The Bear that Wasn't

The first quarter of the new year has brought us small positive returns in many of the U.S. market indices, which means that investors survived—for now, at least—the worst start to a calendar year ever for the U.S. stock market.

The easy call at the beginning of the year would have been to bail out when the markets were declining and sit out the widely-predicted start of a painful, protracted bear market.  Some analysts were talking openly about another 2008-9 drop in share prices.  But 10% market declines are simply a part of the market’s normal turbulence, and anyone who spooks as soon as they see a month of bearish sentiment is likely to miss out on the potential for subsequent gains.  Since hitting their 2016 lows on February 11, both the S&P 500 index and the Nasdaq Composite have gained roughly 13% in value.

Part of the wind at the backs of stocks this past six weeks has come, yet again, from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, which had originally signaled that it planned to raise interest rates four times this year.  After its most recent meeting, the Fed is projecting just two interest rate hikes this year, and Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has clearly indicated that the Fed will remain cautious about disrupting the markets or the economy as it unwinds its various QE initiatives.

Another tailwind was provided by the falling dollar.  In the first three months of the year, the dollar’s value against a basket of six major currencies fell 4.2%.  A weaker dollar makes U.S. exports more price-competitive against goods and services sold in other currencies, potentially leading to higher top-line revenues for companies that do business overseas.

But arguably the biggest stabilizer of U.S. and global stock markets was the rise in oil—or, more precisely, the end of a long unnerving drop in the price of crude that caused anxiety to ripple through the investor community.  It’s worth noting that the day the stock market hit its low for the year—February 11—was also the day when oil futures hit their low of $26.21 a barrel.

In the U.S., employment growth has remained strong, with 215,000 new jobs added in March, above predictions of 199,000.  Overall, the economy has added millions of jobs in the last two years.  Wage growth continues to be low—up 2.3% today over a year earlier—but while that’s discouraging for workers, companies (and their bottom lines, and eventually their stock values) are benefiting from relatively cheap labor.

Does that mean the market will go up?  We can’t predict the future; indeed, even the present is hard to understand.  Our mission as investors is to hang on and allow the millions of workers who get up every morning and go to work to do what they do best: incrementally, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, grow the value of the companies we own with their efforts.  Investors will spook and sometimes flee stocks, driving their prices down, but for the long-term, the returns on your investments are invisibly, inexorably driven by the underlying value that is created in the offices and factory floors all over the world.

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Scott Carlson