Dow, S&P 500 fears? Why worrying about a correction is still the wrong way to invest

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 Index just suffered five straight days of losses and their worst weekly performance since — wait for it — June. Investors went into the summer easing up a little bit on stocks and have exited the summer with a similar bout of selling. Is there any more to it? Is the big one — the stock market correction bears have been waiting for — finally about to drop?

Many of the major factors cited for a potential selloff are well-known to investors, implying it is harder to see how at this point they would be the ones to cause a correction. There’s the delta variant. There’s the Federal Reserve taper and shift in central bank policy amid a sudden slowdown in job and economic growth. There’s the latest political headline — new wrangling in Washington D.C. over a corporate tax hike and potential tax on stock buybacks to help fund President Biden’s spending plan.

And there is the issue that has trailed stocks at every new record set during this bull market (and the bull market that preceded, or depending on your view, was interrupted by the pandemic): stock valuations are high.

There are also short-term pressures to consider: the “seasonal choppiness” of the fall, which market strategists say is real, and recent U.S. equity market downgrades from major Wall Street banks, which could keep pressure on shares, especially with so much of the recent money coming into the market from retail investors. But it is always more likely something investors can’t see coming (such as a pandemic) causes a historic market selloff than everything investors already know.

That makes technical market indicators and the historical performance of the S&P 500 one reasonable way to gauge whether investor confidence will outlast the latest round of selling.

Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

For Keith Lerner, co-chief investment officer and chief market strategist at Truist, the history of the S&P 500 suggests that the bull market isn’t done yet, even if gains moderate.

Since 1950, there have been 14 years where the market has been up more than 15% through August. Stocks went on to add another 4% by year end, on average, and climbed in 12 of the 14 instances.

Stock selloffs are to be expected

Pullbacks are to be expected. The deepest pullback in 2021 has been roughly 4%. That is not typical, according to Lerner’s review of the data. The only two years in the historical data set that did not see at least a 5% pullback in the S&P 500 were 1995 and 2017. And history says gains that occur rapidly have to slow down. Lerner notes in his research to clients that the current bull market has gained 102% in 1.4 years versus the average bull market gain of 179% over 5.8 years since 1950.

But following what Lerner calls the “weight of the evidence approach” in the technical indicators and macro environment, the message for investors — not traders looking for every short-term move to make —is that U.S. stocks can still go higher over the next six to 12 months.

Last week’s losing streak, in his view, is not something to be alarmed about after one of the strongest starts to a year in several decades. Often when the market moves a lot the automatic reaction is to say it has to ultimately become a negative, but Lerner says investors should not fear strength as long as it is supported by fundamentals. “A trend in motion is more likely to stay in motion,” he said. “The carousel of concerns continues to turn and when one concern recedes another pops up to take its place. There is always something to be concerned about … there always can be something we are not talking about today that can sideswipe us.” 

Even if the black swan event doesn’t materialize, that doesn’t mean there won’t be 3% to 5% corrections. “That’s the admissions price to the market,” Lerner said.

It doesn’t mean investors should never make tactical moves, but he says for the majority of investors it is better to stay focused on the next big move over the longer-term than the next move among traders.

Slowing economic growth isn’t no growth

The economy may fall short of the rosiest expectations for a “roaring 20s,” but Lerner is focused on the fact that a slower expansion still isn’t a recession and stocks rise 85% of time in periods of economic expansion. Stocks are valued highly, but he noted that the price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 has not been making new highs this year even as the market as a whole has been.

“Valuations are still rich so we don’t expect much P/E expansion, and then its earnings growth driving, so stocks can’t grow at that same pace.” But he added that after the pandemic crash, analysts had underappreciated the strength of earnings as a whole.

That happens after recessions, it happened after 2009, he said: estimates are cut too far and corporate profits come back faster than expected as companies cut costs and focus on efficiency. If the economy is still fragile now, it is so amid a strong rebound off lows and GDP driving more sales and more of those sales flowing to the bottom line. “And that’s why we have record corporate profits,” Lerner said.

Among the factors that should concern investors, moderation in growth is one. After being positive for over a year, the Economic Surprise Index has gone negative. “And deeply negative,” Lerner said. That is an indication that after a year-long period during which investors and economists were underestimating strength and numbers were beating estimates, now with Covid concerns and an economic slowdown the data has been surprising to the downside.

But that’s not a red alarm. “It just means from our standpoint, things caught up as far as expectations. But that’s a slowdown. We see a peak but it will stabilize,” Lerner said.

Passing peak growth doesn’t mean weak growth, and relative opportunities in the market remain a bigger focus than cheapest asset. “There’s no such thing as a ‘cheapest asset’ today,” he said.

The tech-led S&P 500 has internal issues

Within the S&P 500, he sees relative opportunities. The S&P 500 as a whole has not been as strong as its top, heavily weighted tech stocks in the last leg up to recent records. The S&P 500 Equal Weight Index is up less than 3% since last May as the mega-cap tech stocks led the way. That was a reversal from early in 2021 when the inflation trade made the cyclicals outperform the mega-caps. And it means that as the stock market set new records, there have been underlying corrections within stocks.

Money hasn’t left the market as much as rotated back to the huge balance sheet, cash flow cows in tech that can continue to perform even in a slower economy. It’s a sign that investors have become a little more defensive even within the S&P 500. But it also means that if the current carousel of concerns doesn’t cause a sustained turn negative in equity sentiment, returns within the S&P 500 can broaden out, Lerner said.

“Internal rotation is heathy,” he said. “We would be leaning a little bit on having a balance between the two. It’s not so clear cut investors should be all cyclicals or growth. … expectations have been reset sharply so a little bit of good news can go a long way.”

The earnings growth rate is likely going to peak soon, and Lerner says next year will have much more challenging comps for earnings than coming out of a pandemic-induced economic shutdown. But peak earnings growth isn’t the same as peak earnings. “The trajectory is higher,” he said. And rather than look to call peak earnings he remains focused on whether or not earnings estimate revisions could turn negative, and sees no symptom or pattern of that in this market.

“If we have earning growth that peaks somewhat and a peak in accommodation from the Fed and we can’t get a better fiscal environment, it all suggests the trend is higher but with moderation, and that will inject volatility and some bigger gains and opportunities below the surface as opposed to in the headline index.”

That may be a gut check for investors riding the market as a whole higher, and in evidence in the selling that occurred last week, but Lerner advises any investor to remember what famed Fidelity Magellan Fund manager Peter Lynch once said: “Far more money has been lost by investors trying to anticipate corrections than lost in the corrections themselves.”

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