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TheStreet Open House

Cult of the Bear, Part 2

In part 1 , we reviewed my forecasting process, and considered some reasons why -- despite its bullish start -- 2006 might be rocky for U.S. equities. Today, we go to the charts.

The 100-Year Dow

Humans are particularly bad at thinking about long periods of time. We have evolved with much shorter cycles: A daily sunrise, a monthly full moon, annual seasonal changes. Longer periods of time are outside of our personal experience. They create an analytical blind spot.

When we look at the "long term," we discover interesting things. Consider each "market" period in this 100-year chart.

Regardless of how each one ends, every bull market over the past century has been followed by a significant refractory period. As the chart shows, it takes quite a while to recover from a crash. Some of this is due to the destruction of capital. At the end of bull markets, many industries end up with excess capacity (think optical fiber or telecom.) But do not overlook the large psychological component of the pain incurred by investors. The damage gets repaired when investors finally forget about the pain they suffered -- or when a new crop of investors (without scars) finally appears.

Today, market junkies have a new mistress: homes. Their former passion for stocks has been replaced. As we have seen, their equity wounds -- plus 46-year low interest rates -- has made real estate the new hottie. My guess is that nothing short of a large and sustained move upward (e.g. several quarters) will rekindle their love affair with equities.

How likely is that? Is it possible that an 18-year bull market (1982-2000) could be followed by a two-and-a-half-year bear (March 2000 peak to October 2002 low), then followed by another multidecade (2003-2018) bull? Sure, anything is possible. But as the chart above shows, it would be historically unprecedented.

16-Year Trading Range

On the 100-year chart, take a close look at the bear market prior to the most recent bull. It's the 1966-82 trading range. On the long-term chart, it looks like a fairly benign flat range. In reality, it was a volatile, dangerous period:

A Colorful History
Markets are correspondingly colored -- green for bull, and red for bear -- revealing their cycles
Source: Barry Ritholtz


Assuming we are, in fact, in a long, post-bull trading range, than this is year five (give or take) of what could be a 10- to-15 year secular bear market. As the 1966-82 experiences shows, we may be in for violent moves down and rapid blastoffs.

Ups and Downs; Mostly Downs
The 1966-82 experience says we may be in for violent moves down and rapid blastoffs
Source: Rydex Funds


If we are repeating the 1966-82 experience, I'd say we are somewhere around 1972-73. The similarities are imperfect -- especially regarding interest rates -- but an unpopular war, a potentially scandal-ridden second-term president with low poll numbers, and the end of a 20-year bull run five years prior are too similar to ignore. Compare the numbers: the Dow is up 45% from its October 2002 low and the S&P by about 60%. That parallels the Dow's 67% gain from the 1970 low to the 1973 peak .

Four-Year Presidential Cycle

The next chart reveals what is known as the four-year, or presidential, cycle. The theory behind this is that U.S. markets have a tendency to make a low in the second year of a president's term and a high in the fourth year. It has held up quite well historically, with the notable omission of 1986. Recall, however, what happened in 1987.

The chart suggests that cyclicality is at play. Given the upward bias of markets over time, regular corrections of 20% or greater may be inevitable.

What is truly astonishing is the very human propensity to downplay or even ignore these periodic dislocations. The classic example is the tendency of humans to build homes in earthquake zones, in flood plains, where tsunamis have previously hit -- even near volcanoes (!). Investors have similar blind spots.


Hail to the Chief
The presidential cycle suggests trouble ahead
Source: BTR Capital Managment

Barry fielded some tough questions on his thesis from TheStreet.com's Aaron Task. To watch the video, click here .

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