Market professionals often dig deep into history to find precedents that can help them understand current times. But the rapid decline of this market from a record long bull run to a bear market has market professionals casting about for good parallels.
Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Minneapolis-based Leuthold Group, has been in the investment business for 37 years and has seen a number of market panics.
Paulsen has looked at a number of recent technical market signals to gauge if the worst of the market panic has subsided.
“There is a lot of the characteristics that we’ve witnessed so far already that are very much end-of-crisis things,” Paulsen said. “Things that you typically get at the end of the panics, as opposed to its start.”
In 2019, the S&P 500 Index, a broad measure of the stock market, had a return of 29%, the second-best annual performance in the last 20 years. Through Thursday, the S&P 500 was down enough to erase all of 2019’s gains.
“It’s really the speed of this decline that is interesting,” said Sean Naughton, senior vice president of U.S. equities at RBC Wealth Management, who sees some resemblances to the market crash in 1987 and others.
Market observers are looking to medical professionals to help unwind some of the biggest questions about this market downturn, which has been centered around the worldwide spread of the virus.
“There is a possibility that there is a lot of information we don’t know about the spread of this virus,” Naughton said. “I think it’s going to be critically important for us to get comfortable that there is some control mechanisms on the pandemic.”
Already Naughton has seen some evidence that markets in China, South Korea and Japan have begun to outperform on a relative basis now that they’ve seen new COVID-19 cases peak and begin to fall.
Still, investors are questioning whether we’ve seen a market bottom. Paulsen would suggest they look further out.
“Ask the question, what are the odds of where we might be a year from now,” suggested Paulsen. “To me, I’m fairly confident it will be higher than it is right now, even if it goes lower for a while first.”
Economists will wait for monthly and quarterly results to come in before officially declaring a recession. But to most it feels as if we are already in one, though one mandated by government actions to slow the spread of the virus by shutting down certain portions of the economy and limiting social movement.
Those were actions against what was a relatively healthy economy. Corporate balance sheets and income statements were good, consumer debt ratios healthy and there were no real fundamental problems.
“One thing that is much different this time is that the banks are in much better position,” Naughton said. The annual financial stress tests that banks have had to do since the financial crises in 2008 and 2009 has them in a much better position than they were heading into that crisis. “That could help soften the blow if some of these worse case scenarios come out,” Naughton added.
“As unique as it is going in, it will be equally unique coming out because we don’t really know what a proclaimed or mandated recession looks like when it is over,” Paulsen said. “Maybe it will be much faster than normal recessions that have to correct fundamental excesses.”
Stocks aren’t the only markets to be affected. The sell-off has caused disruption in fixed income markets as well.
“You may not be surprised by a sell off in equities with a sharp slowdown in stocks,” said David Joy, chief market strategist at Ameriprise. “But the disruption in the fixed-income markets is really interesting. It’s indicative of the fact that debt has risen significantly since the financial crisis in the private sector. Not among individuals, but nonfinancial corporations have really increased their debt burden,” Joy said. “There is not a lot of liquidity available, which is somewhat surprising and is causing some price anomalies.”
Long-term winners in the stock market generally have to go against the grain at some point. Some are still looking at this volatile market as an opportunity.
“The best opportunities in my entire investment career is the middle of panics like this,” Paulsen said.