The portfolio managers and analysts at an event last week for finance pros hadn't all even gotten their lunch yet when the slide presentation of guest speaker Doug Ramsey popped up on the screens.
"More Trouble Ahead …" read the title slide.
That sure had the potential to spoil the CFA Society lunch. But none of the investment pros gathered in downtown Minneapolis seemed surprised to learn that Ramsey, investment strategist with the Leuthold Group, had turned bearish. In early August, the main dashboard dial on the health of the stock market at Ramsey's firm, the "Major Trend Index," went into negative territory.
"The late August plunge had bear paws all over it," he said, talking about the late summer stock market swoon.
Ramsey has a gift for clearly communicating complex ideas, just one of the reasons why he's an investment market favorite of mine. The Major Trend Index is still negative, and he thinks we've entered a bear market for stocks. That traditionally means a decline in broad market indexes of at least 20 percent.
The closely watched S&P 500 index of stocks was down about 12 percent from its May high to the close of bad day in the markets on Aug. 25, and has since recovered a bit.
That means Ramsey is looking for another big downdraft in stock prices. One reason he shared was a little nugget of information about the close of the S&P 500 on Aug. 25. He was comparing that with the average S&P 500 close of the previous 50 days. On Aug. 25, the S&P 500 happened to close down about 10.3 percent from that 50-day moving average.
This might seem like an arcane measure that means about as much as the angular shape of a mess of tea leaves sticking to the bottom of a cup, but since the mid-1950s a decline of more than 10 percent below that 50-day moving average has almost always coincided with a bear market.
There was only one time it didn't happen that way, back in March 1980.
Maybe August 2015 is the second time in the last 60 years that pattern has emerged without leading into a bear market. There's at least that chance.
Professional investors like Ramsey usually take action when they turn really cautious on the overall stock market. They may sell stocks and buy bonds or even keep more funds in cash equivalent investments.
For those of us who don't manage investment portfolios for a living, maybe only trying to accumulate some savings for retirement or college educations, the conventional wisdom is to not swing into action.
Why not just sell everything? For one thing, there's no assurance bearish pros like Ramsey are right, as he would be the first to volunteer.
Another is that even if it looks likely that there's going to be another 10 percent or more decline in stocks, there's no reason to think it will conveniently begin the day after an investor sells out of stock mutual funds. And when do the stock funds get bought back?
That doesn't mean there's nothing to do but wait out the bad market. The first thing to do is get reacquainted with the assets you already own.
If most of the money is invested in just a few stocks or a few funds, even ones that performed very well in the last few years, some more diversification might be in order. Keeping enough cash around for any emergency is another good idea.
Another thing to do is take out the financial plan and remind yourself why the savings are getting accumulated in the first place.
One of the people I checked in with last week was Darla Kashian, a financial adviser with RBC Wealth Management in Minneapolis. She told of a client who recently phoned up to get a check from a 529 plan, the tax-advantaged savings plans created specifically for educational expenses. No problem, came the reply, that money is all in cash anyway.
Kashian then got a call from the client praising her for her brilliance and prescience, for keeping the funds safely in a cash account and avoiding the big slide in stock prices in August.
"I'm not brilliant, contrary to popular opinion," she said. She added that if she could accurately predict the future she sure wouldn't be talking with a business columnist on the phone.
Her point is that they had followed a financial plan. That means ensuring the necessary cash gets set aside perhaps two years in advance, to make sure the investor isn't subjected to the pain of selling stock funds in a down market just to get the money to pay a child's college tuition bill.
She's not surprised stock markets turned down this year, after a run since 2011 without a 10 percent decline. Downturns happen in markets and circumstances can quickly change.
That was a point Doug Ramsey made several times last week, too, including when he talked about his history as a speaker with the CFA Society Minnesota, a group made up of professional investors who hold the chartered financial analyst designation.
Ramsey's market outlook talk had quickly sold out, so Ramsey agreed to speak again next month to a similar CFA Society audience, this time in St. Paul. He said he had been assured that he shouldn't feel obligated to prepare a whole new presentation.
But a month is a long time in the financial markets. By Oct. 13, the cover slide on his market outlook presentation just may read "More Gains Ahead …"
Well, there's at least a chance it will.
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