we are coming close to the end of the business cycle, cash ratios are at extreme lows (everybody who is to be invested already is) and we haven’t had a meaningful correction (over 15%) since 2011.

In my next newsletter, I will expand on these bearish opinions because they are noteworthy. For now, the bull is still running, a little confused and tired may be, and so taking it’s needed rest, but until proven otherwise, a benefit of the doubt should be granted.

How to counter the bears and what to say about FED’s next move? That’s for the next commentary.


The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.