Unprecedented Volatility Will Continue to Rock the Stock Market in Advance of a Possible Rebound in Mid-2009

[Editor's Note: With the New Year upon us and in response to the positive feedback we've received from our "Outlook 2009" economic forecasting series has received, Money Morning is taking advantage of the holiday to run several of our most popular installments a second time.]

By Keith Fitz-Gerald
Investment Director
Money Morning/The Money Map Report

In the 20 years I’ve been creating stock-market forecasts, I’ve never seen such a contradictory set of forces at work in the markets all at one time. I could just as easily make the case that we’re finally nearing a bottom, as I could that we’re in for protracted downturn punctuated by sharp, quick drops.
The only question in my mind is what shape an eventual recovery will take, for I see three possibilities:

  • A “U,” with a slow, methodical reversal that gradually transitions into a market rebound.
  • A “V,” with a quick, sharp reversal that marks the start of a powerful rebound.
  • Or a sideways “hockey stick,” in which the downward trend ends sharply – but without the immediate upward surge in stock prices that would constitute a strong rebound.

My proprietary analysis and historical precedents both suggest the “hockey stick” is the most probable scenario. At a time when earnings are slowing and all sorts of red flags are flying, there are still too many unknowns to predict a U-shaped or V-shaped rebound.
Therefore, we believe investors will be best served filling their sails with the winds from the world’s most-powerful trends than they will be by trying to catch the intermittent gales. This is a market that will be dominated by large global trends – and the blue chips that follow them – particularly at a time when the so-called “economic cycle” doesn’t matter much.

Position Yourself to Profit

A properly structured and globally diversified portfolio using the 50-40-10 allocation model (50% “base-builder” foundation investments, 40% global growth and income plays and 10% “rocket rider” speculative investments that will perform well in a recovery) we recommend in The Money Map Reportour affiliated monthly investing newsletter – will prove to be an investor’s best friend. And the reasons for that are as simple as they are compelling:

  • First, a properly structured portfolio has built in safety brakes that keep us from making overly risky decisions.
  • And second, while this allocation model was constructed to minimize our downside in markets such as the one we’re navigating right now, it also positions us to benefit when the rebound eventually gets under way.

During the past year, we’ve repeatedly urged our readers to make sure two other elements are part of their portfolio: Dividend-paying stocks and specialized “inverse funds” that gain when the markets decline.

While dividends are important in any market, they’re downright crucial now because they add to returns during market rallies and help offset losses during market declines. And our commitment to inverse funds was rewarded during the whipsaw month of October: During a month in which the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index lost 16.8%, the Nasdaq Composite Index shed 16.3% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 13.9%, all 10 of the best-performing exchange-traded funds (ETFs) were inverse funds, which boasted one-month returns ranging from 36.4% to 66.6%, Thestreet.com reported last week.

Now those are admittedly highly remarkable returns – and clearly aren’t the norm. But it does demonstrate the point we’ve been making: It pays to protect y our downside even as you position yourself for gains. And not only do such investments as inverse funds hedge our downside, they smooth out our overall portfolio volatility and help calm roiled waters.

On a more positive note, we’re now getting to the point where true value is finally being revealed, after years of “irrational exuberance.”
But the reality is – and this is hardly new information for most investors – that global markets in general (and the U.S. stock market in particular) remain fragile, and we expect them to remain that way as long as policymakers continue to interfere with their ability to function freely.

Some readers will no doubt take issue with this, believing that the responses of the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks have been necessary. While we respect that opinion, we must also point out that the markets have a remarkable history of sorting out problems on their own – if left to their own devices. However, that’s a largely academic discussion that we’ll leave for another time because the government has already charted a course it believes is prudent.

Even if the world’s central bankers get their act together, the damage has largely been done. What’s more, the various bailout packages – especially the $700 billion U.S. banking bailout – while well intentioned, are almost certain to have more than a few unanticipated consequences.

Topics to Watch

The reality is that these bailout programs remain with us, meaning we must factor them into our efforts to scout out profit opportunities. And on that point, we see five primary areas of change and opportunity:   

