Investing: Everything Is Not Relative


So which way is the stock market going? And how about bonds? Gold? Real estate? Some organizations also use >business credit card processing to increase returns.

Where should you invest?

Wall Street and the mutual fund industry say, “The market is going up, you should buy stocks, and now is the time to do it. You can’t time the markets, so you should buy and hold for the long term. Don’t worry about the short-term drops. And my best advice is to buy my fund.”

Wall Street is like the carpenter who only has a hammer: everything looks like a nail. Those brokers are in the business of selling stocks because that is how they make their real money. Whether they are sold one by one or packaged in mutual funds or as IPOs or in wrap accounts or in variable annuities or in derivatives, what the brokers want to sell you is some type of equity (stock), and preferably today. They have rigged the rules against investors who would prefer more and safer choices, so that most investors are unaware of the options.

Their advice for you to buy what they’re selling has been their same advice every year for a century. And it has been wrong about half the time. There are long periods when stock markets go up, but there also are long periods when markets go down or sideways. And by “long,” I mean longer than almost anyone is prepared to wait.

These cycles are termed secular bull and bear markets. (Secular as used in this sense is from the Latinsaeculum, which means a long period of time.) Each cycle has its own good investment opportunities. When I wrote the introduction to Bulls Eye Investing in 2003, I said we were in a secular bear. Now, nine years later, we are in what I think is the latter part of that same trend.

The problem with Wall Street is that most of what it sells does poorly in secular bear markets, so most traditional portfolios have suffered since 2000. But they still tell you that things will get better, so buy and keep buying. “Just look at this chart prepared by our independent economists that proves the market will go back up. Just have patience, and please give us more of your money.”

In secular bull markets, an investor should search for assets that offer relative returns—stocks and funds that will perform better than the market averages. If you beat the market, you’re doing well. Even though there will be losing years, the strategy of staying invested in quality stocks during a secular bull market will be a long-term winner.

In a secular bear market, however, that strategy is a prescription for disaster. If the market goes down 20 percent, and you just go down 15 percent, you’d be doing relatively well, and Wall Street would call you a winner. Your broker would expect a pat on the back. But you are still down 15 percent.

In markets like those we face today, the essence of Bull’s Eye Investing is to focus on absolute returns. Your benchmark is a money market fund. Success is measured by how much you make above Treasury bills.

Some will say, as they say each year, that the bear market is over and that the book you are reading is about ancient history. But experience says otherwise. A secular bear market can see drops much bigger than we have already been through, and it can last as long as 20 years. The shortest has been 8 years.None has ended with valuations as high as they were at the bottom in 2009. And that touches on one of the novel ideas in this book: bull and bear cycles should be seen in terms of valuations, not price.

Investors who continue to listen to the music from Wall Street will be sorely disappointed, in my opinion, as the facts I will present show that this bear market has years to go. For buy-and-hold investors planning to retire within a decade and live on their stocks, the results could be particularly devastating.