We may be closer to a major market top than most investors think.
That at least is the conclusion that emerged when I compared the current market environment to what prevailed at major market tops of the past century.
To be sure, there are some dissimilarities as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not peaking. No two tops are exactly alike. As Mark Twain famously said, even if history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.
With that thought in mind, I examined all 35 bull market tops since the 1920s. I searched for patterns in the performance of not only the market itself, but of various internal market factors, such as earnings and price/earnings ratios. I was also interested in how small company stocks tend to perform in the months leading up to a top, both in their own right and relative to large-cap stocks. Likewise, I searched for patterns in the relative returns of growth and value stocks.
I relied on several extensive databases: Yale University Prof. Robert Shiller’s database of Standard & Poor’s 500 earnings and P/E ratios, as well as a database showing the relative performances of small- and large-cap stocks, as well as of the growth and value styles, maintained by Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago and Ken French of Dartmouth. To determine when bull and bear markets have begun and ended, I relied on the precise definitions employed by Ned Davis Research, the quantitative research firm.
Here’s what I found.
Market rises steeply before bull dies
The typical bull market comes to an end following a period of extraordinary performance. In other words, some of a bull market’s best returns are produced right before it dies.
This is important to know if you thought that this bull market would, before it breathes its last, begin to slow down and go through a period of modest performance. That’s not typically the case: On a price chart, the average market top looks more like a pointed mountain peak than a plateau.
While it is of course possible that the next market top is more like a plateau, it would be the exception rather than rule: Since the 1920s, the average bull market has gained more than 21% over the 12 months prior to a top — more than double the long-term average.
Interestingly, the stock market recently has produced a return that is quite similar to this average 12-month gain prior to market tops: The S&P 500 over this period is up nearly 23%. Read More