Market volatility

The Beginning of the End? A Look at October 2018 Market Volatility

Not for the first time, October was a difficult period for the stock market. With the drop seen over this past month, there is increasing fear that this is it—the big one that will take us back to the depths of 2008. Although that level of concern is certainly understandable, a closer look at the real economic and market situation around the world suggests that the volatility we are now seeing (and may well continue to see) is perfectly normal. Over time, this kind of turbulence is why stocks can yield the returns they do.

Still, how do we know whether this decline is normal and whether we’re headed for another 2008? Is there a way to tell?

Is this decline normal?

Let’s start with the easy question first. As of this writing (October 31, 2018), the S&P 500 was down about 7 percent from its peak. It has recovered somewhat from its bottom, when it was down about 10 percent. That seems like a big decline; by recent standards, it is. When we look back further, however, this drawdown remains normal.

Since 1980, for example, declines during a calendar year have ranged between 2 percent and 49 percent, with the average at just more than 14 percent. So, the October declines are well within the normal range. The market could drop another 7 percent (i.e., as much as we have already seen), and we’d still be at the average decline for a typical year.

Another way to answer this question is to see how often a decline of any given size occurs. Markets experience a 10-percent decline every year, on average. Even if things get worse—we are not there yet—this is about the fifth drop we’ve seen in the past five years. In that sense, we are once again right in line with the averages.

Are we headed for another 2008?

These facts are all well and good. Even if things are normal now, however, we need to think about how much worse this situation could get. There are no guarantees, of course. But if we look at past bear markets (defined as declines of 20 percent or more), we can make a few observations.

First, of 10 such events since 1929, 80 percent have occurred during a recession. The U.S. economy, despite some slowing trends, continues to grow; we are not in a recession. A growing economy tends to support market values and limit declines.

Second, 40 percent of past bear markets have come during times of rapidly rising commodity prices (e.g., the 1973 oil embargo). Rising prices tend to choke off economic activity and slam profit margins. Now, we have moderate commodity prices overall, which support economic growth and help profit margins, at least here in the U.S. These moderate prices, generally speaking, are not a problem.

Third, during 40 percent of past bear markets, the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised interest rates. While rates have been rising, they are still very low by historical standards. In fact, they are at the lower end of the range that prevailed from 2008 to 2011, after the crisis. They are also likely to stay low by historical standards for some time. As such, we certainly do not have the conditions that fuel a bear market. Despite the recent increases, low rates continue to benefit the economy, which has supported the market so far and will continue to do so.

Finally, half of the bear markets were born when market values were extreme. Current valuations are high by historical standards but low by the standards of the past five years. As we are seeing, an adjustment to lower valuations is painful. But it also means the risk of a further drop dissipates, which takes us back to the fact that periodic drawdowns are not only necessary but healthy.

Almost all bear markets have more than one of these traits; right now, we have (at most) one and really more like one-half of one. This doesn’t mean that we won’t see further declines. It does suggest that they are less likely—and would probably be short lived.

We can also look at recent history to evaluate how much trouble we might see if the situation were to worsen. Earlier this year, for example, markets pulled back by 10 percent, only to rebound and reach new highs. In early 2016, markets were also down more than 10 percent, only to bounce back to new highs. And we can go back further, to even worse pullbacks. In 2011, when Greece almost declared bankruptcy and broke up the European Union, we saw markets drop 19 percent. In 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, we also saw a pullback of 19 percent. Despite the headlines, our current economic situation is much more like early 2018 and 2016, and it is nowhere near as bad as either 1998 or 2011. Even with those declines, the annual return for each year wasn’t disastrous. In 2011, the market ended flat; in 1998, it gained 27 percent.

What is the outlook for the rest of 2018?

Markets have recovered somewhat from October’s midmonth lows, and the economic fundamentals remain good. While further volatility is possible, based on history, it does not seem likely that we will see a further massive and sustained decline that takes us back to 2008. Worst case, if the Chinese trade confrontation situation gets as bad as the Asian financial crisis or the Greek crisis, we could see additional damage. But we likely won’t see anything worse than what occurred during those pullbacks.

With a growing economy, with strong employment and spending growth, and with moderate oil prices and interest rates, the U.S. is well positioned to ride out any storms—more so, in fact, than we were in 2011. Current conditions look much more like 2016 than 2011. As the island of stability in the world, we are also very attractive to foreign investors, as we can see by the strength of the dollar.

Look beyond the headlines

By understanding the history and economic context of today’s turmoil, it is clear that markets may get worse in the short term. Still, the foundations remain solid, which should lessen the effect and duration of any further damage. Yes, the headlines are very scary, but things aren’t that bad. So, we will be postponing the beginning of the end . . . again.

