I wrote the first half of this in November last year under the heading “Valuation matters” when I was bored with the stock market, but couldn’t really take it anywhere. Things have improved in the two and a half months since, so I thought I’ll run the post.
Ermine approach to bear markets
There are two big problems with bear markets. One is the general noise and hum of people like RBS yelling sell everything. The other problem is that bear markets are usually shorter than bull markets, but steeper. So not only do you have a shorter time to get into the suckers, but it feels bad too.
past investment performance provides no guide to future performance
I do have a fair lump of money to move out of cash, even while leaving my SIPP as it is. But what to do with a bear market, eh? I will do roughly what worked the last couple of times.
Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, I got more and more interested in the stock market as prices rose, ‘cos I looked at the virtual bottom line and thought that it was real. Whereas now I get more and more lethargic as valuations rise, I cast about and struggle to find anything of interest to buy, and occasionally carp about it. Whereas a decent market crash would interest me again…
Let’s take a look at the enemy. Total Return values for the FTSE100 are only available back to 2012, but I got my FT All-Share TR from here, apparently derived from the ONS.
The overall trend is up. And yet this is a game of two halves – whatever happened after the dotcom bust seems to have taken a bite out of the annual rise of the FT all-share total return, and given us bigger and more protracted retrenchments. Perhaps the change in annual rise is because inflation was generally lower in the second half period, but there’s no way of getting away from the fact that the retrenchments in TR are deeper and span longer periods. There’s real money to be lost here for significant periods of time.
Whether this is the result of structural changes to the economy, or perhaps the massed ranks of index investors beginning to kill the golden goose is something I am not clever enough to say. Perhaps it’s as simple as the increased financialisation of the economy, in the end somebody has to be paying for all those salaries in London. FirevLondon put it well
Financial services is, er, where the money is. Pay levels here significantly exceed almost all other sectors when you benchmark for responsibility, experience, lifestyle, etc. The point is that these jobs are not easy to get and are not everybody’s cup of tea.
Just like people working in sweet shops don’t want for sweets, I guess people working in money don’t want for money. The kink in the chart may be as simple as the fact that these pay levels as well as soaring CEO pay have to be looted from the real economy because financialisation is an extractive rather than productive business, looks like shareholders have been getting a bum deal for the last 16 years as well as being shaken down twice. Or is that three times, including now 😉 Whatever it is due to, there’s a good case to support the thesis that it’s all different now, but the trouble is that it isn’t all better now.
If we are going to be carrying the deadweight load of all these spivs and CEO salaries on our backs, we really want to be buying in the suckouts, since the cost of the future income stream is cheaper, cos, well, the price of entry is on sale.
People made a lot about the last bull market being one of the longest on record, which is all fine and dandy, but if the price of longer bull runs is greater humdingers of bear markets that knock you back the odd decade then it still isn’t great news for steady buy and hold. The view post 2000 on the FTAS total return hasn’t been worth the climb compared to the 20 years before it. The slightly lower slope could be explained by lower inflation, but the multi-year suckouts are longer and deeper.
My aim is to long-term hold, and use the dividend income. So I am buying a future income stream, and I want prices to be low when I buy. They haven’t been low for the last few years, that’s the trouble with bull markets, they hang around too long and outstay their welcome, particularly that last one. I’m glad to see the back of it. All it’s been good for the last couple of years is to shift unwrapped assets into an ISA wrapper, rather than put much new money into the markets.
Buying into bearishness with index funds
I have stood next to the open goal of bear markets before, tapping a bit of wedge into it at the same time as buying that Cash ISA, That Cash ISA is still the same one as I bought in March and April 2009, when I also bought the other half as a S&S ISA in April and started hitting AVCs. Cash has lost value in real terms whereas the S&S ISA and the SIPP paid me handsomely.
There are similarities to 2008 in that the stock market and the pound are tanking. The combination of these gave both my AVC funds and my ISA a good heft. This bear ain’t really got into it’s stride IMO, which is just as well for me. I have about 3k worth of ISA allowance left plus about two grand of cash in there. This year in an aberration of common sense I adopted the nice little quarterly regular drip-feeding approach of a good index investor, largely because I couldn’t really get excited about much, but figured I can’t just sit on cash. So for the last two quarters I’ve been buying gold, and in the first quarter I did some racy stuff like buy into Russia, EMs and oil, all of which have tanked faster than the unwrapped assets I sold. I’m taking the Zombie approach to the busted value of the last enterprise, at least the gold is up a smidgen.
However, in a decent general bear market, you don’t actually have to be clever at what you buy. What you have to do is be buying. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for indexing into a bear market. You can sort out the asset allocation later when the rubble has stopped bouncing.
What does a bear market look like, and how do you know one?
