As this year has unfolded, investors have been treated to a highly unusual level of financial market calm amidst an equally unusual stretch of political volatility. It’s been eerily calm, in fact.
To put this in perspective, on only two trading days this year has the stock market ended up or down over 1%. In comparison, the number of such wide swings averaged nearly 40 trading days over the past nine years.
Predictably, investors now appear to expect continued calm. One common way of measuring their expectations is through a volatility index, known as the VIX. Today, the VIX index has touched 15-year lows on seven days in the past six weeks alone.
Prior to this, the VIX has only seen readings this low on four occasions, dating all the way back to another very calm period in late 2006 to early 2007. While not predictive, that prior period preceded extreme market volatility and the onset of a both a recession and a bear market.
It almost goes without saying that this lack of volatility has been surprising given the unpredictable political backdrop, a Federal Reserve that has now raised interest rates three times since last December and a US economy that has generally been disappointing relative to the high hopes at the start the year.
Within all of this calm, the first half of 2017 still produced continued gains for investors. Broadly speaking, the US stock market produced a first half return of roughly 6% to 8%. Broken down, the S&P 500 index (big company stocks) rose about 9% and the Russell 2000 index (smaller company stocks) provided a first-half return of about 5%.
Given that most investors are balanced to some degree, it’s important to note that the bond market’s year-to-date total return was about 2%.
Viewing stocks and bonds together, balanced investors willing to simply accept the gyrations of both good markets as well as bad markets experienced returns of about 4% to 6% for the first half of 2017. It’s fair to describe the year so far as a slow-and-calm upward grind.
In the face of these surprisingly solid results for passive investors, my advice is to not let this quiet calm breed an imprudent complacency in your portfolio.
With the Fed hell-bent on raising interest rates in the face of still-low inflation and still-tepid economic growth, with near-peak employment and near-peak auto production, with an historically high-priced stock market relative to company earnings and, finally, with our politicians soon shifting into full-campaign mode with little legislative action to accelerate their big plans for growth, I believe a very discriminating portfolio strategy continues to be both prudent and justified.
If history holds any predictive power – and it only loosely does! – we may average 1% daily swings in stock prices every few trading days before 2017 comes to a close. Now, that would make for one interesting ride, I must say!