New Stock Bear?

Adam Hamilton     June 24, 2011     2710 Words

 

Thanks to Juneís sizable and rather-sharp stock-market selloff, fears are growing that a new bear market is brewing.  For investors and speculators, the implications of these concerns are not trivial.  Optimal trading strategies vary wildly between bull and bear, as bears relentlessly maul down all sectors including popular ones like commodities stocks.  So todayís bull-or-bear question is critically important to address.

 

A bear market is simply a prolonged period of falling prices.  These dreaded beasts come in two distinct breeds, secular and cyclical.  Secular means long periods of time, on the order of a decade or more in financial-market terms.  The US stock markets have actually been continuously mired in a secular bear for over a decade now.  So any new stock bear canít be secular, as weíre still languishing in an old one.

 

At the other end of this duration spectrum are the shorter-term cyclical moves.  In the financial markets, cyclical generally implies a couple/few years or so.  Cyclical bulls and bears occur within their secular cousins.  Secular bulls and bears, driven by Long Valuation Waves, tend to persist for 17 years each.  Inside these great 17-year trends, several-year cyclical bulls and bears perpetually alternate.

 

Any new stock bear today has to be cyclical.  The US stock markets (as measured by the flagship S&P 500 stock index (SPX)) soared 102% higher between March 2009 and April 2011 in a powerful cyclical bull.  So a cyclical bear is certainly due next when the past-couple-yearsí bull inevitably gives up its ghost at some point.  Is that time now?  Maybe, but we donít have a high-probability new-bear setup yet.

 

All this secular-cyclical bull-bear stuff is much easier to understand once you see it visually.  This first chart superimposes todayís SPX secular bear since 2000 over the last secular bear that ran from 1966 to 1982.  Note that contrary to popular assumptions on bears, their secular variants donít see prices fall straight down.  Instead a secular bear is a long consolidation, a demoralizing 17-year sideways grind.

 

 

These giant secular-bear trading ranges are readily evident in this chart.  Ever since the last secular bull ended in early 2000, the SPX has traded in a massive sideways range running from roughly 750 on the low side to 1500 on the high side.  Todayís secular bear started near 1500 in March 2000, and this level isnít likely to be significantly exceeded until this secular bear fully runs its course by 2016 or so.

 

But within the bounds of this secular trading range, powerful cyclical bears and cyclical bulls meander.  The cyclical bears tend to cut the headline S&P 500 in half, while the subsequent cyclical bulls tend to double it.  These big swings are very tradable, but their net result is a wash.  Even at the peaks of these mighty cyclical bulls, the SPX doesnít achieve levels much better from where its secular bear was originally born.

 

The latest cyclical bull running from March 2009 to April 2011 definitely achieved this doubling, rallying 101.6%.  This is nearly identical to the previous cyclical bullís 101.5% gain between October 2002 and October 2007.  So with this latest doubling right in line with classical mid-secular-bear cyclical-bull expectations, isnít a new cyclical bear likely?  Unfortunately the answer is not as clear-cut as usual.

 

Back in autumn 2008, the US stock markets plummeted in the first true stock panic in 101 years.  These ultra-rare events are driven by a mind-blowing explosion of popular fear.  That fear, as measured by the definitive VXO fear gauge, climaxed in November 2008 when the SPX closed at 752.  This was right at the lower support of this secular bearís trading range, where todayís cyclical bull ought to have been born.

 

But unfortunately in early 2009, the United States of America suffered a change in management thanks to the stock panicís horrendous impact on sentiment during the November 2008 elections.  In early 2009 the incoming Democrats terrified the stock markets with their brazen claims that the already-crushing taxes on American investors and businessmen were too low.  They also threatened endless new job-destroying regulations, primarily socialized medicine, that would choke off the fragile post-panic recovery.

 

This Democrat Despair peaked in early March 2009, driving a much-lower secondary panic low of 677 on the SPX.  Not only are such secondary lows unheard of in the history of panics, but the fear reads of these two bottoms confirm this was a curious anomaly.  When the SPX hit its original and true panic bottom of 752 in November 2008, the VXO fear gauge closed at an epic 87.2!  But in March 2009 when the SPX slumped to 677 in despair, the VXO merely closed at 51.5.  This was 41% less fear!

 

Fear, and hence the proper stock panic, climaxed in November despite the lower secondary March low!  Even though this secondary low was not righteous, a total anomaly, the subsequent cyclical stock bull is still measured from it.  Marchís 677 was 10.1% lower than Novemberís 752.  If we instead consider this bull as launching from its true panic low, it was only up 81.2% by its latest interim high in late April 2011.

