To Test or Retest?
In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the main character Prince Hamlet raises the existential question to himself, “To be, or not to be, that is the question?” With the recent -13% correction in the S&P 500 index, and subsequent mini-rebound, a lot of investors have also been talking to themselves and asking the fundamental question, “To test or retest, that is the question?” The inability of Fed Chairwoman dove, Janet Yellen, to increase the Federal Funds interest rate target by 0.25% after nine years only increased short-term uncertainty.
For investors playing in the stock market, uncertainty and corrections are par for the course. Howard Getson at Capitalogix recently pointed out the following.
Since 1900, on average, we’ve experienced…
- -5% market corrections: 3 times/year.
- -10% market corrections: 1 time/ year.
- -20% market corrections: 1 time/3.5 years.
However, no market correction is the same. Sure it would be nice if, during every bull market, the pain from any -10% correction lasted a second – similar to ripping off a Band-Aid. Unfortunately, when you live through such rapid and violent corrections, as we just did, volatility tends to stick around for a while. And in many instances, any brief rebound in stock prices is met with another downdraft in prices that retests the recent lows in prices.
In the recent correction example, a retest of the lows would mean another -5% drop, on top of Friday’s -2% cut, to a level of 1,867 on the S&P 500 index. This is definitely a realistic probability (see chart below).
Although corrections are quite common, violent corrections are less common. Scott St. Clair, an analyst at MarketSmith, a division of William O’Neil & Co., recently did a study examining the frequency of 10%+ corrections occurring in four days or less across the three major indices (Dow Jones Industrial, S&P 500, and NASDAQ). Before the latest -15% decline in the NASDAQ from August 19th to August 24th, St. Clair only identified drops of -10% or more (in four trading sessions) eight previous times since the Great Depression (six of the eight periods are listed below).
- DJIA May 1940 -26% in eight days
- DJIA May 1962 -16% in 10 days
- S&P 500 Aug 1998 -15% in five days
- S&P 500 July 2002 -25% in 13 days
- S&P 500 October 2008 -33% in 15 days.
- S&P 500 August 2011 -19% in 13 days
Following all these corrections, the market always rebounded, but what St. Clair showed was in many cases stock prices had to retest the previous lows before advancing again.
As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” which explains why this study is a useful historical exercise to prepare investors for potential future downdrafts. With that said, for long-term investors, much of this utility is marginal at best and useless at worst.
If you can’t handle the volatility, you need a more diversified portfolio, or you need to park your money in a savings account or CD and watch it melt away to inflation.
In reviewing corrections, famed growth investor Peter Lynch said it best:
“I can’t recall ever once having seen the name of a market timer on Forbes’ annual list of the richest people in the world. If it were truly possible to predict corrections, you’d think somebody would have made billions by doing it.”
Whether the August 24th low was the only test of this correction, or investors retest it again, is a moot point. Ignoring irrelevant headlines and focusing your attention on a low-cost, tax-efficient, globally diversified investment portfolio is a better use of your time. That is a tenet for which Hamlet would certainly be willing to die.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) , but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.