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®

Trade War

Is It Time to Worry About a Trade War?

On March 1, 2018, President Trump announced that the U.S. plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Markets around the world were shocked by the news, with major U.S. indices declining more than 1 percent just when it looked like they were recovering from the February downturn. Why did markets react so strongly? Is this a more serious threat going forward? In a word, yes.

First, let’s define what’s going on and why it matters.

A closer look at tariffs

The good. Tariffs are a charge on imports—essentially, a tax. Say a ton of steel costs $100. The 25-percent tariff Trump proposed would require the seller to pay $25 to the U.S. government. That would, in effect, mean the seller has to choose between selling the steel for $75, raising the price to $125 to net the same amount, or doing something in between. Practically, sellers will raise prices. This is the desired outcome, as it will allow producers here in the U.S. to sell their products for higher prices. Therefore, these tariffs are good for the steel and aluminum industries.

The bad. The problem is that they are bad for anyone else that uses steel or aluminum, such as car manufacturers, builders, and the energy industry. Their input costs have just gone up substantially. According to a UBS analyst, Ford’s costs just went up by $300 million, while GM’s went up by $200 million. Other companies will be similarly affected.

Companies like Ford and GM will have two choices here:

  1. They can raise prices, which will start to push up inflation; or
  2. They can eat the higher costs and make less money.

Either way, this is bad for the stock market, as it plays out across the economy. Both higher inflation and lower profits make stocks worth less—hence, the market reactions around the world.

Waiting for the world to react

These are only the first-order effects, of course. The next shoe to drop will be how other countries respond. If we are lucky, they will take legal action through multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization, which will result in negotiations. If we are unlucky, they will start imposing retaliatory tariffs of their own, targeted to cause maximum pain to the U.S. economy. We don’t know what those will be. But we can be quite sure they will be designed to hit the U.S. economy as hard as possible, in order to force us to remove the tariffs. This is how trade wars start, so it will be critical to watch those responses.

The next set of effects will be geopolitical. When you look at the actual sources of steel and aluminum imports, Canada tops the list. By angering and damaging our closest neighbor—at the same time as we are trying to renegotiate NAFTA—the possible damage just increases.

The net effect of the tariffs, then, will be economic damage, higher inflation, and greater geopolitical uncertainty. On the corporate side, it will be lower profits for the vast majority of companies. On the consumer side, it will be higher prices for many goods and, likely, lost jobs in export industries. That is why this issue is worth watching closely.

Pay attention, but don’t panic

That said, there is a real possibility that this is either a trial balloon or a negotiating tactic. The U.S. has tried to impose tariffs before, only to pull back as the costs became clear. Trump’s announcement is not the same as actual action. This could all pass away, particularly as the rapid market response shows very clearly the potential costs. It is too early to be overly concerned, but we should definitely pay attention.

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.

Authored by Brad McMillan, managing principal, chief investment officer, at Commonwealth Financial Network®.

 © 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®