Even the casual market observer will recognize that Wall Street was bamboozled last week. What they may not realize is that it was the worst opening week performance for the benchmark S&P 500 in its entire history. Blame the mainstream business media, which aside from notable exceptions like CNBC, didn’t bring the dubious record as much attention as it deserves. But another point has been completely silent — the record was a close one.
Last week, the S&P 500 lost -5.7% against its January 4 opening price. In 1974, the index lost -5.3% in its opening week performance, the second worst such record. The magnitude difference between the two is relatively slight — about a 7.5% margin. Compare that to the third and fourth worst openers, when in 1998, the markets shed -4.86%, and in 2009, it lost -4.2%. The spread against 2016’s opening performance is a comparatively vast 17% and 36%, respectively.
This demonstrates just how deep the losses of 2016 and 1974 are relative to prior opening losses. Naturally, this leads to questions about potentially recurring patterns and how it might forecast what the rest of the new year has in store for investors. Good or bad, the facts are the facts, and 1974 was a bad year. Indeed, it was the worst performing year in the S&P 500 — it ended up with an annual loss of nearly -30% — until a fateful moment in 2008 took away that horribly dubious distinction.
Before we take a speculative leap and declare 2016 a year to clean out the portfolio, the counterargument is that a bad week doesn’t necessarily spell out a bad year. Statistically speaking, there’s no correlation, with markets much more likely to recover than not. And in the years 1998 and 2009, a poor start to the week ultimately led to some of the greatest annual gains in history, averaging 23%.
So will 2016 be a profitable year, perhaps on a massive scale? Here too we have some problems. 1998 was during the peak of the internet bubble craze, while 2009 was a technical boost from a severe equilibrium disruption — in both cases, a strong year was to be expected. But 1974 was different — the markets had experienced some very strong moves and in contrast, experienced some horrific crashes as well. Much like the present situation, ’74 was a time of financial and political turmoil.
It ultimately resolved to the upside. But before it did, the markets had to endure a baptism of fire. Even though 1975’s annual return of more than 28% was a record-breaker at the time, it wasn’t until the late 1970s through the early 1980s that the markets consistently averaged triple-digit points. If the same patterns were to take place now, the S&P would be due for another horrific crash ala 2008, and this time, it would take several years for the markets to resume its 2,000 point average.
Please keep in mind that this is NOT guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. A forecast is only good until it is proven wrong. Nevertheless, the historical data and contextual similarities with 1974 tell us at the very least to be extra-cautious. We’re only five business days into the new year, and already, publicly-traded American companies have lost $1 trillion.
Think about that before dismissing the latest news as mere noise.