Continuing the new Q&A format…
Q. I heard the stock market is now down 20%+, so we’re officially in a bear market. That means stocks are going down, right?
A. No. It means stocks have gone down. There is no magic switch that flips when stocks go from down 19.99% to 20.00% that tells everyone that stocks will now fall for some time period. Rather a “bear market” is a description of the past, telling us that the value for a particular asset or index has fallen 20% from it’s high. It is like describing a losing streak when a sports team has lost several games in a row. It doesn’t tell you about the next game. By the way, while the most well-known indices just marked 20% down, other asset classes have been down more than 20% for much longer. The Russell 2000 (US small caps) is down more than 25% from its all-time high and the Russell 2000 Value (US value small caps) is down more than 30%. You’re just hearing about the “bear market” now because the Dow and S&P500 have joined in.
Q. Is this all due to the coronavirus (covid-19)?
A. No. Last weekend, disagreements among OPEC members and between OPEC and Russia led to the kickoff an oil price war. Oil prices, which were already down sharply from levels of a year ago, crashed on Monday to below $30 per barrel. While low oil prices means lower prices at the pump, lower energy costs for consumers, businesses, and energy importing countries in general, falling oil prices now hurt the US due to the abundance of oil we produce. Much of that oil is costlier to obtain than middle eastern oil and while we can do quite well (we’ve actually become a net exporter of oil in recent years) with prices in the $50+ range, down near $30 essentially puts our shale oil companies out of business. There are over 6M jobs in the US directly related to energy and due to the capital investment required to get new oil extraction started, most oil companies have a large amount of debt. Debt with little or no revenue spells bankruptcy. The surviving companies will gobble of the assets of those that fail, and will be well-positioned if there’s ever an oil boom again, but many jobs will be lost in aggregate and the holders of all the bad debt will take losses.
Q. Will the price war go on long-term?
A. No one knows. Saudi Arabia started the war with massive price cuts to try to increase demand for their oil after other OPEC countries and Russia would not agree to supply cuts to try to keep oil prices stable in the midst of falling demand as covid-19 slows down world economies. All sides remain open to talks and there is pain for Saudi Arabia with oil at these prices as well. So it is plausible they will reach an agreement that will return prices to previous levels and potentially cut supply. But the damage to US shale may already be done. As I noted above, it takes major capital investment to start the extraction process and knowing that Saudi Arabia can drop the price of oil at their whim may prevent that capital investments and/or the financing needed for it in the future, even if prices do rise from here. The energy sector of the stock market and the high-yield debt markets both immediately reflected the new reality on Monday will many stocks down near 50% that day alone. An agreement to cut global supply and thereby boost prices worldwide will obviously help on the margin, but job losses and defaults are likely no matter what and that will hurt the US economy somewhat.
Q. Speaking of hurting the US economy, things seem to be getting pretty bad with the coronavirus impact. How bad is this going to get?
A. Like I said in my last message, the fear of the fear of the unknown is the biggest issue. We still don’t have mass testing available in the US, so it’s hard to track places trending toward an outbreak level and take action to curb the spread. Until today, not much action was being taken nationwide. Now we’re seeing large cancellations and postponements including the suspension of the NBA season, travel restrictions from Europe, etc. Work must continue and critical services have to be maintained, but luxuries, hobbies, sports, and leisure travel really have to be restricted. This makes total sense. With an incubation period of 5-14 days, we’re looking at the past right now, so taking immediate action to stop mass gatherings and travel is necessary, but will take a while to slow the spread. Meanwhile, the economy will suffer from the loss of all that activity. This is what the stock market sees and why it has fallen. Remember though that as the infection count rises (based on per capita cases from other countries, we’re likely in the 10-20k range already… just not counting them yet) , the death toll rises, the economic activity slows, and the news flow worsens, those are all items that the stock market already knows is coming. No one believes the US has 1100 cases of covid-19 infection right now. No one believes this is just going to miraculously go away tomorrow. The stock market is a realist and reflects the best guess at the future news from everyone who buys and sells. That’s why it’s impossible to know when stocks have bottomed. We’ll all see terrible news flow and suddenly the market’s participants in aggregate will begin to see past the pandemic and into the future. Stocks will turn well in advance of the worst times, just as they have in past crises. Because fear & despair usually cause the market to overshoot to the downside (as it did in 2009), when the market turns, it often turns quickly right as the news is hitting its worst.
Q. So you’re saying that selling into the downturn due to the news flow won’t work?
A. I’m saying that selling at any time guessing that the market is going down short-term vs. going up short-term is about a 50/50 bet. Even if you get it right though and sell at the right time, you then have to win another 50/50 bet in the right time to reinvest. Many learned that lesson the hard way selling toward the bottom of the financial crisis in early 2009 and then waited for the news flow to turn to want to buy back in, but by then the market had already moved up past where they sold. We want to avoid that whipsaw and instead do the reverse. Use your target asset allocation (the one that reflects your goals and risk tolerance) as a literal target for your portfolio. As I’ve said previously, that means that if stocks fall, we sell bonds and buy stocks to rebalance back to the target percentages. When stocks rise, as they did strongly in 2019, we did the reverse, selling stocks and buying bonds. There is no guessing or betting or predicting involved. It’s systematic and emotionless.
Q. Ok, so long-term, odds favor a return to recent highs?
A. Of course, though we never know how long that will take. It’s already a distant memory for most, but in Q4 2018, the S&P 500 fell nearly 20% with small caps and international stocks down even more. Over the course of the last 7 days of 2018 and Q1 of 2019, the S&P had recovered almost all of its Q4 losses. By the end of 2019, the S&P 500 was up 30%+ for the year. Other times, 20% losses have been just the beginning of a much bigger, longer slide. We never know the depth of a pullback or the length of time to return to recent highs in advance. But, unless there is a major decline in world population (and even the worst estimates of covid-19 come nowhere near projecting such a thing), then when this is behind us, the world will return to normal, as it always has after a traumatic event. There will be bankruptcies, there will be defaults, and there will be financial dislocations for a while. But ultimately, if there is the same number of people and the same aggregate demand for goods and services, the same technology, the same capacity, the same real assets (even if financial assets are worth less temporarily), how would we not get back to business as usual? That’s what the stock market will eventually see ahead of the turn in the news flow.
Q. Should I then be investing some of my cash emergency fund to take advantage of the temporary lower prices?
A. Absolutely not. An emergency fund is there for emergencies and especially in uncertain times, emergencies like a job loss, medical need, family need, etc. could come up at any time. We never advocate investing the cash that you’ve set aside for emergencies due to the recent movement of financial markets.
Q. What about taking on leverage (loans) via a home equity line of credit and investing that to try to catch the rebound?
A. We don’t recommend investing on leverage whether via a margin loan, a HELOC, or leveraged investment products. Again, we don’t know how long this will last or how deep the downturn will go. If you have $100k and borrow $100k to invest $200k in total into stocks and stocks fall 50%, you have lost all of your $100k. There is no coming back from a 100% loss. Even 1000% returns don’t increase a zero-balance portfolio.
Q. Any other general words of advice for times like this?
A. First off, do what you need to do to keep yourself and your family safe especially if any of you are in poor health or are elderly. You have to stay tuned to the news in some way to know what’s developing and what’s required of you as policies change. Try to tune out the financial part of it as much as possible. Think of all the times your financial advisor has told you that at some point, stocks will again lose 50% of their value. I’m not saying that will happen now, but you, your portfolio, and your plan were then, and are now, prepared for it to happen. Put the energy you’d spend worrying about it toward better uses in your health, your job, and your family, as much as possible.