It’s a new high, but not dissimilar to celebrating say, 29,999 as a new peak, although the odd number didn’t receive the same level of media attention. These round market levels, whether it be the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Nasdaq, or others, tend to generate high visibility (especially in the slower post-election news cycle). If an index is old enough, and tends to show positive performance (as stocks have over the long haul), you’ll end up reaching new and higher milestones. The seemingly-large 30,000 level is just a reflection of how long the index has been in existence. (It was first assembled in 1896 by its namesake Charles Dow, former Wall Street Journal editor, in a day where calculating the price levels of a dozen stocks by hand on paper was ‘cutting edge indexing.’) We won’t go into how the Dow is a less desirable index to track relative to others, due to its outdated price-weighted construction methodology and concentrated membership of 30 stocks, but it remains well-watched regardless due to this historical legacy. The S&P 500, more widely used by financial professionals, has gained public traction over time, but its lower and less sexy 3,000-ish level is simply a reflection of its more recent creation (early 1950’s). Total return percentages matter much more than index levels.
Most importantly, these announcements can often cause investors to react in one of two ways: (1) consider buying, after they’re reminded of their FOMO (‘fear of missing out’); or, (2) consider selling, as they see the new milestone high as feeling ‘expensive.’ Neither is an ideal approach, based on news coverage alone.
The new highs for several U.S. equity indexes are a reflection of the unusual year we’ve experienced. Following a dramatic (-33%) drawdown in March, stocks have recovered—and then some (+65%). The rebound triggers opposing investor emotions largely because of what this extreme movement represents, in realities on the ground as well as anticipated future realities. While fundamentals (revenues and earnings) have improved as lockdowns eased mid-year, we’re now in the throes of a second wave which could dampen the recovery outlook again. Yet, promising vaccine data gives markets more of what they really want, which is the removal of uncertainty about an ending point for the pandemic. If sometime in 2021 provides virus containment and herd immunity, today’s multiples are expected to ‘grow into’ 2021 and 2022 earnings expectations. The damage from the lockdowns earlier this year were such that higher-than-average recovery growth, at the current path, could be the case for several quarters, if not a few years. The Fed also looks to remain on hold during that time. As important as anything, low interest rates tend to be an extremely powerful and positive input into fair values for stocks and real estate.
With the end of the year approaching, it’s likely a good time to reevaluate portfolio positioning. Reacting to recent equity strength by a knee-jerk extreme of going ‘all in,’ or ‘getting out’ completely can be disruptive, especially since the second question of ‘now what?’ offers few alternative. Rather, if one’s risk allocation level needs to be adjusted, doing so by a notch or two can provide continued market exposure, yet not cause one to completely miss out on potential market gains over time (or even sharp movements from the ‘best days’). Stock market timing is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, any move that changes exposure to that growth engine, relative to the stabilizing force of bonds in portfolio creates risk-return trade-offs. ‘Regret’ is a real force discussed many times by economists involved in behavioral finance.