It looks like the U.S. stock market will finally get something that happens, on average, about once a year: a 10+% percent drop—the definition of a market correction. The last time this happened was a whopper—the Great Recession drop that caused U.S. stocks to drop more than 50%–so most people today probably think corrections are catastrophic. They aren’t. More typically, they last anywhere from 20 trading days (the 1997 correction, down 10.8%) to 104 days (the 2002-2003 correction, down 14.7%). Corrections are unnerving, but they’re a healthy part of the economy—for a couple of reasons.
Suppose somebody came up to you and shouted: “I have terrible news about the economy. I think you should sell your stocks!”
Alarmed, you say: “Oh, my God. Tell me more!”
And this mysterious stranger shouts: “Run for the hills! The American economy just added 200,000 more jobs—more than expectations—and the U.S. jobless rate now stands at 4.1%, the lowest since 2000!”
You blink your eyes. So?
On Tuesday morning, Wall Street traders woke up to something they haven’t experienced much of lately: actual market volatility. One trader posted an image of his Bloomberg terminal at the market opening (re-posted here), which showed an immediate scary-looking plunge in U.S. equities as the opening bell rung. By the end of the day, American stocks were down more than one percent, the worst one-day loss since last August, and capping the largest two-day loss since last May.
What’s going on? Are U.S. stocks really a full percentage point less valuable today than they were yesterday morning?
It’s not always easy to grasp the value of diversification—why, in other words, it’s better to own many stocks inside a mutual fund than one or two stocks on their own. But recent research conducted by Arizona State U. finance professor Hendrik Bessembinder offers some insight.
We’ve all heard about as much as we can take about the U.S. Fed’s multi-part QE program, and similar stimulus programs instituted by the European Central Bank. What they mostly have in common is the purchase of government and certain mortgage-backed bonds on the world markets, which has the effect of holding down bond rates and, therefore, borrowing rates.
One of the oddities of a significant bull market—and this one we’re in today qualifies, as the second-longest in modern American history—is that they tend to go on longer than you might expect from the pure market fundamentals. The last leg of a bull market tends to be driven by psychology; people have recently experienced an up market, and so they tend to expect more of the same. They buy at prices they would never consider buying at when the markets have experienced a downturn, driving prices ever higher without regard to the price. As a result, the long tail of the bull market will also see some of the greatest, fastest increases.
You probably didn’t notice, but Monday, September 11 marked a milestone: the S&P 500 index’s bull market became the second-longest and the second-best performing in the modern economic era. Stock prices are up 270% from their low point after the Great Recession in March 2009—up 340% if you include dividends. That beats the 267% gain that investors experienced from June 1949 to August 1956. (The raging bull that lasted from October 1990 to March 2000 is still the winningest ever, and may never be topped.)