January 2nd, 2013

Shaking Off the Fear

If you’re an individual investor, one of the most important articles of last week besides the focus on the “Fiscal Cliff” debacle was an article in the December 29 Washington Post entitled “Bull market roars past many U.S. investors“.  The gist of the story was that “Americans have missed out on almost $200 billion of stock gains as they drained money from the market in the past four years, haunted by the financial crisis……Individuals are withdrawing money as political leaders struggle to avert budget cuts that threaten to throw the economy into a new slump.”

According to the Post, much of the damage to investors is “self-inflicted” because of fear and anxiety brought on by market volatility and memories of past “crashes”.  However, U.S. growth has improved and earnings tied to the economic are expanding.  Those improvements have been reflected in stock prices.  Of the 500 stocks comprising the S&P 500 Index, 481 are higher now than they were in March 2009 or when they entered the gauge.  Some of the statistics supporting these conclusions are:

  • Investors are lowering the proportion of stocks they own in retirement funds during a bull market for the first time in 20 years.
  • The proportion of stocks in the assets in 401(k) and IRA (excluding money market funds) fell to 72 percent from 72.5 percent in 2009.
  • The percentage of households owning stock mutual funds has dropped every year since 2008 to 46.4 percent in 2011, the second-lowest since 1997. [Of course, this could also result from the wide choice, availability and acceptance of competitive ETFs]
  • New money has gone to the relative safety of fixed-income investments as corporate bonds and Treasuries have received nearly $1 trillion since March 2009.

Housing is making a comeback and housing stocks were among the leaders last year, banks are on the mend and financial stocks were also among the best performers and 2013 auto sales are projected to approach 1.5 million. Is it time then for individual investors to begin fearing declines in the value of their fixed income investments as interest rates reverse (regardless of Bernanke’s protestations to the contrary) and start moving money back into stocks?

Meanwhile, institutional investors (the group I call the “herd”) hasn’t fared that well in the market either.  According to in December 26 Wall Street Journal article entitled “2012 Was Good for Stocks, Bad for Stock Pundits“,

  • At the end of 2011, Mr. Cramer warned investors to avoid bank stocks. Oops. They were one of the best-performing sectors in 2012. He urged investors to avoid real estate, but housing prices are up more than 2% from a year ago…..and the stocks of home builders, as measured by the S&P Homebuilders exchange-traded fund, are up 53.6%.
  • Of the 65 market “gurus” tracked during the last few years by CXO Advisory Group, the median accuracy for market calls is 47%. If that sounds low, or you wonder about the quality of the pundit, consider that the list includes such well-known names as Bill Fleckenstein (37%), Jeremy Grantham (48%), Bill Gross (46%) and Louis Navellier (60%).

So how do I deal with the noise coming from the “talking heads” and the uncertain produced by the market?  I maintain my equanimity in the face of volatility by relying on how market participants have behaved during similar situations in the market’s history.  I rely on my Market Momentum Meter to give me some indication of what market participants believe will happen, on average, in the near-term as reflected in their collective buying and selling decisions.  It’s measure by whether they are pushing prices up or down and the momentum behind those decisions.

The Market Momentum Meter turned a bright Green on January 31, 2012 when the Index was 1312.41, or 10.25% under today’s close of 1462.42.  It wasn’t Green for only 10 trading days during the year (the longest period was 7 days around the November correction low:

Like a parent who never quite trusts riding in a car that his kid is driving, I didn’t fully trust my own creation.  It took me a few months after that Green signal at the end of January to increase the money I had in stocks.  As hard as I tried to totally drown out the noise (news) about Euro debt and currency problems and, more recently, the fiscal cliff debates, I never could bring myself to be fully invested and, like corporate America, always had a significant amount of cash on the sidelines.  And then in after the November elections, as the Market reacted to the realization of a second Obama term and continued Congressional stalemate, it looked for a couple of weeks like we might see a repeat of the 2011 market implosion.  Fortunately, I waited this one out and saw money begin flowing back into stocks as prices quickly recovered.

Like many other market participants, I need additional “guarantees”.  Even though the Meter says that these sorts of market conditions in the past have lead to higher prices and that it’s all clear to be fully invested with relatively low risk, I still want to see the Index continue its assault on the all-time highs by first crossing above where it stalled out last September.  When that happens (which could be next week), I’ll feel more comfortable putting rest of cash to work.

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