- The market is approaching bear market levels
- Whether or not it gets there, the market environment has changed
- There are a few steps investors can take to make sure they get to the other side
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On Friday, May 20th, the S&P 500 officially crossed into bear market territory, commonly defined as a 20% drop. It only happened for a few hours before the rallied to finish just above that threshold, but we remain on the precipice. The is only down 15% from highs, and the remains down 30%. Setting aside the technicalities, the sudden sell-offs in stocks like Wal-Mart (NYSE:) or Cisco (NASDAQ:), combined with the stock market ‘generals’ like Apple (NASDAQ:) or Alphabet (NASDAQ:) being down more than 25%, leave us with the feeling that something has definitively changed.
One of our challenges as investors is to maintain discipline with our long-term principles while also updating our understanding of the markets when facts change. There’s nothing like the hammer of a big round number like a 20% drop, with BEAR MARKET in flashing red letters, to confront that dilemma.
Like many investors, I haven’t really gone through a full bear market – I started investing in 2011. 2018 was close to a bear market, but we rebounded just before the 20% mark and returned to the 2010’s upwards trend heading into the pandemic. The March 2020 crash was officially a bear market, but markets rebounded so quickly that it’s hard to count that (small-cap investors like myself can argue we got hit harder, but still, everyone saw a full recovery and then some within a year or so).
While it’s possible we repeat 2018 and shake off the bear market scare on a return to new heights, I’d be surprised. So instead, here are some ideas to adjust:
Pull Up The Anchors
The last two years have been very weird. We had a pandemic which was a huge global health risk, the response to that required economic disruptions, and the response to that was high government spending and loose monetary policy. This all happened on the tail of a 10-year+ bull market that left many equities with stretched valuations.
I say that not to rehash the policy or economic or investing choices behind all that, but to point out that the prices we saw in the last two years are meaningless. As famed venture capitalist and tech investor Bill Gurley put it: “1) Previous “all-time” highs are completely irrelevant. It’s not “cheap” because it is down 70%. Forget those prices happened.”
Trends we thought might stick forever during the pandemic, like work from everywhere via Zoom (NASDAQ:) or shopping online, have proven to be less durable. Trends we thought might fade, like inflation, have not. And all the while, markets have seemed content to price things as if only the last quarter and the next quarter matter. This creates opportunities, but it also makes it easy to get sucked in.
We remain in a fluctuating environment, where some of the changes in the last couple years will stick, other changes we didn’t anticipate will emerge, some things will go back to exactly the way they were before, and others will revert to how they were before but with real changes. We are investing in moving targets. The highs of March 2021 or January 2022 are no more helpful to hitting those targets than the lows of March 2020.
Stick To Durable Assets
“Price is what you pay, value is what you get,” goes the old Warren Buffett saying. One of the things we can control as investors is making sure we know what we own, and we know that they can make it through any sort of scenario. Companies that can survive recessions and even produce profit during them will often come out the other side stronger. But if your companies don’t make it to the other side, that rebound won’t help.
In the covid sell-off, I didn’t sell anything at the bottom, but looked at extreme ‘what if the economy is shut down for a year’ scenarios for my portfolio. In the initial rebound I dumped Garrett Motion (NASDAQ:), a company with a leveraged balance sheet at the time, exposed to an industry I’m not crazy about (autos), and with some litigation issues. The company worked out for some people, but at the time, it felt like the wrong sort of ‘worst-case scenario’ stock to hold through the pandemic.
This time around, the scenario is more gradual decay of margins, shifting demand, or lost competitive power that scares me. I’m starting to dump Just Eat Takeaway (OTC:) – leverage on the balance sheet and it just seems like they’re not hacking it with the competition – and taking a much harsher look at AerCap (NYSE:), which I think is fine from a downside protection perspective but where the upside may not be worth it.
Whatever your risk scenario is, it’s worth making sure your companies will survive it (and if you are a crypto investor, well, good luck). It’s true that ‘junkier’ names will pop more whenever we get to the other side of a bear market. But ‘getting to the other side’ is a big part of the equation.
The corollary to that point is that it’s important to analyze companies and understand how they will perform. It’s not enough to take a trailing twelve months’ price to earnings ratio for, say, Target (NYSE:), and say ‘under 13x, looks pretty good!”