 

Traders can get in trouble by failing to relegate anomalies to their proper context.  Technical analysis is often more accurate for gaming future price action if extra-trend anomalies are simply disregarded.  While this thread is too peripheral to hang the whole new-cyclical-bear question on, it is provocative.  Yes the latest SPX cyclical bull achieved its expected doubling, but that was from a short-lived anomalous base.

 

Way more important is where the SPX is today within its giant secular trading range.  Remember that since 2000, this flagship indexís secular resistance has run around 1500.  In March 2000, the SPX hit 1527 on close before the first cyclical bear of this secular bear emerged from hibernation.  In October 2007 before the second cyclical bear was born, the SPX briefly hit 1565 on close.  Cyclical bulls fail near 1500.

 

Yet in April 2011 when our latest cyclical bull hit its best levels, the SPX was only at 1364.  This was still 9.1% under its secular resistance, which is pretty low to kill a major cyclical bull.  Stated the other way, even from its latest April peak the SPX would have had to rally another 10.0% to hit its 1500 resistance.  And such a resistance approach would almost certainly signal the beginning of a new cyclical bear.

 

Itís certainly true that not every cyclical bear has to drag the SPX down to support, nor does every cyclical bull have to carry it up to resistance.  The red 1970s-secular-bear line above really drives home this point.  Secular trading ranges, like all trading ranges, are probability bands.  The closer to support a price travels, the greater the odds a major rally is imminent.  The closer to resistance, the more likely a major correction is nearing.

 

Having the SPX relatively high in its secular trading range in late April makes a new bear market far more likely than it was earlier in this bull.  There were new-bear fears in both the summers of 2009 and 2010, which I argued were irrational at the times partially based on this analysis.  And while the odds of a new bear are much higher now than in the last couple summers, the SPX still has lots of room to run yet to hit its secular resistance that would herald a high-probability cyclical bear.

 

So the cyclical bull-bear cycles are not overwhelmingly predicting a new cyclical bear today.  While todayís cyclical bull indeed hit its target doubling, that was from an anomalous secondary low well under secular support.  And this latest cyclical bull hasnít yet pushed the SPX anywhere near its secular trading rangeís resistance around 1500.  So a new cyclical bear today certainly isnít a high-odds bet yet.

 

This second chart zooms in to just the secular-bear trading ranges and looks at another aspect of mid-secular-bear cyclical bulls.  Their durations.  Our current cyclical bull is only 26 months old, which is maturing but still on the young side for mid-secular-bear cyclical bulls.  This also means that we arenít yet to the point where thereís a high probability a new stock bear is being born.

 

 

In the entire modern history of secular bears, there have been five cyclical bulls before todayís.  This includes an earlier one in todayís secular bear, and four back in the 1970s secular bear.  Their average duration was just under 35 months.  Todayís sixth cyclical bull is only 26 months old since March 2009, or 29 months old if you want to measure from the true panic low in November 2008.

 

While it is maturing, it remains far from even hitting an average duration yet.  This too really reduces the likelihood that a new cyclical bear is being born today, especially after a once-in-a-century stock panic.  Following the last cyclical bearís epic fear at its climax during the panic, a bigger and longer cyclical bull than normal is highly likely.  Market extremes, both in technical and sentimental terms, are gradually erased by outsized swings to the opposite extreme.

 

So it is hard to imagine todayís cyclical bull ending before it has even reached an average lifespan around 35 months.  Odds are it will persist longer, at least if it isnít to the top of its secular trading range yet.  There is a good chance the SPX will start rallying again after the current correction, in autumn at the latest.  It will probably power higher through spring 2012, before the ridiculously-negative election rhetoric hammers sentiment once again.

 

As cyclical bulls mature, their ascent rates tend to moderate.  Bullsí best gains happen right out of the deeply-oversold fear-laden lows left by climaxing cyclical bears.  Their first years are their best, as capital floods back into stocks.  But the more capital that returns, the less is left on the sidelines so the buying pressure slows in relative terms.  So if our current cyclical bull indeed yields a third year, we canít expect anything more than modest gains (from Aprilís high) into next spring.

 

This discussion may seem ambiguous, but calling transitions from cyclical bulls to cyclical bears is always fraught with uncertainty.  Unlike fear-laden cyclical-bear climaxes which are sharp and crystal-clear, cyclical-bull toppings are usually slow and plodding.  The greed that drives cyclical-bull peaks is a much-less-urgent emotion than fear, way slower to build and grow excessive.  Was the SPXís latest interim high greedy and complacent enough to kill this latest bull?  Only time will tell.

