Beware The Young Bear

Stock markets are forever cyclical, an endless series of alternating bulls and bears. And after one of the greatest bulls in US history, odds are a young bear is now gathering steam. It is being fueled by record Fed tightening, bubble valuations, trade wars, and mounting political turmoil. Bears are dangerous events driving catastrophic losses for buy-and-hold investors. Different strategies are necessary to thrive in them.

This major inflection shift from exceptional secular bull to likely young bear is new. By late September, the flagship US S&P 500 broad-market stock index (SPX) had soared 333.2% higher over 9.54 years in a mighty bull. That ranked as the 2nd-largest and 1st-longest in US stock-market history! At those recent all-time record highs, investors were ecstatic. They euphorically assumed that bull run would persist for years.

We humans naturally extrapolate present conditions lasting way out into the indefinite future. But long centuries of stock-market history have painfully proven that no bull lasts forever. Eventually they all lead to inherently-unsustainable fundamental, technical, and sentimental excesses. These can only be bled away and ultimately normalized by bear markets. So bull markets have always been followed by bears.

Bulls and bears are easily defined technically, 20%+ SPX moves uninterrupted by opposing 20%+ moves. The greatest stock bull in US history was the SPX’s 417.0% run over 9.46 years between October 1990 to March 2000. That climaxed in the tech-stock bubble, when wild optimism about stock-market fortunes reigned. Yet that soon gave way to tears as the subsequent bear mauled the SPX 49.1% lower in 2.6 years!

Stock investors suffering their wealth getting cut in half is typical in major bears. But the losses extend well beyond capital into far-more-scarce time. After that turn-of-the-century secular-bull peak, the SPX wouldn’t power decisively above those levels again until 12.9 years later in early 2013! That’s nearly a third of the 40 years average investors have between the ages of 25 to 65 to generate wealth to finance retirement.

If you can’t afford to lose half your stock-market wealth, and you don’t have time to wait for well over a decade for stock prices to fully recover, you better take this quarter’s market developments very seriously. Something snapped in the US stock markets in early Q4’18, and the price action and volatility since reeks of a young new bear. While that diagnosis can’t be certain until the SPX falls 20%+, the signs are ominous.

As Q4’18 dawned, the US Federal Reserve ramped its quantitative-tightening campaign to full speed. QT is necessary to start unwinding 6.7 years of quantitative easing ending in October 2014, during which the Fed conjured $3625b out of thin air to monetize bonds! QE was considered necessary to stimulate the economy after the Fed forced interest rates to zero in December 2008 during the first stock panic in a century.

Those trillions of dollars of QE capital injected by the Fed directly levitated the stock markets, artificially inflating an already-mature bull market to monstrous proportions. All those bonds accumulated on the Fed’s balance sheet, which skyrocketed 427% higher over that relatively-short QE span! The Fed can’t maintain $3.6t of bonds on its books forever, so it finally started letting them gradually roll off at maturity in Q4’17.

That unprecedented QT capital destruction started small, but was ratcheted up each quarter until Q4’18 when it reached its terminal velocity of $50b per month. The SPX achieved its latest all-time record high in late September, and then October was the first month ever of full-speed QT. The QE-levitated stock markets wilted under this QT onslaught, which was inevitable sooner or later. I warned about all this in advance.

Just a week after the SPX peaked in late September, I published one of my most important essays ever. I unambiguously titled it “Fed QT is Bull’s Death Knell”, and it explained the stock-market impact of Fed QE in depth and why full-speed QT was certain to slay this bull. With the SPX just 0.6% under its recent record high on that final day of Q3’18, that warning fell on deaf ears. Maybe investors will pay attention now.

Fed QT is no flash in the pan, it is a long-term persistent threat to these lofty stock markets. In order to merely unwind half of that unfathomable $3.6t of Fed QE, full-speed QT at $50b per month will have to run for 30 months starting in Q4’18. Heading into 2019 the stock markets face another 27 months of this! And the Fed is loath to slow or stop its QT now underway on autopilot, as that could unleash panic-grade selling.

The Fed has long asserted the reason it is undertaking QT and has hiked rates 9 times since December 2015 is the US economy is strong. It wants to rebuild easing-ammunition stores to use in the inevitable coming recession. If the Fed caves on QT before its balance sheet shrinks much lower, traders will assume the Fed fears the US economy is in serious trouble. So they would flee stocks pummeling them far lower.

The die is cast on Fed QT, guaranteeing the long-overdue next stock bear. And the losses seen so far are just a small vanguard of what’s to come. This first chart superimposes the mighty SPX bull of the past decade on its so-called fear gauge, the VIX S&P 500 implied-volatility index. The recent Q4 trading action in both is unlike anything yet seen in this entire bull. It is looking far-more bear-market-like in character.

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