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.)
Chances are, the market barometer you most often hear about is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Every evening, the Dow’s ups or downs are soberly reported as if they reflect something important.
Have you ever wondered what stock market professionals and equity analysts talk about in their spare time? Recently, the Bloomberg website featured a debate about something that is getting a lot of attention recently: the historically high, and still-rising U.S. stock market valuations. People have been willing to pay more, and more, and more for a dollar of corporate earnings. What does that mean about future returns?
A recent Wall Street Journal article, citing a study by the Center for Research in Security Prices, tells us something remarkable about the times we are investing in: the number of stocks on the U.S. market has quietly diminished by more than half over the last 20 years. In November 1997, investors could choose from 7,355 U.S. stocks. Today, there are fewer than 3,600.
You receive portfolio performance reports every three months—a form of transparency that financial planning professionals introduced at a time when the typical brokerage statement was impossible to decipher. But it might surprise you to know that most professionals think there is actually little value to any quarterly performance information, other than to reassure you that you actually do own a diversified portfolio of investments. It’s very difficult to know if you’re staying abreast of the market, and for most of us, that’s not really relevant anyway.
The current bull market in stocks will reach its 8th anniversary tomorrow, and for about the last four years, professional investors and financial planners have been scratching their heads. The markets have gone up and up and up, and we all know that they won’t go up forever, which means there’s a correction looming somewhere on the horizon.