The first quarter of 2017 provided the highest returns for U.S. large-cap stocks since the last three months of 2013. The Nasdaq index has booked its 21st record close of the year so far, and the indices have recorded a 30% rise over the past six quarters, marking the fastest advance since 2006.
The pundits on Wall Street have been telling us that the market’s sudden meteoric rise—which accelerated starting in December of last year—is the result of the so-called “Trump Trade,” shorthand for an expectation that companies and individuals will soon be paying fewer taxes and be burdened by fewer regulations, leading to higher profits and greater overall prosperity. Add in a trillion dollars of promised infrastructure spending, and the expectation was an economic boom across virtually all sectors.
However, there is, yet, no sign of that boom; just a continuation of the slow, steady recovery that the U.S. has experienced since 2009. The latest reports show that the U.S. gross domestic product—a broad measure of economic activity—grew just 1.6% last year, the most sluggish performance since 2011. The U.S. trade deficit widened in January, and both consumer spending and construction activities are weakening from slower-than- average growth rates.
The good news is that corporate profits increased at an annual rate of 2.3% in the fourth quarter, which shows at least incremental improvement. However, the previous three months saw a 6.7% rise in profits, suggesting that the trend may be downward going forward.
It’s possible to read too much into the recent failure of health care legislation, and imagine that we’re in for four years of ineffective leadership. There will almost certainly be a tax reform debate in Congress in the coming months, but the surprising aspect—as with the healthcare legislation—is that there seems to have been no pre-prepared plan for Congress to vote on. We know that the Republican President and Congress want to lower corporate tax rates and simplify the tax code—which, in the past, has meant adding thousands of new pages to it. We know that there is general opposition to any form of estate taxes, but nobody is proposing which deductions would be eliminated to make this package revenue-neutral.
If you’re not fearful of a downturn, then you should look at the next bear market the way the most successful investors do, and envision a terrific buying opportunity, a time when stocks go on sale for the first time in the better part of a decade. For some reason, people go to the shopping mall to buy when items go on sale, and do the opposite when the investment markets go down. Knowing this can be an unfair advantage to your future wealth, and even make you look forward to the end of this long, unusually steady, increasingly frantic bull run in stocks. After all, if history is any indication, the next downturn could be followed by another bull run.