It’s a new high, but not dissimilar to celebrating say, 29,999 as a new peak, although the odd number didn’t receive the same level of media attention. These round market levels, whether it be the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Nasdaq, or others, tend to generate high visibility (especially in the slower post-election news cycle). If an index is old enough, and tends to show positive performance (as stocks have over the long haul), you’ll end up reaching new and higher milestones. The seemingly-large 30,000 level is just a reflection of how long the index has been in existence. (It was first assembled in 1896 by its namesake Charles Dow, former Wall Street Journal editor, in a day where calculating the price levels of a dozen stocks by hand on paper was ‘cutting edge indexing.’) We won’t go into how the Dow is a less desirable index to track relative to others, due to its outdated price-weighted construction methodology and concentrated membership of 30 stocks, but it remains well-watched regardless due to this historical legacy. The S&P 500, more widely used by financial professionals, has gained public traction over time, but its lower and less sexy 3,000-ish level is simply a reflection of its more recent creation (early 1950’s). Total return percentages matter much more than index levels.
Fear and Greed
Most importantly, these announcements can often cause investors to react in one of two ways: (1) consider buying, after they’re reminded of their FOMO (‘fear of missing out’); or, (2) consider selling, as they see the new milestone high as feeling ‘expensive.’ Neither is an ideal approach, based on news coverage alone.
The new highs for several U.S. equity indexes are a reflection of the unusual year we’ve experienced. Following a dramatic (-33%) drawdown in March, stocks have recovered—and then some (+65%). The rebound triggers opposing investor emotions largely because of what this extreme movement represents, in realities on the ground as well as anticipated future realities. While fundamentals (revenues and earnings) have improved as lockdowns eased mid-year, we’re now in the throes of a second wave which could dampen the recovery outlook again. Yet, promising vaccine data gives markets more of what they really want, which is the removal of uncertainty about an ending point for the pandemic. If sometime in 2021 provides virus containment and herd immunity, today’s multiples are expected to ‘grow into’ 2021 and 2022 earnings expectations. The damage from the lockdowns earlier this year were such that higher-than-average recovery growth, at the current path, could be the case for several quarters, if not a few years. The Fed also looks to remain on hold during that time. As important as anything, low interest rates tend to be an extremely powerful and positive input into fair values for stocks and real estate
With the end of the year approaching, it’s likely a good time to reevaluate portfolio positioning. Reacting to recent equity strength by a knee-jerk extreme of going ‘all in,’ or ‘getting out’ completely can be disruptive, especially since the second question of ‘now what?’ offers few alternative. Rather, if one’s risk allocation level needs to be adjusted, doing so by a notch or two can provide continued market exposure, yet not cause one to completely miss out on potential market gains over time (or even sharp movements from the ‘best days’). Stock market timing is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, any move that changes exposure to that growth engine, relative to the stabilizing force of bonds in portfolio creates risk-return trade-offs. ‘Regret’ is a real force discussed many times by economists involved in behavioral finance.
During periods of extreme market declines, a natural emotional reaction can be to sell out of the market and seek safety in cash. The results of this reaction can be devastating because often the best days occur close to the worst days during periods of market volatility. This chart compares an individual who was fully invested for the past 20 years in the S&P 500 to investors who missed some of the best days as a result of being out of the market for a period of time. Missing the top 10 best days will halve the annualized return; missing the top 30 days will result in a negative annualized return on the original $10,000 investment. Rather than emotionally reacting to or trying to time the market, adopting a disciplined long-term investment strategy may produce a better retirement outcome.