As 2019 gets into gear, there is a simple question that comes with a very difficult answer. Is the bull market that has raged since March of 2009 dead, or is it merely looking to find its footing on less stable ground? The year 2018 brought on major waves of volatility, and the end-of-year performance saw the Dow Jones industrial average (DJIA) post its worst December dating back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. It might seem easy on the surface to think it’s time for equity investors to just throw in the towel.
The actual DJIA index closed at 23,327.46, for a 5.6% loss in 2018, after 2017 brought gains of 25% on the Dow and more than 19% on the S&P 500. An alternative calculation for the Dow, represented by the so-called Diamonds ETF (DIA), in an effort to include the ever-important dividends, lost 8.5% in December alone and that wrecked the year to make for a 3.7% loss in 2018.
Asking whether the bull market is dead for 2019 comes with some rather cloudy views. 24/7 Wall St. conducts an annual review of the 30 Dow members for a forecast of how the market as a whole would be expected to perform in any given year. This may sound contrarian, or even ironic, but the outlook for 2019 was the first time in many years where the forecast’s methodology seemed to not reflect all the recent market volatility and expected headwinds facing the market in 2019.
There are many caveats and issues to consider here, but the preliminary 2019 consensus-based forecasting has offered up a likely target of 28,000 on the DJIA in 2019.
As for how this model worked in 2018 and in prior years, this can be reviewed easily. The 24/7 Wall St. model basically targeted the DJIA at 26,400 in 2018. That looks way off the end of year’s close of 23,327.46, but it actually was within about two percentage points of the 2018 all-time high of 26,951.81. Also worth noting was that the model’s Dow 26,400 target was breached in just the first three weeks of 2018. And then came the first wave of major volatility, followed by more, and then more. This same model forecast an 8.4% gain in the Dow suggested 21,422 in 2017, but the actual move was a 25% gain to 24,719.22 at that year’s end. That’s why these targets need to regarded with some skepticism. Other annual calculations and forecasts are also available.
The major stock indexes of the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq underperformed the consensus estimates in 2018 after having outperformed every single large brokerage firm’s Wall Street strategist expectations by a wide margin in 2017. Now comes the hard part of determining whether to bail out entirely on stocks in 2018, or whether it’s time to hold your nose and commit money back into the stock market.
One issue that the financial media tracks is the pullback from the high for determining a correction (10% down) or a bear market (20% down). The Dow’s 23,327.46 close for 2018 actually was down 13.4% from the peak of 26,951.81, giving the press the right to publish that the stock market is now somewhere in between correction and bear market territories. And the so-called bear market territory was nearly breached at the lows of December 2018, if you go back to before that record-breaking one-day rally of 1,000 points on the Dow.
After the passage of tax reform and after seeing gross domestic product (GDP) growth actually surpass that prior 4% barrier in 2018, there are myriad risks in 2019 that just have not been in the cards heading into any recent years. This year will have to contend with resolving international trade issues with China, a continued tempering of trade hostilities within the old NAFTA, Brexit, a Federal Reserve that wants to keep raising interest rates, and a potential inversion of the yield curve. Also worth factoring in are slower earnings and sales growth, slowing GDP, a slower yet pricier housing market, tighter credit standards, a new gridlock in Congress that is expected to be rather ugly and hostile, and a slew of presidential candidates all targeting the nation’s top job for 2020. And the financial media has been sounding the warning signs of a hangover-and-rate-induced recession ahead for most of 2018. This convergence of factors is almost mind-numbing compared to prior bull-bear cycles.