Fasten seatbelts for second half roller coaster ride

The following is an excerpt from Kirr, Marbach & Co.’s second quarter client letter, available at

The rise in U.S. stocks was anything but a straight-line advance as they continued their roller coaster ride in the second quarter of 2019.

In April, stocks built on their first quarter gains (the S&P 500 climbed back to its high reached in October 2018) but faltered sharply in May on harsh rhetoric from the U.S. regarding trade with China and Mexico.

Fortunately, "dovish" comments from the Fed on interest rate policy and indications of progress in easing trade tensions led the S&P 500 to its best June since 1955 and best first half since 1997.

What a difference six-months makes! ‘Twas the night before Christmas (2018) and the December stock price collapse reached a crescendo (DJIA -653.17 points) as investors seemingly lost their collective minds on fears of the Federal Reserve raising short-term interest rates too quickly and the threat of the on-again tariff/trade spat with China escalating into a full-blown trade war.

Who could have guessed by the end of June (2019), the S&P 500 would be up more than 25% from that panic low and reach a record high on the Fed’s 180 degree shift signaling future reductions in rates and a pause in the trade hostilities with China?

This is a great example of the tremendous benefit of being able to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs and the cost of not being able to do so. Understand we have a primordial survival instinct that modern media tries mightily to fire-up every time stocks are under stress. Remember the more often you look the more volatility you experience, so try to tune out the noise and stick with your long-term plan.

Bespoke Investment Group examined returns for second halves of calendar years (H2s) following first halves (H1s) when both stocks and long-term U.S. Treasury bonds returned more than 5%. Recall during the bull market for U.S. stocks from the March 9, 2009 low, positive performance for stocks coincided with weaker performance for bonds and vice-versa. When it was "risk-on" for investors, stocks gained and bonds dropped and when it was "risk-off" the opposite occurred.

The double-digit returns for stocks and bonds in H1-2019 was an anomaly that has happened in only four prior years since 1980. In fact, the S&P 500’s average H2 return following the nine H1s where both stocks and bonds were up over 5% was 11.3%, with positive returns in all but one (1986 was -1.79%). This was more than twice the average H2 return for all H2s since 1980.

Similarly, CFRA said the strong H1 bodes well for H2-2019, but with an important caveat. Since 1945, following H1 gains of 10% or more for the S&P 500, H2 rose an average 7.5% and was up 80% of the time, as compared with an average gain of 4.1% and 69% up for all H2s. Stovall further noted while in 2019 the S&P 500 recorded its third strongest year-to-date (YTD) return through April since 1945, history warned May would likely be weak (it was) but June should rally (it did).

Examining returns for the remaining months following the previous five strongest starts to the year, the S&P 500 fell an average 5.2% in the July-through-October period and declined in price 80% of the time. While history suggests the road is likely to get increasingly bumpy over the next four months, it will be important (as always) to try to remain unemotional and stick with the plan. Indeed, stocks traditionally regained their footing in the final two months of the year. For the five strongest starts, the S&P 500 gained an average 3.1% during November-December and advanced 80% of the time.

June and the first half of 2019 were terrific. While the fundamentals underpinning the stock market’s recent advance are still good, risks related to China/global trade, Iran, North Korea and a host of others, known and unknown, remain elevated. We’re not predicting a sequel to the Christmas Eve Massacre, but it’s best to remember stock prices are inherently volatile and scary downdrafts can occur at any time for any or no reason at all.

Indeed, in just the past 18-months U.S. stocks experienced a correction at the beginning of 2018, a near-bear market in late 2018 and an ugly May of 2019. In addition, according to Stovall the third quarter is "notorious for delivering the weakest average price return, while recording the deepest decline and greatest volatility." In other words, keep your seatbelts fastened!

Mickey Kim is the chief operating officer and chief compliance officer for Columbus-based investment adviser Kirr Marbach & Co. Kim also writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal. He can be reached at 812-376-9444 or [email protected].