Biz tips: Reflections on the bull market

The rise in the S&P 500, coupled with fund flows of U.S. equity mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs).

Despite investor skepticism, we don’t see signs of excess that would put the current run at risk.

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Earlier this week, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits surpassed Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling album of all time.

Another record hit this month:  The S&P 500 set the record for the longest streak without a 20% decline, or bull market. This trend started in March of 2009 and has lasted over 3,500 days. The previous record was the 1990s bull market, which finally ended with the burst of the Internet bubble in 2001.

Heartache Tonight

The most amazing item about this run in U.S. equities is the lack of participation by the average investor. Although it is difficult to always be able to sell at the top and buy at the bottom, investors have been skeptical of this rally the entire time.

The chart below highlights the rise in the S&P 500, coupled with fund flows of U.S. equity mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs).


Over the past 114 months, investors sold over $850 billion in U.S. stock funds and ETFs — and that selling occurred 70% of the time. Another observation is the “Wall of Worry” — even though there are concerns in the market, stocks keep going up.

This measure doesn’t reflect all equity investors.

However, it is a good proxy for the average retail investors, since they are the most likely to be using mutual funds and ETFs.

We have found this to be a pretty accurate reflection of the skepticism in the investor base. One of the best things as a firm we have done since 2009 was to keep our clients invested and, for the majority of the time, overweight U.S. equities.

The New Kid in Town

If investors are selling, who’s buying?

While institutions, pension plans, etc. continue to be buyers of equities, what we’ve seen is almost a tripling of corporate stock buybacks over the last several years. The chart below compares the annual fund flows data with U.S. corporate stock purchases.


With profit margins at high levels and slow economic growth the last several years, companies have been actively buying back stock; with an expected peak this year of over $800 billion. The increase in 2018 is driven primarily by the U.S. corporate tax cut.

Related story: Stock buybacks on the rise

How Long?

Bull markets don’t die of old age. Recessions, and/or bubbles bursting, are usually the culprit.

The last two bull runs ended with the popping of the tech bubble and the housing/credit bubble.

We currently don’t see any excesses in the economy that would put this run at risk. The factor we are focusing on is the Federal Reserve and how aggressive they raise rates. If inflation begins to pick up and the Federal Reserve has to hike aggressively, this would likely push the U.S. economy into recession, resulting in the end of the bull market.

We do not see this in the near-term. However, we are closer to the end then the beginning.

Finally, there has been chatter regarding the markets and possible impeachment. We believe, if this were on the table, it would be noise. Looking back at the 1970s (Nixon) and 1990s (Clinton), investors focused on the economy. If the tax cuts were rolled back, that would be a negative — but otherwise, just noise.

Jason Norris is Executive Vice President, Ferguson Wellman Capital Management

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