New Year’s Resolutions for Investors: Recognize “Old News”

One of the biggest challenges for the investor is interpreting the constant news flow.  One problem is distinguishing fresh news from information that is already widely known.  The average investor may read something and act without evaluating what is already reflected in the market.

A Good Example

Suppose our typical investor checked out this article by Mike Panzner on Seeking Alpha.  Panzner, writes in typical fashion as follows:

Even if you don’t buy my argument that the far-reaching liquidation
pressures associated with the bursting of the biggest credit-bubble in
history will ultimately hammer equities along with almost every other
asset class, history suggests that a recession — which is growing ever
more likely by the day — is bad news for share prices. In "Preparing Stock Players for a Recession," the New York Sun‘s Dan Dorfman reports on what happened during past U.S. downturns.

The Panzner  comment is really just an unsupported opinion and a pointer to Dorfman.  The rest of the article is an extended quotation from Dorfman who explains the definition of a recession and then cites this scary information:

In an intriguing research exercise, the chief investment strategist of
Standard & Poor’s, Sam Stovall, has taken a probing look at what
happened to the stock market during the last 11 recessions, dating back
to 1945, and offers up some telling disclosures. For starters,
recessions, as you might expect, can be devastating to the stock
market, with the S&P 500 in one instance — between March and
November 2001 — falling more than 49%.

Dorfman admits, in a paragraph not quoted by Panzner,  "S&P’s chief economist, David Wyss,
thinks that at least one quarter of a decline in real GDP is a
possibility, and he has therefore elevated his recession-risk estimate
to 40% from 33%." 

He does not mention the lower recession odds of many  other economists, or that there is always, on average, a 20% chance of a recession.  It is all scare, good for selling papers.

But what about the Sam Stovall research?  What should we make of this?  The first thing to note is that the research was widely-disseminated in the mass market TIME magazine with the cover date of November 28th.   When it is published in TIME, it is far from being fresh news.  In fact, market analysts and major market players have been discounting future earnings for months.  Dorfman is slow on this and Panzner is slower.

Content of the Stovall Research

It would be helpful to take an independent look at the Stovall research, but no one provides a reference.  All we know is that he went back 60 years and considered ten recessions.

There are several problems with this type of recession analysis:

  • There are not that many recessions to study in recent history;
  • They are all different in cause, market valuation, and effects;
  • Recessions have been milder and less frequent in recent years.

Most importantly, bearish pundits point to 2001 as a worst case.  That recession was actually rather mild.  The stock market decline came from over-valuation, but is often falsely attributed to the recession.  Market valuations now are far different from the 2001.

An Alternative Viewpoint

Bespoke Investment has published a wonderful document, providing plenty of insight on important questions facing investors in 2008.  (Check out their site to subscribe for this valuable report).  In the section on recessions and effects, they write as follows:

While we would assume that an economic recession would be negative for stocks, given
the market’s discounting mechanism, the S&P 500 and most of its sectors typically have positive returns during actual recessions. However, most of the gains come towards the back half of the contraction.


The Bespoke Report contains plenty of data and provides a nuanced view of recessions.  A thoughtful reader will realize that the market effect is not a simple one.  A lot has to do with how much of the impact is already reflected in market prices.

Assessing market impact of a recession is not as simple as cursory reading may suggest.  One needs to figure out the recession probability, the likely effect, and what is built into the current market prices.  These are all topics extensively treated at "A Dash" in our recession series.

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  • Tim December 31, 2007  

    First of all, a happy new year to you and your staff and thanks for the excellent insight and analysis on this blog. Those that read you can learn a lot about how markets really work.
    For me, 2007 will go down as the year of the fear-monger. I am really getting tired of those forecasting the future based on the present. How much does the present look like the past? This country is/was built on innovation in the face of adversity. The current stressing of bad news in the financial media should prove to be very profitable to those of us looking for good companies to invest in.

  • Jeff Miller January 2, 2008  

    Thanks, Tim. It appears that we will have some more opportunities this week. We’ll keep trying to spot the best chances.