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Friday, September 11, 2009

The long road back

The stock market has rallied strongly since March, and this has a lot of investors feeling optimistic again.

A lot of the numbers touted by the press (with Wall Street's careful nudging) foster this cycle of optimism. For example, the S&P 500, on a price-only basis, is up 56% from its ominous intra-day bottom of $666.79 (March 6, 2009). 56% sounds very impressive, indeed!

But, the context of that 56% number is important. If you bought a company for $100 a share and it fell to $1 (99% decline), and then rallied to $1.56 (up 56% from the bottom, but down 98% from purchase price), you'd have a 56% "gain." Not as impressive when put that way.

The same context should be included in any analysis of the S&P's meteoric 56% increase.

The S&P 500 peaked on 10/9/2007 at $1,565.15. That means, on a price-only basis, the S&P 500 is down 34% even after it's 56% increase. It's not very impressive to have gained 56% when 1/3 of your wealth is still missing in action.

This is where most investors get confused because percentage changes aren't intuitively obvious (why, oh why, do teachers spend so much time on trigonometry and calculus and so little on the math of compounding!?). Percentage changes must be put in context and looked at over longer time periods, otherwise they can give an incomplete impression and perhaps even deceive.

Let me illustrate. My clients' growth accounts were down 24% from the end of October 2007 (the month when the market last peaked) through the end of August 2009 (including fees and dividends, consult my notes on performance for full disclosure). Down 24% sounds bad, but not when you compare it to the S&P 500 total return (includes dividends): down 31%.

Down 24% may not sound much more impressive than down 31% because they are both down a lot. But, when you're down 24%, it takes a 32% gain to get back to breakeven; when you're down 31%, it takes a 45% gain to get back to breakeven. It will likely take less time to climb 32% than 45%.

Stretching these number out over time illustrates why a broader context and longer time periods are important.

My clients' growth accounts are up 5.76% since inception (4/30/05) versus down 3.30% for the S&P 500. If "big-whoople-dee-doo" is your response, I don't blame you--it might not sound impressive at first glance.

But, from a broader context, that means my clients were 9% ahead of the S&P 500 after 4 years and 4 months, and that's worth a lot over the long run where even small out-performance adds up. 2% out-performance (which I am by no means promising) means 50% more wealth over a 20 year period. That can really make a difference.

Even with its recent climb, the market still has a long road back.

Another factor in thinking about the 56% climb is valuation--what is the market likely to do going forward? If the market were dramatically under-valued, then that 56% climb may keep going. But, what if that 56% climb started from fair value or over-valuation? Then expecting the dramatic rise to continue wouldn't make sense.

By my calculations, the S&P 500 is very close to fair value right now. Assuming underlying growth of 3%, inflation of 3%, and a 3% dividend yield, the expected return going forward is around 9% a year. At 9% a year, it would take the market another 5+ years to climb another 56%. Just because the market has risen a lot doesn't mean it will continue to do so.

I'm not making a market prediction. I'm just trying to illustrate that the market's recent rise must be kept in context, must be looked at over a broader time span, and must be looked at with respect to underlying fundamentals.

Given that, the market could rise, fall or remain flat. I have no idea what it'll do. But, it would not be reasonable to take the 56% rise and extrapolate that performance going forward.

It's a long road back, and it'll likely take some time to cover the distance.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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