Are people going to continue to spend at Target as government spending decreases and maybe even consumer spending takes a hit? Or can Target maintain their operating margins, the big question from the recent call? And can Target prepare for widely shifting spending patterns?
The same sorts of questions apply to consumer discretionary companies, or home builders, or commodity plays. When the game changes, how do these companies fare?
Take What The Market Gives
One of the greatest tricks the market pulled on value investors over the last 2 years or 12 years, depending on how you look at it, was to suck them into growth investing.
“Over a long enough time horizon, revenue growth is all that really matters,” the market told us.
“Compounders are good, value traps are bad,” the market argued.
“I’d rather buy a great company at a fair price than a fair company at a great price,” famed growth investor, err, Warren Buffett said.
Buffett’s point, coming from the value investor, highlights the importance of an open mind. I know I felt pressure over the last few years to open my portfolio to more tech companies with recurring revenue business models and sexy growth numbers. Take Duolingo (NASDAQ:): I really like it as a user, think they have a strong growth story, one the company has convincingly argued is not Covid fueled, and the rare tech-adjacent stock where revenue growth might accelerate. That’s good.
I also don’t know when Duolingo will become profitable given their promises to continue to invest a lot in research and development. Is there a price where I won’t care about that? Maybe, but it’s a lot lower than it would have been in last year’s “growth still works” market.
Instead, companies that should have marginal operating momentum in 2022, or companies that have solid profitability and clean valuations, are the ones I’m looking to add to. Travel companies should see improving numbers and some of them still have fair valuations – I own and want to add to Booking Holdings (NASDAQ:) and Grupo Aeroportuario del Centro Norte SAB de CV (NASDAQ:). Financials benefit from higher interest rates, and I’ve added shares of Discover Financial Services (NYSE:) in this downturn to my portfolio.
Will it be enough to stave off losses? Maybe not, but they’re all good companies that should perform well on a fundamental basis in the next 12-24 months.
The 2010s Bull Market Is Gone
I said earlier that we should throw out the pandemic-era prices as reference points. It is worth looking back to the dot com bust, though. There, a spate of new technology companies soared to incredible heights as investors bet on disruption, limitless growth, and modern metrics. It also dragged a lot of blue-chip stocks and the broader market to new heights. Then, the bear market set in, and the Nasdaq lagged for a good decade.
The 2010’s were the buy the dip market, the tech disruptor market, the software as a service market, and the quality >> value market. The market wasn’t wrong in its pricing, as investors understood the value of recurring revenue and the power of new business models.
But, it’s not helpful to assume that what worked then will work going forward, any more than it helped in the 2010s when permabears kept expecting the next crash around the corner. A lot of the disruptive fields of the last decade have been disrupted, over funded, and left bereft of upside – food delivery ala Just Eat Takeaway is a good example.
We may rally again like in 2018. Some of the winners from the 2020s will look like 2010s winners. And at the same time, resetting the playbook for a new environment will be a good idea.
This Too Shall Pass
Bear markets are not fun for anybody but those permabears (who, as I said, often miss out on the upside). But they do pass. The 1970s were a tough period, as were the 2000s: the markets that followed were huge bull market runs.
This doesn’t seem to me like an end of the world situation for the economy. Unemployment is very low, consumer spending remains strong, and corporate profits are high. Corporate profits and margins will probably take a hit, which causes both the recession and a bear market, but the current environment looks less scary than both the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic crash, at least that initial March stretch.
So, investors need to protect ourselves, update our thinking, and prepare. But, if we’re investing with money meant for the long term, have more cash in our portfolio to invest, and hold positions in companies with stable balance sheets and good prospects, we have the luxury of also being patient. The bear market will be a test, so we’ll need that patience.
The current market makes it harder than ever to make the right decisions. Think about the challenges:
Interest rate hikes
To handle them, you need good data, effective tools to sort through the data, and insights into what it all means. You need to take emotion out of investing and focus on the fundamentals.
For that, there’s InvestingPro+, with all the professional data and tools you need to make better investing decisions. Learn More »
I am long AAPL, JTKWY, DFS, AER, OMAB, and BKNG, and considering selling both JTKWY and AER, and considering buying TGT and more DFS and BKNG.