As Japan (NYSE:EWJ) recovers from the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, political dominoes are also rapidly falling in Middle Eastern and North African countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Libya. But guess what happens after the pieces fall? The surviving populace – whether in Egypt, Tunisia, or eventually Libya – will be left with the responsibility of picking up the pieces. The protesters, rebels, and civilians will be accountable for cleaning up, unless they can convince allies to provide assistance – like the military and humanitarian aid provided via the U.S.-led United Nations resolution. Time will tell how much longer the 42-year repressive reign of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi will hold, but any way you cut it, movement towards a freer, more open society with less corruption is a positive development in the long-run.
The Start of the Arab Uprising
The Arab uprising grew its roots from an isolated and disgraced Tunisian fruit vendor (26- year-old Mohammed Bouazizi) who burned himself to death in protest of the persistent, deep-seeded corruption prevalent throughout the government. The horrific death ultimately led to the swift removal of Egypt’s 30-year President Hosni Mubarak, whose ejection was spurred by massive Facebook-organized protests. Technology has flattened the world and accelerated the sharing of powerful ideas, which has awoken Arab citizens to see the greener grass across other global democratic nations. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn can be incredible black-holes of productivity destroyers (I know firsthand), but as recent events have proven, these social networking services, which handle about 1 billion users globally, can also serve valuable purposes.
As the flames of unrest have been fanned across the Middle East and Northern Africa, autocratic dictators haven’t had the luxury of idly sitting on their hands. Instead, these leaders have been pushed to relent to the citizens’ wishes by addressing previously taboo issues, such as human rights, corruption, and economic opportunity. These fresh events feel like new-found changes, but these major social tectonic shifts have been occurring throughout history, including our lifetimes (e.g., Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Berlin Wall).
Good News or Bad News?
Recent headlines have created angst among the masses, and the uncertainty has investors asking a lot of questions. Besides radioactive concerns in both Japan and the Middle East (one actual, one figurative), the “worry list” of items continues to stack higher. Oil prices (NYSE:USO), inflation, the collapsing dollar, exploding deficits, a China bubble (NYSE:FXI), foreclosures, unemployment, quantitative easing (QE2), mountainous debt, 2012 elections, and the end of the world among others, are worries crowding people’s brains. Incredibly, somehow the market still manages to grind higher. More specifically, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSE:DIA) has climbed a very respectable +6.4% for 2011.
With the endless number of worries, how on earth could the major market indexes still advance, especially after a doubling in value from 24 months ago? For one, these political and economic shocks are nothing new. History has shown us that democratic, capitalistic markets ultimately move higher in the face of wars, assassinations, banking crises, currency crises, and various other stock market frauds and scandals. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say these worrisome events will continue this year, next year, and even over the next decade.
Most baby boomers living in the early 1980s remember when 30-year mortgage rates on homes reached 18.5%, inflation hit 14.8%, and the Federal Funds interest rate peaked near 20%. Boomers also survived Vietnam, Watergate, the Middle East oil embargo, Iranian hostage crisis, 1987 Black Monday, collapse of the S&L banks, the rise and fall of the Cold War, Gulf War I/II, yada, yada, yada. Despite all these cataclysmic events, from the last birth of the Baby Boomers (1964), the Dow Jones Industrial (NYSE:DIA) catapulted from about 890 to 12,320. This is no April Fool’s joke! The market has increased a whopping 14-fold (without dividends) in the face of all this gruesome news. You won’t find that story on the front-page of The Wall Street Journal.
Lost Decade Goes on Sale
The gains over the last four and half decades have been substantial, but much more is said about the recent “Lost Decade.” Although it has generally been a lousy decade for most investors in the stock market, eventually the stock market follows the direction of profits. What the popular press negates to mention is that S&P 500 (NYSE:SPY) operating earnings have more than doubled from about $47 in 1999 to an estimated $97 in 2011. Over the same period, the price of the market has been chopped by more than half (i.e., the Price – Earnings multiple has been cut from 29x to 13.5x). With stocks selling at greater than -50% off from 1999, no wonder smart investors like Warren Buffett are buying America – Buffett just spent $9 billion in cash on buying Lubrizol Corp (NYSE:LZ). Retail investors absolutely loved stocks in 2000 at the peak, believing there was virtually no risk. Now the tables have been turned and while stock prices are trading at a -50% discount, retail investors are intensely skeptical and nervous about the prospects for stocks. Shoppers don’t usually wait for prices to go up 30% and then say, “Oh goody, prices are much higher now, so I think I will buy!” but that is what they are saying now.
I don’t want to oversell my enthusiasm, because the deals were dramatically better in March of 2009. Hindsight is 20-20, but at the nadir of the stock market, stock prices traded at bargain basement levels of 7x times 2011 earnings. We may not see opportunities like that again in our lifetime, so sitting in cash may not be the most advisable positioning.
Although I would argue every investor should have some exposure to equities, an investor’s time horizon, objectives, constraints and risk tolerance should be the key determinants of whether your investment portfolio should have 5% equity exposure or 95% exposure.
So while the economic and political dominoes may appear to be tumbling based on the news du jour, don’t let the headlines and the so-called media pundits scare you into paralysis. Bad news and tragedy will continue, but fortunately when it comes to prosperity, history is on our side. As you attempt to organize and pickup the financial pieces of the last few years, make sure you have a disciplined, long-term investment plan that adapts to changing market and personal conditions.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management SCM and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article.