I released the March issue of the Forbes Growth Investor yesterday to my subscribers. Here is the front-page commentary:
For many months, market watchers had been wondering what had happened to the risk premium. Investors seemed to have no fear of risk. Volatility had all but disappeared. But all that changed on Feb. 27. For reasons that are not completely clear, investors decided in mass they didn't like risk anymore. They sold stocks like crazy and bought bonds. Down volume on the New York Stock Exchange was 100 times larger than up volume. The system that tracks the Dow fell behind because trading volume was too much for it to handle. When it finally caught up, investors were shocked to see the Dow down by more than 500 points. Stocks did manage to gain some of that back by the end of the trading day, but the Dow still closed 416 points lower. As for bonds, the credit risk premium expanded as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note plummeted to 4.5%. Just two weeks earlier, it had been above 4.8%.
When stocks fall this much in a single day, inquiring minds want to know why. The media hunt for pundits and put them on the spot. What was the catalyst? If I were superstitious I would say it had something to do with the fact that I had lunch that day with Robert Shiller, author of "Irrational Exuberance," the book that correctly called a market top in 2000. But there are other explanations. Some blamed the selloff in New York on the selloff in China that immediately preceded it. Others said stocks fell because former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan suggested a day or two earlier that a recession was possible by the end of the year. Still others blamed the selling on a disappointing durable goods report that came out that same morning. And at least one reporter said traders were telling him the plunge was in response to a failed attempt by the Taliban to assassinate Vice President Richard Cheney. (I am sure, however, that these traders were not suggesting a successful attempt would have caused a rally.)
Investors were understandably anxious the following morning. Yet stocks stabilized and even inched a little higher at the open even though the Commerce Department said it was revising down its fourth quarter GDP growth estimate to 2.2% from 3.5%. Investors even shrugged off evidence of further weakening in housing as January new home sales plummeted 20% year-over-year and 16% from the prior month. Stocks gained steam when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke began his testimony to Congress. He expressed strong concern about entitlement programs and deficits, yet investors focused more on statements relating to interest rates. Bernanke said economic growth should remain at moderate levels, which was interpreted to mean that further rate hikes are unlikely. Many traders were disappointed, however, that by the time the markets closed, the Dow had managed to get back only 52 points of the previous day’s loss.
Where do stocks go from here? The signs are troubling. I said in our December issue that rising volatility would be a negative indicator. The CBOE market volatility index, commonly referred to as the VIX, has suddenly reached levels not seen since last July. Oil prices are another concern. After falling back to $50 per barrel, they are now comfortably above $60. And although some say former fed chairmen should keep their opinions to themselves, it is not good news that Alan Greenspan is talking openly about a possible recession. All these factors are making at least a few institutional investors nervous. Individual investors should exercise caution as well.