A bear market is a fall back of 20% against recent highs, apparently. How do you know one – I spent too much time a while ago trying to formulate a black box determination of a bear market from the price signal. A bear market is not just about the price. It is also about how people feel. You know a bear market from the number of pundits screaming that everything is doomed – indeed I’d go as far as to say a bear market is much more about how people feel about the market that the price signal the market is giving, it’s the sizzle, not the steak.
The trouble is that the depth and duration of the retrenchment is unknowable at the start. Is this like 2008/9? Is it like the dotcom bust? The 1930’s? Is it the final denouement of capitalism culminating in a war of all against all, or maybe a modest wobble like 2011?
This unknowability means I don’t want to be buying all in one go, a good bear market happens across a year or more, the 2011 wobble was a few months ISTR, but the trouble is you can’t know where the bottom is. So I want to be getting in steadily over a few months, perhaps a year. The five grand for the ISA is easy enough to do, buy £1000 of VUKE and do it again over the next few of months. VUKE because it’s the FTSE100 that’s getting much of the stick at the moment. As well as that I have about 8k left in a cash ISA, which I can now deploy into the stock market. Unfortunately, having tried with Charles Stanley, it appears that I can’t actually open a S&S ISA by transferring in a seven-year old cash ISA without opening a new ISA for this year, which I can’t do1. I could, of course, transfer the cash ISA into my TD Direct ISA which I already contributed to this year, but I don’t want that any bigger, I need another two S&S ISAs to bring the value of my shares ISA down to the FSCS compensation levels. This gets more relevant in times of market turmoil, MF Global is the poster child for what can go wrong here…
So I guess I am stuffed until April on moving that cash ISA, which probably isn’t so bad. If this is a big one, the bear market will be just getting its boots on by then, I should imagine we will still all be thinking it’s financial Armageddon. In time for the new ISA year 😉 I am pretty sure that buying VUKE now will look like a terrible idea by then. As will buying it in February. And March, May and June. But I can’t know, and that’s why sometimes you have to hold your nose and buy into bear markets anyway. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. I can’t call the bottom of a bear market. But I don’t have to, all I need is get in while the sale is still on.
It’s a lot more interesting than steadily socking away a few hundred pounds a month into an index fund in a bull market, even if the interesting is the same sort of interesting as living in interesting times. It’s the drama of bear markets that I like, well, and the fact that valuations get so much better. Despite everybody saying valuation doesn’t matter and you can’t time markets etc I can recognise a hissy fit when I see it. 2009 was good. 2011 had its moments. Perhaps 2016 will be up there as well. Of course, it is entirely possible that that kink in the long run TR of the FTSE100 is indicative of a deeper malaise – after all the suckouts seem to be deeper than they used to be and getting deeper, and despite the great celebrations when the FTSE100 crawled above the peak sixteen years ago it still seems to be walking wounded. I’m happier buying it at 57002 than 7000-something, although I am sure it will test 4500 sometime this year. I wonder if this will also be the year the Greeks default just to double down 😉 Let’s hear it from iii’s Rebecca O’Keefe
With every upturn being followed by deeper falls, investors are increasingly wary as it becomes more and more difficult to determine what might happen next.
We know the rough outline what’s going to happen next. Shit is going to go down, and keep going down. Until it doesn’t go down any more. The dotcom bust went down for three years straight, most of the other bear markets were two years or less. You shouldn’t have money in markets you will need in the next five years, so it’s likely you’ll be at least a year or two into the bull that follows the bear before the five years is up. Buy, not all in one go, and forget about it for five years. If the suckout lasts longer, well, you got different problems, bud.
If there is a deeper problem of returns then the value of some numbers on my TD Direct/CS screens which would be visible on the internet if we had any power and broadband while the zombies fight in the streets aren’t going to be a big problem for me, compared to the marauding zombies and preppers like some Cormac McCarthy novel. But if that doesn’t happen then we will still be using oil in ten years time and I’ll wager we’ll be paying more than $30 a barrel for it. People will probably still be buying things made out of stuff that somebody is going to have to dig out of the ground. We probably won’t have given up eating and Facetweeting. I can’t be bothered to try and work out who will be providing this. That is the nice thing about bear markets. They are absolutely made for the mindlessness of index investing, because a synchronised gloom grips people and they flog everything off cheap. You don’t have to be smart about what you’re buying. Just buy something reasonably diversified.
I’m not a fan of steady index investing across time. But I am a fan of indexing into market swoons, and then sitting on the spoils of war. Later on I will buy some individual shares/ITs once I feel there is an upturn, which of course will only be detected after the event. But on the way in, it needs to be like a slow-motion supermarket sweep contest, repeated regularly and paced out over months.
It’s never a good feeling to buy into something that’s tanking. And to do it month after month. I know what that felt like in 2009. But compared to the feeling when you look back afterwards, well, that isn’t so bad.
Pound cost averaging into a bear market isn’t smart and its not clever. But it’ll work, I’m happy to take the punt because I’ve been here before. Which is why I started buying yesterday.