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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Where's the market going next year?"

Some people love to ask questions they don't really want an answer to.

When people find out I'm a professional investor, they frequently ask where I think the market is going next year (especially in December). Having no ability to read minds, I assume their question is sincere and I launch into a description of what I do and don't know. About one-eighth of the way into my overly thorough explanation (I tend to talk too much), I can see their eyes glaze over as they imagine themselves someplace more pleasant...

Having gone through this routine hundreds of times over the last ten years, I've learned that most people don't really want an answer. I don't know if they are making polite conversation, or if they want me to express a certainty no human possesses, but I get the impression they'd really like to hear me say, "up, Up, UP!!!," or "sell everything and buy gold!" But, I have the dual problem of being brutally honest (just ask my wife) and overly verbose, so they end up quite disappointed.

If you really don't want to know what I think, or if you desire precise descriptions about the future, then please feel free to let the mental fog drift in, and imagine yourself on a sunny beach with an adult beverage of your choice...  

If, however, you'd like my opinion, please read on.

Sorry, but I really don't know if the market will go up or down next year (for a longer term assessment, see below). No one else does, either, so this isn't a matter of professional negligence on my part, but the nature of the beast. There are no short-cuts to building wealth any more than to getting an education, losing weight for good, pursuing a worth-while career, or building fulfilling relationships.  

Stock market returns include three parts: 1) dividends, 2) earnings growth, and 3) crowd psychology.  Dividends and earnings growth tend to be relatively stable and are easy to predict over the intermediate to long term (3+ years). Crowd psychology, however, isn't at all predictable and tends to completely overwhelm the impact of dividends and earnings over the short run.  

Anyone who says they can predict crowd psychology a year in advance belongs in a circus side-show, or on Wall Street as a strategist (the latter pays much better than the former, just in case you're weighing the options). And that's why no one, not even brilliant people with decades of experience and multiple degrees from esteemed institutions, can tell you where the market is going next year.

Sorry to disappoint you, but it can't be done.  

If, however, you'd like to know what kinds of returns to expect from the stock market over the long run, then I do have something to say. For, crowd psychology tends to dampen out over time, thus regressing to the mean.  Because this tends to occur over several years, it is possible to make reasonably accurate assessments of long term returns.

On that score, I'm likely to disappoint you, too. I think the S&P 500 will return around 3.5% to 6.5% over the next 5 years.  That includes dividends, earnings growth (including inflation), and a regression in crowd psychology back to the mean (I include 6 year projections each quarter in my client letters, which can be accessed here).

How can I expect such modest returns even though the market has gone nowhere for 11 years? It all comes back to crowd psychology. People tend to go from greed to fear and back again over long periods. There are long cycles of 15 to 20 years with several smaller 3 to 7 year cycles along the way.  

For example, in 2000, people were euphoric. Then their hopes were dashed into 2003, but not completely. They became greedy again in 2007, but not as much as they were in 2000.  Those happy feelings were shredded again into 2009, and this time people became even more depressed than in 2003, but not completely despondent.

Before we get to a long term market bottom, we're very likely to get to the completely despondent point. That could result in a flat market for the next 5-10 years, or a cataclysmic crash and then gigantic boom over the same time period. I don't know because of that predictability-of-short-term-crowd-psychology thing. Historically, it's more likely to be bust then boom, but who knows?

What I do know is that down cycles like the one we're experiencing end, and are followed by up cycles. Everyone would like to know the timing of such events, because you could make a fortune timing it perfectly, but no one does.  

I will offer a warning that it won't be fun when the down cycle ends. For starters, the news on the front page will look terrible. No one will want to invest in securities.  Stocks will sell at very low prices relative to historic dividends and earnings. Articles will appear saying that stock investing is dead. At that point in time, when you'll want to run screaming from the room, is when a new bull cycle will begin.  

That's also why I'm not trying to time the cycle. I'm almost fully invested and plan to remain that way. Why?

First, its impossible to pick the exact bottom, so anyone trying to do so is likely to miss it and think it's still in the future. By the time they realize it's in the past (which can only be demonstrated with hindsight), they'll have missed a huge part of the up-side.

Second, remaining invested will allow me to generate slightly better returns than the market through the down-cycle. This may sound like a foolish endeavor (like catching a falling knife), but beating the market by even 3% a year over the down-cycle means I'll start the up-cycle with 65% more money than I otherwise would. That's a much nicer place to be than guessing about about market bottoms when the world is in total panic (remember 2003 or 2009, when people truly thought there was no bottom in sight?).  

I do have a view on the market, but it's not for the next year, and it's dour for years, then very profitable after. The problem is: most people don't want to hear that.  

That's okay, I need someone to buy from and sell to over the cycle.  

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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