Certain sections of this commentary contain forward-looking statements based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections, and assumptions. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve certain risks and uncertainties, which are difficult to predict.

 All indices are unmanaged and investors cannot actually invest directly into an index. Unlike investments, indices do not incur management fees, charges, or expenses. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

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Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®

2018 economic forecast

2018 Midyear Outlook: Will the Economy and Markets Keep Growing?

After the performance we saw last year, we had high hopes for the economy and markets in 2018, but the first half of the year was disappointing. Expectations softened as the stock market pulled back early in the year, economic growth slowed, and risks—largely in trade—rose. As we hit midyear, though, those initial hopes appear to be more realistic than they were even a month ago.

For example, job growth has accelerated this year, bringing us, more or less, to full employment. And with continued wage income growth and ongoing high confidence, consumers are both able—and willing—to spend. Businesses are confident, too, and business investment is showing signs of accelerating. Meanwhile, tax cuts and fiscal stimulus have taken government from a headwind to a tailwind.

With this foundation, we should see continued growth in the second half, fueled by the following:

  • Employment—which is likely to continue to grow, albeit at a potentially slower pace than in the first half of the year
  • Businesses—which should keep and even increase their investment as capacity utilization rises and labor becomes scarcer
  • Government spending—which should continue to revert to growth now that the tax cuts and spending deal are in place

What does this mean, then, for real economic growth? We can expect to see growth of around 3 percent, with the potential for better results. Assuming consumer spending growth of around 3 percent, business investment growth near 5 percent, and government spending growth around 2 percent, this 3-percent figure appears both reasonable and achievable. Combined with an anticipated inflation level of 2 percent for the year, nominal growth should approach 5 percent.

Opportunities and Risks

As always, there are risks to this outlook—both to the upside and the downside.

Looking at the economy, if wage growth increases, consumer spending power could increase more quickly. If consumer borrowing were to pick up, spending could grow even faster. Business investment could respond to improving demand and rise more than expected. Local and state governments could increase investment and hiring more than expected.

Politics presents the greatest risk on the downside. Here in the U.S., the midterm elections will certainly disrupt the political process. If it appears likely that Democrats will take one or both houses of Congress, it could raise substantial economic uncertainties. In the nearer term, the administration’s trade policies could disrupt supply chains and increase costs, which would have consequences for financial markets. Abroad, risks include North Korea and continued political turmoil in Europe. Any of these could result in systemic damage and create real drag on the U.S. economy and financial markets.

Another major downside risk is rising interest rates. In its most recent press conference, the Federal Reserve (Fed) seemed to declare victory on both employment and inflation, which could mean faster rate increases than previously anticipated. Current expectations are for at least two more increases in 2018, and with long-term rates constrained, we could be at risk for an inverted yield curve, which historically has been a sign of upcoming recession.

Turning to the stock market, the rest of 2018 could be quite exciting, in both a positive and a negative sense. Earnings growth should continue to improve overall on the heels of economic expansion, as companies reap the benefits from the tax cuts. As growth accelerates and risks from Europe and North Korea subside, valuations may rise back to previous highs—or even higher on a positive shift in investor sentiment.

There are certainly risks to the market on the downside, however. Valuations are at or above 2007 levels; in other words, they are at historic highs. Profit margins are also at historic highs, and the tailwinds that got them there are disappearing as interest rates rise and wage growth continues to pick up. That’s not to mention that rising interest rates could make bonds more attractive as an investment, which would also weigh on valuations.

Looking at the past three years, a typical lower-end multiple has been 15x forward earnings. Based on current analyst expectations of $176.52 in S&P 500 earnings for 2019, and using a 15x multiple, the 2018 year-end target for the index would be around 2,650, which represents a decline of about 5 percent from mid-June levels. This is a reasonable downside scenario for the end of the year.

If the economy continues to grow, and businesses continue to operate at very high profitability levels, valuations could rise back to around 17x forward earnings. This reasonable upside scenario would leave the S&P 500 around 3,000 at year-end, an increase of almost 8 percent above current numbers.

 Are Things Looking Up?

This is definitely not a prediction of a flat, boring market. Absent the Fed’s security blanket, the market should be more volatile, and it likely will be. A sell-off at some point in the next six months is very possible, with the rising concerns about trade one potential cause. In addition, as rates rise, investors will likely reassess the attractiveness of U.S. stocks versus fixed income. Meanwhile, accelerating wage growth should have a negative effect on profit margins, even as it boosts the economy as a whole.

While the downside risks are real, the ongoing strength of the U.S. economy should protect us from the worst and even continue to offer some upside. The second half of 2018, therefore, seems likely to provide us with more growth in the real economy and financial markets.

Certain sections of this commentary contain forward-looking statements based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections, and assumptions. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve certain risks and uncertainties, which are difficult to predict.

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Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®