Investors who bought stocks in the depths of the great financial crisis in early 2009 were quickly rewarded. So were those who bought the dip in the early days of the COVID pandemic.
Will that same bounce occur again? Don’t count on it.
Share prices will no doubt eventually recover from their recent weakness – they always do – but reaping the rewards is likely to require more patience this time around.
History demonstrates that big market downturns have a nasty habit of lingering. The rapid rebound after the financial crisis and after the first days of the COVID pandemic were exceptions rather than the rule.
Anyone thinking of buying the current dip should be aware of a couple of historical precedents – the 1970-to-1979 and 2000-to-2009 decades. Neither period is a perfect match for today, but each shares some common themes with the current market.
In the 1970s, soaring oil prices and roaring inflation dominated investors’ minds. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In the 2000-09 period – the aughts, as they’re known – the market struggled to come to terms with the sky-high valuations that prevailed at the start of the decade, following years of dot-com mania. This, too, may sound familiar to anyone who has watched the shares of profitless electric-car makers and ride-share businesses soar to lofty levels in recent years.
Both the 1970s and the aughts turned into prolonged migraines for investors. The unfortunate soul who put $100 into the S&P 500 in 1970 and faithfully reinvested his dividends would have emerged a decade later with the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $87.
Similarly, someone who invested $100 in large U.S. stocks at the start of 2000 would have been left with a mere $71, in real terms, at the end of 2009, after the global financial crisis hammered a stock market that had still not fully recovered from the excesses of the dot-com era.
This is not to suggest that the decade ahead will be anywhere near as ugly as these past episodes. The point is simply that markets can suffer sustained periods of choppy, unrewarding trading. A quick, permanent bounce back is not guaranteed.
This may surprise investors who have become accustomed to good news. The stretch from November, 2012, through March, 2020, was the second-longest period of below-average volatility for the S&P 500 since 1939, according to researcher Morningstar. That was followed, of course, by the pandemic plunge and an immediate, spectacular rebound, which may have further buttressed the notion that there is never a good reason to worry.
In contrast, the 1970s and the aughts demonstrate that risks can be real and long-lasting. So what can investors do if they suspect another rough patch is starting?
The most obvious strategy is to diversify across different types of assets. Someone who held bonds through the aughts would have offset the weakness in U.S. stocks. So would someone who held Canadian stocks, which performed well over this period as resource prices surged.
Granted, neither bonds nor Canadian stocks would have done much to help overall results in the pervasively miserable 1970s. Gold, though, would have been a star. It surged during the disco era as investors looked for anything that could hold its value against raging inflation.
At the very least, history suggests your portfolio should encompass more than just the stocks of any single country. International diversification is a good idea. So is holding bonds and perhaps a modest amount of gold.
Another good idea is to pay attention to stock market valuations. When share prices soar to extreme levels against their long-term earnings, future returns are likely to be smaller and markets more volatile.
Valuation was a glaring problem in 2000, when U.S. stocks had hit unprecedented heights compared with their earnings over the previous decade. They proceeded to suffer double-digit declines for three years in a row to start the aughts.
Valuation is again an issue in today’s market. While prices are not nearly as high compared with long-term earnings as they were in 2000, they are still well above historical norms. This suggests that stock prices may have to mark time for a while until earnings catch up.
In the interim, it seems sensible to focus more on current payouts rather than the prospect of a big rebound in stocks. Solid companies with a reasonable dividend never go out of style, but today they are particularly attractive.
To be sure, there will be choppiness. The recent rise in bond yields has driven down the share prices of many dividend payers because rising payoffs from bonds make current dividend yields that much less attractive. The possibility that central banks may have to keep on hiking interest rates to bring inflation to heel suggests more turbulence could be in store.
But all that being said, there are many solid companies – Canadian pipelines and telecom companies, for starters, as well as global food giants such as Kraft Heinz Co. and Campbell Soup Co. – that are delivering decent dividends with some protection against inflation. If you’re thinking of buying this dip, you might want to start there.
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