You Are Here

"There are three principal phases of a bull market: the first is represented by reviving confidence in the future of business; the second is the response of stock prices to the known improvement in corporate earnings, and the third is the period when speculation is rampant – a period when stocks are advanced on hopes and expectations. There are three principal phases of a bear market: the first represents the abandonment of the hopes upon which stocks were purchased at inflated prices; the second reflects selling due to decreased business and earnings, and the third is caused by distress selling of sound securities, regardless of their value, by those who must find a cash market for at least a portion of their assets."
– Robert Rhea, The Dow Theory, 1932

Charles Dow once wrote, “To know values is to know the meaning of the market.” That quote may surprise trend-followers and adherents of technical analysis, because Dow’s work is often squeezed into a caricature focusing on nothing more than confirmation and divergence across the Dow Jones Industrial and Transportation averages. But Dow’s actual views, best elaborated by writers like Robert Rhea and William Peter Hamilton, were actually about something much more fundamental: identifying the position of the market in its complete bull-bear cycle. That’s a concept that investors have forgotten, encouraged by the illusion that the Federal Reserve’s buying of Treasury bonds is capable of saving the world from any form of discomfort. That illusion is likely to prove costly.

Probably the most useful exercise we can do at present is to examine where the markets and the U.S. economy are in their respective cycles – with 19 charts and detailed analysis.

The recent bull market clocked in as the longest in history. Even if the September 20, 2018 peak in the S&P 500 was the final high, the preceding advance outlived the 1990-2000 bull market by nearly 8 weeks. Likewise, the current economic expansion is just 3 months shy of the record 10-year expansion that ended in early 2001, the unemployment rate is down to just 3.8%, the entire post-crisis gap between actual real GDP and the CBO estimate of potential real GDP has been eliminated, and the expansion has already outlived the previous runner-up, which ran from 1961 to the end of 1969.

Meanwhile, based on the valuation measures we find best-correlated with actual subsequent market returns across history, the current market extreme already matches or exceeds those of the 1929 and 2000 peaks. There’s little question that the market is long into what Rhea described as the final phase of the bull market; “the period when speculation is rampant – a period when stocks are advanced on hopes and expectations.”

As I’ll detail below, the economic expansion we’ve observed since the 2009 economic low has been a rather standard mean-reverting recovery, with a trajectory no different than could have been projected on the basis of wholly non-monetary variables. The primary effect of extraordinary monetary policy wasn’t to drive real economic gains, but instead to amplify speculation and contribute to wealth and income disparities. Wages and salaries as a share of GDP are clawing higher from the historic low set in 2011, but have only begun to erode the elevated profit margins on which Wall Street is basing its permanent hopes and expectations.

Aside from historic extremes in the valuation measures best correlated with actual subsequent market returns, one measure of these hopes and expectations is that in 2018, according to the Financial Times, 81% of U.S. companies that went public reported losses in the 12 months before their initial public offerings, matching the high-water mark set at the height of the dotcom bubble (h/t Hadi Taheri). It’s the same kind of spectacle that Rhea described nearly a century ago, when he wrote:

“Worthless equities were being sky-rocketed without regard for intrinsic worth or earning power. The whole country appeared insane on the subject of stock speculation. Veteran traders look back at those months and wonder how they could have become so inoculated with the ‘new era’ views as to have been caught in the inevitable crash. Bankers whose good sense might have saved the situation, had speculators listened to them, were shouted down as deconstructionists, while other bankers, whose names will go down in history as ‘racketeers,’ were praised as supermen.”