If you have been following the sports headlines, then you know the Super Bowl 51 NFL football championship game between the four-time champion New England Patriots and the zero-time champion Atlanta Falcons is upon us. It’s that time of the year when more than 100 million people will congregate in front of big screen TVs across our nation and stare at ludicrous commercials (costing $5 million each); watch a semi-entertaining halftime show; and gorge on thousands of calories until stomachs bloat painfully.
The other headlines blasting across the media airwaves relate to the new all-time record milestone of 20,000 achieved by the Dow Jones Industrials Average (a.k.a., “The Dow”). For those people who are not glued to CNBC business television all day, the Dow is a basket of 30 large company stocks subjectively selected by the editors of the Wall Street Journal with the intent of creating an index that can mimic the overall economy. A lot of dynamics in our economy have transformed over the Dow’s 132 year history (1885), so it should come as no surprise that the index’s stock components have changed 51 times since 1896 – the most recent change occurred in March 2015 when Apple Inc. (AAPL) was added to the Dow and AT&T Inc. (T) was dropped.
20,000 Big Deal?
Seth Klarman: Investing Is Art First, Craft Second And Science Third
The last time the Dow closed above 10,000 was on March 29, 1999, so it has taken almost 18 years to double to 20,000. Is the Dow reaching the 20,000 landmark level a big deal in the whole scheme of things? The short answer is “No”. It is true the Dow can act as a fairly good barometer of the economy over longer periods of time. Over the 1998 – 2017 timeframe, economic activity has almost doubled to about $18 trillion (as measured by Gross Domestic Product – GDP) with the added help of a declining interest rate tailwind.
In the short-run, stock indexes like the Dow have a spottier record in correlating with economic variables. At the root of short-term stock price distortions are human behavioral biases and emotions, such as fear and greed. Investor panic and euphoria ultimately have a way of causing wild stock price overreactions, which in turn leads to poor decisions and results. We saw this firsthand during the inflation and subsequent bursting of the 2000 technology bubble. If that volatility wasn’t painful enough, last decade’s housing collapse, which resulted in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, is a constant reminder of how extreme emotions can lead to poor decision-making. For professionals, short-term volatility and overreactions provide lucrative opportunities, but casual investors and novices left to their own devices generally destroy wealth.
As I have discussed on my Investing Caffeine blog on numerous occasions, the march towards 20,000 occurred in the middle of arguably the most hated bull market in a generation or two (see The Most Hated Bull Market). It wasn’t until recently that the media began fixating on this arbitrary new all-time record high of 20,000. My frustration with the coverage is that the impressive phenomenon of this multi-year bull market advance has been largely ignored, in favor of gloom and doom, which sells more advertising – Madison Avenue execs enthusiastically say, “Thank you.” While the media hypes these stock records as new, this phenomenon is actually old news. In fact, stocks have been hitting new highs over the last five years (see chart below).
More specifically, the Dow has hit consecutive, new all-time record highs in each year since 2013. This ignored bull market (see Gallup survey) may not be good for the investment industry, but it can be good for shrewd long-term investors, who react patiently and opportunistically.
In Washington, there’s a different game currently going on, and it’s a game of political football. With a hotly contentious 2016 election still fresh in the minds of many voters, a subset of unsatisfied Americans are closely scrutinizing every move of the new administration. Love him or hate him, it is difficult for observers to accuse President Trump of sitting on his hands. In the first 11 days of his presidential term alone, Trump has been very active in enacting almost 20 Executive Orders and Memoranda (see the definitional difference here), as he tries to make supporters whole with his many previous campaign trail promises. The persistently increasing number of policies is rising by the day (…and tweet), and here’s a summarizing list of Trump’s executive actions so far:
- Refugee Travel Ban
- Keystone & Dakota Pipelines
- Border Wall
- Deportations/Sanctuary Cities
- Manufacturing Regulation Relief
- American Steel
- Environmental Reviews
- Affordable Care Act Requirements
- Border Wall
- Exit TPP Trade Deal
- Federal Hiring Freeze
- Federal Abortion Freeze
- Regulation Freeze
- Military Review
- ISIS Fight Plan
- Reorganization of Security Councils
- Lobbyist Bans
- Deregulation for Small Businesses
President Trump has thrown another political football bomb with his recent nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch (age 49) to the Supreme Court in the hopes that no penalty flags will be thrown by the opposition. Gorsuch, the youngest nominee in 25 years, is a conservative federal appeals judge from Colorado who is looking to fill the seat left open by last year’s death of Justice Antonin Scalia at the age 79.
Politics – Schmolitics
When it comes to the stock market and the economy, many people like to make the president the hero or the scapegoat. Like a quarterback on the football field, the president certainly has influence in shaping the political and economic game plan, but he is not the only player. There is an infinite number of other factors that can (and do) contribute to our country’s success (or lack thereof).
Those economic game-changing factors include, but are not limited to: Congress, the Federal Reserve, Supreme Court, consumer sentiment, trade policy, demographics, regulations, tax policy, business confidence, interest rates, technology proliferation, inflation, capital investment, geopolitics, terrorism, environmental disruptions, immigration, rate of productivity, fiscal policy, foreign relations, sanctions, entitlements, debt levels, bank lending, mergers and acquisitions, labor rules, IPOs (Initial Public Offerings), stock buybacks, foreign exchange rates, local/state/national elections, and many, many, many other factors.
Regardless to which political team you affiliate, if you periodically flip through your social media stream (e.g., Facebook), or turn on the nightly news, you too have likely suffered some sort of political fatigue injury. As Winston Churchill famously stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
When it comes to your finances, getting excited over Dow 20,000 or despondent over politics is not a useful or efficient strategy. Rather than becoming emotionally volatile, you will be better off by focusing on building (or executing) your long-term investment plan. Not much can be accomplished by yelling at a political charged Facebook rant or screaming at your TV during a football game, so why not calmly concentrate on ways to control your future (financial or otherwise). Actions, not fear, get results. Therefore, if this Super Bowl Sunday you’re not ready to review your asset allocation, budget your annual expenses, or contemplate your investment time horizon, then at least take control of your future by managing some nacho cheese dip and handling plenty of fried chicken.