 

Cyclical-bull-to-bear transitions are only readily apparent in hindsight.  As mere mortals we canít know the market future before it happens, all we can do is game probabilities.  And while the odds of a new cyclical bear are certainly growing, they remain far from approaching the very-high levels necessary to actively bet on a new-stock-bear thesis.  We wonít know for sure a new cyclical bear is upon us until the SPX falls 20%, which officially marks bear territory.

 

A 20% decline in the SPX from its late-April high would take it to 1091.  That is still a long ways down from here!  But cyclical bulls can see big corrections that approach cyclical-bear magnitude but never quite hit that 20% metric.  I labeled some big mid-bull corrections in this chart that occurred in the latter halves of the last couple secular bears.  They averaged 15.2% declines in a little over 8 weeks.

 

The best modern example occurred last summer, when the SPX fell 16.0% over 10 weeks culminating in early July.  That was a big selloff, but it certainly didnít mark the birth of a new cyclical bear.  Corrections are healthy and necessary within ongoing bull markets.  They rebalance sentiment by quickly injecting fear to offset greed and complacency before they get too excessive.  Without corrections, bulls would burn themselves out prematurely.

 

Back in mid-April soon before todayís selloff started, for a variety of reasons I predicted an imminent correction in the SPX.  Complacency and greed were again approaching unsustainable extremes and needed to be rebalanced away.  Corrections are mid-bull selloffs running between 10% and 20%, with pullbacks being under 10% and bear markets over 20%.  As expected, that correction is indeed now coming to pass and wonít end until fear gets high enough.

 

The ironic thing about healthy mid-bull corrections is traders always mistake them for new bear markets!  You may recall this happened last summer during this cyclical bullís only correction.  The popular new-bear belief was so prevalent by mid-July 2010 that I wrote a whole essay debunking it.  This contrary opinion was very unpopular at the time, as traders extrapolated that selloff continuing indefinitely.

 

But those who believed last summerís false bear theories missed a super-profitable cyclical-bull year since.  The lower todayís selloff drives the SPX, the more prominent new-stock-bear theories will become yet again this summer.  Before the SPX decisively bottoms, odds are popular consensus will be talking about nothing but bad news and the budding ďnew bear marketĒ.  But such fears and anxiety are totally normal in healthy bull-market corrections, and necessary to rebalance sentiment.

 

It is critical for investors and speculators alike to realize that price action drives news, not the other way around as most assume.  After the stock markets have been rallying for a long time in a strong upleg, there is nothing but great news and rosy optimism just as the markets are topping.  And after a major correction, all you see is bad news and pessimistic rationalizations about why we are plunging into a new bear.  Newsflow is super-bullish at major interim highs, and super-bearish at major interim lows!

 

So bear talk is actually a contrarian indicator.  The more traders are talking about a new stock bear, the greater is popular fear.  And the more extreme fear gets, the higher the odds that a major bottom has arrived.  Just last week I heard the first new-bear comments Iíve seen on CNBC since last summer, and I expect this thread to grow way more popular before this correction runs its course.  But bear talk doesnít make a bear.

 

Todayís cyclical bull, while maturing, remained far from its secular resistance at its latest interim high in late April.  While it did experience a doubling, that was from an anomalous post-panic low that wasnít righteous.  And this bull remains well below the average mid-secular-bear cyclical-bull duration.  And if there was ever a time to see a longer-than-average cyclical bull, it is after a once-in-a-century stock panic.  So despite the increasing bearish talk, we donít have a high-probability setup for a new cyclical bear yet.

 

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The bottom line is the odds are not high today that a new stock bear is upon us.  The past couple yearsí cyclical bull remains well below the average duration of mid-secular-bear cyclical bulls.  And the SPXís latest interim highs were also well below their secular-bear resistance.  Following a once-in-a-century stock panicís epic fear, the subsequent cyclical bull should be bigger and longer than normal.

 

So weíre probably due for another year or so out of this cyclical bull before the next bear awakens, albeit with moderating gains.  Nevertheless, as always during healthy mid-bull corrections the new-bear talk will grow in popularity.  This is a natural consequence of the increasing fear and anxiety that corrections spark, and a great contrarian indicator.  Corrections bottom just when everyone expects a new bear.

 

Adam Hamilton, CPA     June 24, 2011     Subscribe