In the middle of the 24/7 news cycle, many investors get distracted by the headline du jour, much like a baby gets distracted by a shiny new object. While investor moods have been swinging violently back and forth, October’s performance has bounced back like a flying tennis ball. So far, the reversal in the S&P 500 performance has more than erased the -9% correction occurring in August and September. Could we finally be out of the woods, or will geopolitics and economic factors scare investors through Halloween and year-end?
Given recent catapulting stock prices, investor amnesia has erased the shear horror experienced over the last few months – this is nothing new for emotional stock market participants. As I wrote in Controlling the Lizard Brain, human brains have evolved the almond-shaped tissue in our brains (amygdala) that controlled our ancestors’ urge to flee ferocious lions. Today the urge is to flee scary geopolitical and economic headlines.
I expanded on the idea here:
“When the brain in functioning properly, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain in charge of reasoning) is actively communicating with the amygdala. Sadly, for many people, and investors, the emotional response from the amygdala dominates the rational reasoning portion of the prefrontal cortex. The best investors and traders have developed the ability of separating emotions from rational decision making, by keeping the amygdala in check.”
Evidence of lizard brains fear for flight happened just two months ago when the so-called “Fear Gauge” (VIX – Volatility Index) hit a stratospherically frightening level of 53 (see chart below), reached only once over the last few decades (2008-09 Financial Crisis).
Just as quickly as slowing China growth and a potential Fed interest rate hike caused investors to crawl underneath their desks during August (down –11% in four days), while biting their fingernails, investors have now sprung outside to the warm sunshine. The end result has been an impressive, mirror-like +11% increase in stock prices (S&P 500) over the last 18 trading days.
Has anything really changed over the last few weeks? Probably not. Economists, strategists, analysts, and other faux-soothsayers get paid millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to explain day-to-day (or hour-by-hour) volatility in the stock markets. One Nobel Prize winner, Paul Samuelson, understood the random nature of stock prices when he observed, “The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions.” The pundits are no better at consistently forecasting stock prices.
As I have reiterated many times before, the vast majority of the pundits do not manage money professionally – the only people you should be paying attention to are successful long-term investors. Even listening to veteran professional investors can be dangerous because there is often such a wide dispersion of opinions based on varying time horizons, strategies, and risk tolerances.
Skepticism remains rampant regarding the sustainability of the bull market as demonstrated by the -$100 billion+ pulled out of domestic equity funds during 2015 (Source: ICI). The Volatility Index (VIX) shows us the low-hanging fruit of pessimism has been picked with the metric down -73% from August. With legislative debt ceiling and sequestration debates ahead in the coming weeks, we could hit some more choppy waters. Short-term volatility may resurrect itself, but the economy keeps chugging along, interest rates remain near all-time lows, and stock valuations, broadly speaking, remain reasonable. Investors may not be out of the woods yet, but one thing remains certain…an ever-changing stream of fearful headlines are likely to continue flooding in, which means we must all keep our lizard brains in check.