  • The U.S. Dollar: By pumping an estimated $3 trillion into the global financial system, the U.S. government is setting the stage for the mother of inflationary conflagrations. According to classic economic theory, the greenback should be in an actual freefall right now – especially in the current low-interest-rate environment, where there’s the potential for still more rate cuts and for additional capital outlays by the U.S. government. And that’s just with the current administration. President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that if an additional stimulus isn’t announced before he takes office, he’ll make that one of his first official acts. What’s saving the dollar, at least for now, is that there’s so much global uncertainty that the dollar is retaining its reputation as a “safe-haven” currency. And, for now, at least, a safe U.S. dollar trumps inflationary concerns. However, should global investors regain confidence for whatever reason, expect the dollar to decline sharply.
  • Oil: Many people are focused on declining oil prices as a function of a perceived slowdown in global demand. We think that’s an erroneous analysis for three key reasons. First, oil is still largely priced and traded in U.S. dollars. That means that as the dollar has risen, oil has become correspondingly cheaper. In other words, much of the price decline we’ve seen can simply be attributed to a rise in purchasing power associated with a stronger dollar. Second, China, India and other newly capitalist (and still-reasonably robust) economies are still increasing their oil consumption at a rate that more than offsets the decline in consumption we’re seeing here in the United States and in other developed markets. And third, Brazil aside, there hasn’t been a major new discovery capable of offset global demand on anything more than a temporary basis for more than 30 years, and most major oil fields are in decline or soon will be. Increasing demand and diminishing supply are clearly bullish influences over the longer term. More immediately, however, a stronger dollar negates this and may well keep oil under $100 a barrel for much of 2009. Obviously a terrorist attack would change the ballgame significantly, meaning we could see a spike to levels exceeding our multi-year target price of $225 a barrel. A year ago at this time, we called for oil to spike well up over $100 a barrel, and touch $150, which it essentially did. Even with recent price declines, some energy-industry insiders are starting to subscribe to our bullish outlook: The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) last week projected that long-term oil prices would reach $200 a barrel (although we think that will happen much sooner than the IEA does).
  • Commodities: The story is much the same for commodities, in general, and we expect that longer-term investors will be amply rewarded. More immediately, the popular – though erroneous – assumption that a global slowdown will negate demand is driving prices lower, and may continue to do so for the next six months. Gold will be the most obvious casualty in this arena, as hedge-fund-redemption requests and margin calls continue to mount, which is why we expect the price of the yellow metal to remain lower far longer than most people expect (We’ll focus specifically on gold in an upcoming installment of the “Outlook 2009” series). When it does rebound, however, the returns will be high.
  • Global Markets: There’s no doubt that the global markets have taken their share of lumps along with their U.S. counterpart in recent months. But we don’t expect them to suffer forever. Countries with high cash reserves as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) – such as China, India and Brazil – are becoming less dependent on the fractured U.S. consumer almost daily, and the economic decoupling we’ve seen developing for several years may really take hold in the New Year. This stands in direct contrast to the situation a decade ago, when the Asian Rim and South America were economic train wrecks and the United States and Europe held all the cash. Companies with significant global exposure to the Asian Region, Latin America and Europe – in that order – remain the best bets for relative safety and growth in 2009.
  • Stocks in General: Many investors are questioning the wisdom of being in stocks at all. While we certainly understand the pain that sentiment is based upon – and are hurting, too – it’s important to remember that the last time stocks really performed this badly was during the 1930s. Investors who decided to “get out” entirely then missed the investment opportunity of their lifetime. Don’t make the same mistake. Data shows, unequivocally, that investors who buy when the world is going to hell in a hand basket –think 1932, 1942, 1982 and 2003 – enjoy the largest returns. That’s even true if you’re “early,” and buy ahead of the specific market bottom. However, history also demonstrates that investors who pile in at the market’s peaks – such as 1928, 1969, 1999 and 2007 -- tend to incur the worst returns.
  • Global Stocks in Particular: Led by cash-rich China, we expect global blue chips to remain the best relative bets for safety, income and appreciation potential in the New Year. We are especially focused on companies involved with infrastructure projects and with firms that derive substantial portions of their revenues from Asian consumers. The first is a no-brainer. According to the latest studies from a variety of sources, planned global infrastructure expenditures in this area exceed $40 trillion by 2030. There is not a bigger, more unstoppable trend on the planet today. If you want proof, notice that a big portion of China’s just-announced half-trillion-dollar stimulus package is devoted to infrastructure projects. Infrastructure companies there will certainly benefit. So will consumer-products firms that are positioned to benefit from the rise of an increasingly Asian consumer base, which boasts significant savings and pent-up demand. Many of the best companies are beaten down to the point that they now feature single-digital Price/Earnings (P/E) ratios – lower than we’ve seen in decades. Some are actually trading for less than cash value, despite a strong history of growth. And the companies we’re studying have solid cash flow – and excellent prospects of maintaining it.

Now for the $64,000 question – when could we see a rebound?

We don’t know for sure. Nobody does. History demonstrates that the first and second years of any newly elected U.S. president’s term are almost always problematic. When taken in isolation, we could see a scenario where this is countermanded by President-elect Obama’s planned stimulus, but given the potent combination of flagging earnings and slowing U.S. growth, we’re leery of doing so. [For a story that outlines what an Obama stimulus package could look like, check out this related story on the outlook for the U.S. economy elsewhere in today’s issue of Money Morning.]

On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, history also suggests that if we are to see a rebound, however nascent, the probability is highest for a resurgence starting in the middle of next year. First, since the 1970s, the time between the first and last market lows in any given bear market is an average of seven to eight months. If historical trends hold true, this suggests we could see a bottoming out by the middle of next year. That’s consistent and plausible, especially since other data shows U.S. recessions, on average, last 14.6 months – which also points to a bottoming out in late spring or early summer.

