I’m getting that “deja vu” kind of feeling. In May, June and July, I wrote about the increasingly ugly state of the investment markets. After the short-lived summer rally, things now look uglier. My underlying message, nonetheless, remains consistent.
In my June 26th column, I highlighted the return of the “ballast of bonds.” Over the past decade, like a frog in a hot pot, a false sense of complacency crept in. Low interest rates and ultra-tame inflation became a fixture in all financial calculations, including bond prices. After years of this status quo, things have now shifted on a dime following the post-Covid surge of demand and inflation. It caught almost every investor, and the Fed, by surprise.
With each version of the Fed’s promise to fight inflation, the bond market’s guesses about the path and plateau of interest rates have ratcheted higher and higher. The series of hits this has been delivered to the bond segment of balanced portfolios has felt like Chinese water torture.
We’ve now seen an historic decline of 14% in broad bond market indexes. Bonds now offer far more ballast and the most attractive yields in over a decade. I view bonds more favorably for two reasons; (a) Inflation is likely to peak soon and (b) bonds will likely re-assume their traditional role as a counterweight to stocks. While I’ve said it before, in my view, the pain in bonds is nearly done.
Turning to stocks, it’s becoming clear the Fed has accepted a recession as the necessary price of vanquishing inflation. Once hopeful of a soft landing, investors in stocks are now also anticipating something bumpier.
To set expectations then and now, in late-May I wrote a retrospective on the “anatomy” of past bear markets. Right after I wrote those words, stocks officially fell into bear market territory. And, after the big summer rally, they are once again down around 25%. Today, I’ll reiterate my message of early July; now is once again the time to prepare portfolios for the recovery.
Reviewing history, the typical bear market’s average decline is 30% to 35%. If this bear market follows suit, another 10% to 15% decline and more volatility should be expected. The average bear market over the last 50 years took about a year to reach the bottom. We are now sitting at about the 10 month mark. Like bonds, I think most (but not all) of the pain in stocks is done.
With both known and unknown uncertainties swirling around, the table is set for an emotionally challenging three-to-six months for investors. We all know that history doesn’t exactly repeat. But, much like a deja vu moment, it does often have a vague rhyme to it.