It’s obvious when you think about it why a year with great investing returns–like the 33% total return (with dividends) on the Standard & Poor’s 500 in 2019–should lead to a year of stupid investing behavior.
A year of great returns exerts powerful pressure toward stupid behavior in the follow year. (I’m calling this “Jim’s rule of stupid investing behavior” unless some reader pops my balloon by finding an earlier formulation.)
Let me count the ways (and reasons why) investors could behave stupidly in 2020.
We could decide to ignore all warning signs on valuations in 2020. After all, there were plenty of warning signs that valuations had run to extremes in 2019. And you only got that 33% total return for the year if you ignored all those warnings and stayed invested. Here’s a recent warning sign: The latest run up in the rally has taken 82% of the stocks in S&P 500 above their 200-day moving average. That’s the highest level in two years. A sign of market breadth like that can mean that stocks have more room to run. But the last time so many stocks were above their 200-day moving average, it was a signal that a correction was on its way. Each of the stocks above that 200-day moving average can easily slip back to the average in a search for support. I think you can argue the case from either side, but the mere fact that there is a case to be made for a looming correction should lead to some occasional profit taking and some increase in cash positions. Treating 2020 like there is no possibility of downside risk–because everything turned out so well in 2019–counts as stupid behavior.
We could decide that in 2020 as in 2019 any attempt to hedge risk is a waste of time and money. In 2019 the way to maximize return was to never move to cash, was to never go short anything, was to never buy a put option in case something broke to the downside, was to never put money into a hedge such as gold, was to never diversify assets from 100% U.S. stocks to include, maybe, gold or silver. Any and all of these attempts to manage risk would have cost you money in 2019–and none of them, finally, was needed. Even gold, which had a very good year with the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD) up 18.36% in 2019, trailed the 33% return on the S&P 500 by almost 15 percentage points. Never buying a hedge, never putting on a put option, near moving to cash all count–looking backward at 2019–as smart behavior. Given what we don’t know about 2020, however, counting on risk NOT to stick out its foot and trip us in 2020 counts as stupid behavior.
And finally we could decide that our mistake in 2019–the reason our portfolio lagged the 33% returned by the S&P 500–was because we didn’t take on enough risk. And that the way we can match the index in 2020–and maybe even beat it by enough to bring us even over the two year 2019-2020 period and wipe out that annoying performance deficit to the index from 2019–is to take on more risk. More risk than you or I might be comfortable with under other circumstances and maybe even more risk than we took on in 2019. Apple’s closing in on a new all-time high but it’s not time to think about taking profits. Let the money ride. Tesla (TSLA) is with $20 a share of its 52-week high and at a market cap of $95 billion it’s worth twice General Motors ($48 billion) and almost three times Ford ($37 billion) at a time when it looks like global auto demand may have stalled. Let the money ride. The U.S. stock market is pricing in another interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve in September–but the central bank isn’t certain to deliver. Let the money ride.
I’m not arguing that a correction is around the corner or that the U.S.–and global economy–is about to slip into a recession. No one knows.
What I am arguing is that after a 2019 when it didn’t pay to prepare for risk, when little that could go wrong did–and even then the markets shook it off, and when letting everything ride on even the riskiest plays paid off, behaving as if all that will work again n 2020 constitutes behaving stupidly in 2020.