As we noted in these pages at the beginning of last week, we find it simply remarkable how quick the market’s mood can change against a fluid and stressed environment like the recent two months. Entering the week, the stars seemed to be aligning for those hopeful a more dovish Fed and collaborative tone between the US and China over ongoing friction about trade might develop. As recent as last Monday, optimists were starting to feel as if the storm clouds were receding during the final week of November, and a much longed-for Santa Rally in December might be starting to take shape. Then, with seemingly little warning, the bears were awakened again with declines throughout the balance of the week. The carnage began to unfold Tuesday, with blame by the media mostly being attributed to investors having second thoughts about the trade truce with China, although less recognized was a troubling development in Europe with British Prime Minister May suffering a setback in her government and undermining the Brexit proposals. We also believe that the inversion of the yield curve among some shorter maturities likely triggered indiscriminate and heavy risk-off program selling of US equities exacerbating any fundamental concerns. Despite the tail end of a strong multi-day rally on Monday, and the market being closed in honor of the passing of the 41st President Bush on Wednesday, the major US indexes still found themselves -4.6% in the hole to conclude the first week of December. From a psychological standpoint, the market backdrop is feeling increasingly pessimistic. Most challenging however is for investors to try and keep in mind how quickly the environment could take a turn for the better again seeing as how so many of the worries are “man-made” and policy-related.
All the historical hype surrounding favorable mid-term election year investment returns is yet to materialize as we conclude 2018. Since 1950, every mid-term election (17 of them) resulted in strong end-of-year stock performance because the unknown of political change concluded. A different stock market stat, again since 1950, reflects that 75% of December returns are positive; that is the highest single month probability of upward performance for any of the 12 months (next highest is April at 71%, and November with 68% of the time being positive – see chart below). This year, the 4Q experience to-date seems stark opposite.
In our November market commentary entitled “Shake or Break”, as well as periodic updates in recent weeks, we’ve spoke extensively about how the market’s October swoon and elevated volatility were not without justification. The sudden awakening by investors following conclusion of the 3Q can be linked to persistent worries that the economic strength being witnessed in the US for 2018 might be “as good as it gets”, set to fade as we anniversary tax reform; when paired with the lack of constructive progress between Trump and China over trade and the Fed communicating in a way that felt decreasingly data-dependent and instead on autopilot with respect to additional interest rate hikes it makes sense why so many market participants were in bad moods. We’ve stated throughout the duration of this corrective phase that the economic data in the US remained supportive and the probability of recession in the near-term would still appear remote. But the financial markets needed to quickly see a more conciliatory tone begin to develop from both Trump and Fed Chairman Powell before further psychological confidence damage and any meaningful stock market recovery could develop. That’s exactly what we received last week and financial markets responded strongly with their best week in two years.