It may feel like hard times this Thanksgiving for market participants after 2 1/2 years in the bear's teeth, but it's nothing compared with 1621.
The pilgrims had suffered a brutal year: Of the 102 Mayflower passengers who landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620, 46 were dead by spring. Comparatively, we have it easy -- even
is showing signs of life.
After their first fruitful harvest, the pilgrims celebrated with the Massasoit Indians what has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving. (A little history lesson: It wasn't really the
first American Thanksgiving.) For investors today, there's something important to remember about the 1621 fete: The pilgrims realized they weren't out of the woods yet -- it was several years before the threat of famine passed.
As Wall Street and Main Street investors check their portfolios and ponder reasons to give thanks this year, a healthy dose of pilgrim common sense is in order. If you're shouting "the bear market is finally over!" and "
are back in the game!" you may be giving thanks for the wrong reasons.
has climbed 30% from its Oct. 9 low, and left-for-dead stocks like Nortel and Lucent have more than doubled. But since March 10, 2000, the markets have posted 20%-plus gains five times -- the previous four ... well, we know what happened there.
"There is nothing sharper than a bear-market rally," says longtime Liberty Acorn fund skipper Ralph Wanger, who thinks the current froth of the past six weeks marks bear-market rally No. 5.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to give thanks.
1. Cash: $61 Billion. Debt: $0
has $40.5 billion in cash and short-term investments, and no debt. This huge -- and growing -- cash hoard should hearten Microsoft bulls and strike fear in the hearts of its competitors. Critics rightly note that the company's push to take its software beyond the box and into mobile phones, online games and other areas has encountered some snags. However, Microsoft has time and money on its side, and can afford a few failed forays because its successes will offset them.
In the meantime, the software giant expects earnings to rise at least 34% this fiscal year. Its stock trades at a forward price-to-earnings multiple of 29 -- a premium it has earned. Analysts and money managers see the stock climbing to $65 or so in the next 12 months -- up from about $57 today. It may not be a screaming value, but most of us would give thanks for a 14% rise over 12 months. If Microsoft gets dragged down by a big selloff from the latest bear-market rally, this stock is a no-brainer buy.
has $20.5 billion in cash and no debt. How rich is Cisco? One-fifth of Cisco's $105 billion market capitalization is cash. Based on current market prices, CEO John Chambers could use that spare cash to buy five rivals -- Nortel,
-- and have $1.7 billion left over. Like Microsoft, it will use that money to push into new areas, such as Internet telephony, storage and other lines, as
noted last weekend. However, unlike Microsoft, near-term growth remains elusive. Also, the stock has climbed 78% to $14.45 since tumbling to $8 and change in early October. While it's not a screaming buy, long-term bulls can give thanks that the darkest days of the Cisco skid look to be behind us.
2. Beyond the New World
The risk-reward proposition of sailing to the New World in the early 1600s must have seemed pretty daunting to the folks on the Mayflower. For investors today, the risks of investing in other "new worlds" -- emerging markets -- seem frightening as well. Political instability, a weakened global economy and questions about corporate accounting (starting to sound like the New World, actually), coupled with 1997-98 memories of the Asian contagion and the Russian financial crisis, keep many U.S. investors from traveling to distant shores.
Now, after a few years of neglect from foreign investors, many sound companies in emerging markets look awfully cheap. "We are finding many companies with P/Es under 10 and dividends of 5%," says Jacob Rees-Moog, manager of the Eaton Vance Emerging Markets fund.
These companies have improved their balance sheets, curtailed debt and become less dependent on exporting growth, as their local economies have improved. Rees-Moog says many emerging-market companies -- such as South Korean office-supply company
, South African gold company
Harmony Gold Mining
and Brazilian tobacco company
-- offer solid growth, competitive advantages and low valuations. Investors can give thanks that the New World isn't the only game in town in 2003 and beyond. (Stay tuned for a coming 10 Questions interview with Rees-Moog.)
3. A Feast for Shorts
Pilgrims and American Indians didn't always get along, but they did manage to sit down and break bread together at Thanksgiving. Likewise, investors should make room for short-sellers at the Thanksgiving table this year -- in fact, they might want to pick up a few tips while they're at it.
Why? In the past month, 103 stocks have more than doubled in value, according to Baseline. Most of these triple-digit gains have come from -- surprise! -- the tech sector, including
. Some tech companies that have shown signs of turning around, such as
, have doubled as well, making even their bulls a little nervous. While people will argue that tech stocks have been beaten down so badly they deserve to rebound, few market watchers expect the sector to pace a sustainable market recovery. In fact, stocks that rise in a bubble typically lag behind the market for years after it gets burst.
4. Dollar-Cost Averaging
Investors who have mastered market-timing (anyone?) don't need to rely on dollar-cost averaging. But for the rest of us, we should all give thanks.
Dollar-cost averaging, for those who aren't familiar with it, enables a stock or mutual-fund holder to invest a set amount over time; fixed payments mean you buy more shares when prices are lower. Essentially, you're not buying at the bottom or the top; your average share price, or cost basis, will be somewhere in the middle. This reduces your risks and, over the long haul, enables investors to take advantage of bear markets like the one we're in.
According to Eric Tyson in his book
Mutual Funds for Dummies
, if an investor used dollar-cost averaging from 1928 to 1938 -- in the belly of the Great Depression -- he would have posted a 7% gain.
5. Headline Risk Mispricing
Given the disasters in the stock market during the past 12 months, it may be hard to raise a glass to scarlet-letter companies, such as
AOL Time Warner
But, as discussed in
an article earlier this month, "headline risk" weighs heavily on certain companies. Because of concerns, such as
investigations of past revenue accounting, executive suite turmoil and "Nursery-Gate," the market may be mispricing these stocks. If investors do their homework, they might find these companies have downside-risk protection and offer substantial rewards.
6. It's Not the 1930s
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under pressure from retailers, moved Thanksgiving as a federal holiday up to the third Thursday of the month from the fourth Thursday. The reason? To extend the holiday-shopping season and theoretically boost sales. It became a political issue, as Republican states kept the fourth Thursday in place and Democrat-led states dutifully followed FDR's lead. After a few years of confusion and continued weak sales, the holiday was moved back to the fourth Thursday in November, where it stands today.
Even though some retailers would love to bump Thanksgiving up this year to lengthen the post-Turkey Day shopping season (at 26 days, this year's is the shortest possible), it's worth giving thanks that our economy doesn't come close to resembling the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yes, the Nasdaq's 77% drop is surpassed only by the 89% plunge in the Dow from 1929 to 1932.
In fact, the stock market bubble that burst these past three years is comparable in scale only to the 1920s bubble that preceded the Great Depression. But brokers aren't reduced to pushing apple carts on Wall Street -- even though some readers might think that's an appropriate fate. Even if the market goes sideways for the next few years, the U.S. economy isn't about to tumble into another depression. And though we don't all have 100% market returns like we did in 1999, most of us have enough money to put a turkey on the table this year.