But the biggest indicator of all that we may see a bullish rebound in late spring or early summer – however slight – is admittedly based on emotion. Literally. Small investors have fled the stock markets in droves, and so far they’ve yanked more than $175 billion from the markets, with nearly 50% of that coming out during October alone. Granted, this is a mere 3.2% of the $5.5 trillion invested in stock market funds, according to Forbes, but it’s the first year that net equity flows have been negative since … a drum roll please … 2002.

History shows that small investors may be the most telling of all Contrarian indicators. According to TrimTabs, the Investment Company Institute and our own proprietary research, individual investors have a remarkable habit of rushing in near market tops and fleeing near market bottoms.

That means that long-term investors seeking the best wealth-building opportunities should find the immediate price declines we see ahead to be some of the most compelling buying opportunities of their investing lifetimes.

Now for the caveats – and you knew this was coming – we see three wildcards in 2009, and any one of them could prove to be a joker:

  • The continued de-leveraging of hedge funds and other financial institutions.
  • More credit-default-swap valuation problems.
  • And unknowns associated with the ongoing U.S. and global-economic-system bailouts.

There are still huge questions regarding who owes what to whom, how large the debts are, and exactly who’s going to get what help and when. History shows that the most effective bailouts are those that recapitalize institutions and that allow the weak to fail, which is why we are especially leery of the U.S. government’s plan to acquire bad debt while rewarding weaker institutions that should be put out of their misery.

What’s more, as a Money Morning investigative story demonstrated, many banks are using the government bailout money as takeover capital, and not to boost their lending, which at least would have had an expansionary benefit for the U.S. economy. With most of the bailout programs, and through no fault of their own, U.S. taxpayers and investors have been caught in the middle – or left on the sidelines altogether.

The Outlook 2009 Action Plan

For investors who want to get a head start, it’s important to bear in mind that the markets tend to begin their rebound in earnest anywhere from two months to six months before an actual economic bottom. While that doesn’t suggest going “whole hog” into stocks, it does speak to the need to take some steps now to get ready. Here are the top moves to make now:

  • Rebalance Now: As markets have declined, many portfolios have done out of kilter, too – not only in terms of value, but in terms of balance. And that lack of balance can seriously dampen returns, even as we await the market recovery – and even more so once the market begins to rally. It’s far harder to catch a moving train than most investors think.
  • Think Safety First: There’s no need to rush into the markets. It’s not clear we’ve hit bottom yet. Keep your powder dry for the better days and easier trades we see developing ahead, while bargain-hunting for those stocks with true upside, and that are positioned to capitalize on the strongest global trends.
  • Spread your buys over several days: When you’ve found something to buy, wait for a particularly bad day, then place your order in the last half an hour of trading. Leverage the lower prices (and maximize your returns) by spreading your purchases over several days or weeks. That way you won’t get tripped up by committing your entire nest egg when the market looks cheap and will probably get cheaper.
  • Go Global: China is still on track for 9.6% growth this year and may, in fact, slow to a “mere” 8.0% next year. Even that reduced growth rate will probably be about eight times the growth rate of the U.S. economy – if we’re lucky. Consider adding exposure to the Asian Rim as part of the rebalancing process, or as a primary focus once the recovery begins in earnest.
  • Get Inverted: Continue to use specialized inverse funds to hedge downside risk. We’re not out of the woods by a long shot.
  • Stop Your Losses – with Stop Losses: By all means include trailing stops to control small losses before they become catastrophic ones. This market could easily fall further before it gives way to the rally that history suggests is in the making.

[Editor’s Note: Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald, a former professional trade advisor, has been following the global financial markets for many years, and is an world recognized expert on China, Japan and other key Asian markets. Last year, Fitz-Gerald headed a two-week investor tour into China, an excursion that put him in touch with insiders in business and government, and enabled him to touch base with many of his longstanding sources in those markets. And share those with readers. Fitz-Gerald is also an expert forecaster, thanks to an uncanny ability to ferret out powerful trends and because of a proprietary system he developed that’s based on “Chaos Theory.” With the U.S. financial markets in such disarray, Fitz-Gerald is using our affiliated monthly newsletter, The Money Map Report to ferret out profit opportunities beyond U.S. borders. In our newest report, we’ve discovered a corporate gem that’s riding the profit wave of the most-powerful global trend we’re following right now. If you act immediately - as an added bonus - you’ll also receive a free copy of CNBC analyst Peter D. Schiff’s New York Times best-seller, "Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse.]

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About the Author

Keith is a seasoned market analyst and professional trader with more than 37 years of global experience. He is one of very few experts to correctly see both the dot.bomb crisis and the ongoing financial crisis coming ahead of time - and one of even fewer to help millions of investors around the world successfully navigate them both. Forbes hailed him as a "Market Visionary." He is a regular on FOX Business News and Yahoo! Finance, and his observations have been featured in Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, WIRED, and MarketWatch. Keith previously led The Money Map Report, Money Map's flagship newsletter, as Chief Investment Strategist, from 20007 to 2020. Keith holds a BS in management and finance from Skidmore College and an MS in international finance (with a focus on Japanese business science) from Chaminade University. He regularly travels the world in search of investment opportunities others don't yet see or understand.

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