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Economy  | April 26, 2021

Well, the 401(k) “Death Watch,” is underway.

“A huge collapse is coming,” warns longtime market prognosticator Harry Dent. He adds, “This thing will be hell,” it could be “the biggest crash ever,” and the start of “the next big economic downturn.”

When? By the end of June, if not sooner, it seems.

That’s less than 10 weeks away. Oh, well.

Dent’s forecast seems to have struck some kind of chord. For about a week or longer, the article was the most popular article at ThinkAdvisor.com. But although he may be unique in setting a deadline, he’s not the only guru predicting disaster.

Just this week I got a note from Jonathan Ruffer, an eminent money manager in London, with this dire warning: “I take it pretty much for granted that the 40 year bull market is ending, and that it will be replaced by hard investment times.” And Jeremy Grantham (also born in England, but long based in the U.S.) recently concluded that stocks, bonds and real estate are all in a bubble and may well collapse together in the next year or two. Longstanding gloomster John Hussman estimates the S&P 500 SPX, +1.09% could end up losing us all money over the next 20 years even before you deduct inflation, and suspects a quick 25-30% market slump may be ahead.

I have a guilty secret. I’m a sucker for these warnings (OK, maybe not for Dent’s). They often make for compelling reading. The most bearish stock market forecasters are generally more intelligent, more freethinking, and more interesting than the average Wall Street salesman. They usually write much better, too. Hussman’s math and logic are almost unarguable. Why, asked John Wesley, does the devil have the best tunes? (I am not comparing these people to a religious devil, of course, only to the Wall Street equivalent: Sinners who may interfere with the business.)

And their arguments make plenty of sense. Maybe not those predicting a market collapse in time for Wimbledon, but those warning us of grim years ahead. The U.S. stock market is almost 90% above the level where the “Warren Buffett Rule” is supposed to trigger red flashing lights and deafening warning sounds. The so-called “Shiller” or cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio ], the Tobin’s Q — all sorts of measures are telling us some version of Alien’s “Danger! The emergency destruct system is now activated! The ship will detonate in T minutes 10 minutes.” Run, don’t walk, to the escape pod. Don’t forget the cat.

And most of the most bullish forecasts we hear from Wall Street involve the simple fallacy of double-counting: The more stocks rise the better their “historic returns,” which a salesman then cheerfully extrapolates into the future.

Ergo, the more expensive stocks are, the more attractive they are.

The bears have had plenty of logic and math on their side. But most of them have been predicting various reruns of the Great Depression for most of the past 20 years. Not just in 2000 and 2007, which were good times to get out of stocks, but also the rest of the time, which weren’t.

Over the past 20 years, a simple U.S. stock-market index fund such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF SPY, +1.08% or Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund VTSMX, +1.22% has quintupled your money.

These forecasts are always guaranteed to generate a lot of attention. More important, fears of a market crash have kept vast numbers of ordinary people out of stocks completely. In my day to day conversations I’m struck by how many otherwise sensible people think, not simply that the stock market is risky, but that you can, and possibly will, “lose everything.”

Why is this? And why do I (like many others) find myself peeking at the latest iceberg warning? It’s hard wired into us, psychologist Sarah Newcomb tells me. Warnings trigger our body’s stress, flight-or-fight responses, she says. “The story that there may be a market boom may move us slightly, but the story that they may be a market crash moves us more,” she says.

Newcomb, who has a Ph.D. in behavioral economics, is the director of behavioral science at financial research company Morningstar.

I guess it goes back to all those eons when our ancestors were roaming the savannas of Africa. At the first sign any sign of danger they learned to run first and ask questions later.

The early humans who treated every rustle in the grass as a lion lived to pass on their genes.

Those who didn’t … well, they ended up lunch for a big cat.

The ‘prospect theory’ guys, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, also found that we feel more pain from a dollar we lose than we feel joy from a dollar we gain. So we’re more attuned to any story telling us there might be about to lose money than to any story telling us we’re more likely to gain.

It’s not that the bull market salesmen are clearly right. Actually, math and cold hard logic should give anyone cause for concern, especially about the most euphoric U.S. stocks.

But even if these skeptics turn out to be right, when is it going to happen? Will the market go up another 10% or 20% or 50% before it turns? Will it happen in June this year — or June in 2025?

I always figure that the day I finally decide to tune these guys out altogether will be the moment the Titanic hits the iceberg.

But there are options instead of trying to guess on Boom and Doom. We can just let the market decide for us instead. Money manager Meb Faber worked out years ago that pretty much every stock market crash or bear market in history has been signaled in advance. If you just cashed out when the market index first fell below its 200-day moving average, you avoided nearly all the carnage. (OK, in the sudden 1987 one-day crash you got all of a single day’s notice.)

Even if you didn’t end up making more money in the long-term than a buy-and-hold investor, he found, you made pretty much the same amount … and with far less “volatility“ (and sleepless nights).

Last year this trigger got you out of the S&P 500 on March 2, just before the main implosion. The market rose above the 200-day moving average again, triggering it was time to get back in, on June 1.

Most people will use the S&P 500 index as their trigger, but Faber found it worked for other assets such as REITs as well. Global investors may prefer the MSCI All-Country World Index.

Is this system guaranteed to work? Of course not. But nor is anything else. That includes all those bullish predictions that stocks will earn you inflation plus 6% a year. And those bearish predictions that once the market reaches a certain valuation triggers it’s heading for disaster. All rules are rely on some assumption that the future will resemble the past.

And using this rule means you can safely and happily ignore all the people predicting the end of the world.


A revolutionary initiative is helping average Americans find quick and lasting stock market success.

275% in one week on XLF - an index fund for the financial sector. Even 583%, in 7 days on XHB… an ETF of homebuilding companies in the S&P 500. 


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