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The COVID Economy, a Year Later

David Hicks

This time last year, the World Health Organization recently had declared that the spread of Covid-19 constituted a worldwide pandemic.  Stringent measures in the U.S. were being taken to slow the spread of Covid and “flatten the curve.”

The lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders dealt a body blow to U.S. economic activity.

Investors, who attempt to price in economic activity over the next six to nine months, had no prior experience to handicap a shutdown and eventual reopening of the economy. It was if we were driving through a dark and foggy night with no headlights to guide our path.

Consequently, investor reaction was swift, and the first bear market since 2009 descended upon investors. Volatility was intense. In just one day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 3,000 points, or 12.9% (March 16, 2020 St. Louis Federal Reserve DJIA data).

That day accounted for over 25% of the Dow’s nearly 11,000 point peak-to-trough loss.

The major market indexes bottomed on March 23 (St. Louis Federal Reserve). The bear market lasted barely over a month, if we use the broader-based S&P 500 Index as our yardstick. It was a swift decline, but it was the shortest bear market we’ve ever experienced.

The ensuing rally has been nearly unprecedented. Since bottoming, the S&P 500 Index advanced an astounding 77.6% through March 31. It’s 3,972.89 close at the end of the first quarter put it within 1.65 points of the prior March 26 closing high. And that is on top of a series of new highs since the beginning of the year.

Since the end of the quarter, the S&P 500 has gone on to top 4,000.

Let’s back up and take a broader view.

If we review the six longest bull markets since WWII, the S&P 500’s advance over the first year tops all other prior bull markets. In second place at 72.4% is the bull market that began in March 2009. That run lasted into February 2020 (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

But I want to caution you that past performance doesn’t always guarantee future results.

If we gauge the first year of the 1990s bull market, the S&P 500 had advanced 32.8% during the same period. It’s an excellent performance for a period that runs about one year, but it would place the start of the long-running 90s bull market in last place among the six longest periods since WWII.

Where are we headed from here?

You’ve heard me say that no one has a crystal ball. No one can accurately and consistently predict what may happen to stocks.
Nevertheless, let’s look at what’s happened in the second year of bull markets that were born out of bear markets that saw the S&P 500 Index fall at least 30%.

Since World War II, there have been six other bear-market sell-offs of at least 30%. In each case, the market posted strong returns in the first year, with an average gain of 40.6%. Gains ran into year two, with an average increase of 16.9%; however, the average pullback during those six periods: 10.2%.

So, let’s not discount the possibility of a bumpy ride this year.

Treasury bond yields have jumped as the government has embarked on an expensive $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and talk of new spending from Washington is gaining momentum. Further, bullish enthusiasm can sometimes spark unwanted speculation.

Might the economy overheat and spark an unwanted rise in inflation? Might rising bond yields temper investor sentiment? Up until now, investors have focused on the rollout of the vaccines, reopening of the economy and the benefits these are providing.

Today, momentum favors bullish investors, but valuations seem stretched, at least over the shorter term. When markets are surging, there is a temptation to load up on risk. Yet, we’d counsel against being too aggressive.

Just as the investment plan takes the emotional component out of the investing decision when stocks are falling, it also erects a barrier against the impulse to load up on riskier investments when shares are quickly rising.

Life changes, and when it does, adjustments may be appropriate. Ups and downs in stocks are rarely a reason to make emotion-based decisions in our portfolios.

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