Investors are confronting the reality of the current secular bear market. It is both the consequence of the previous secular bull market and the precursor to the next secular bull. The duration of the current secular bear period is uncertain. Should inflation or deflation overcome the economic environment in the near term, this secular bear could end sooner. That reality, however, would cause significant losses to stock market portfolios. If inflation or deflation slowly creeps into the economy, over the next decade for example, then this secular bear will have been one of the longer ones. However, if this decade repeats the relatively low inflation of the past decade, then the secular bear should remain in hibernation.
Beyond the inflation rate, economic growth also will have an impact on the future of this secular bear. Following last decade’s below-average economic growth, this decade could generate above-average growth to offset the recent shortfall. The result would be a solid boost to earnings in this decade. Economic growth, however, also could have downshifted during the last decade to a lower level for the foreseeable future. The result would be a significantly lower range of P/Es, but not necessarily a progression through the secular bear market. The economic growth rate can shift P/E upward or downward, but only inflation or deflation can end a secular bear market.
Whether this secular bear cycle ends in five years, ten years, or beyond, the result will be the start of the next secular bull market, which will bring an extended period of above-average returns. Spring finally will have sprung. This longer-term view of secular stock market cycles is the reason to look out across this secular bear to the next secular bull. The operative word is “across” this secular bear and not “past” it.
“Across” recognizes the reality of the risks and opportunities presented by secular bear markets. “Past” is the ostrich-like approach of ignoring reality with blind hope for an unrealistic outcome. “Across” is enabling, while “past” is disabling.
For investors who are accumulating for the future, secular bear markets are times to build savings for later investment. This is done not only through contributions but also through prudent investing with an absolute return approach to investment returns. The absolute return approach uses the dual strategy of risk management and investment selection.
Investment portfolios should be diversified across a range of investments that are diligently selected and actively managed, especially ones that control risk and enhance return. In particular, investors should not avoid the stock market or bond market. Instead, their objective should be to seek in both markets investments that incorporate elements of skill to enhance returns. Secular bear markets are not periods during which to avoid investing; they are periods that demand an adjustment to investment strategy.
For investors who are more dependent on their current assets, including pension funds and retirees, investment strategy should be paired with early recognition. The principles of absolute return investing are important for preserving capital and generating much-needed returns. But potentially more important than managing the investment portfolio, pension funds and retirees would be well served in this environment to manage their assumptions and expectations. Earlier recognition of secular bear market conditions enables potentially painful adjustments to be smaller. Delaying action until crisis has onset generally brings greater adverse consequences. It is not prudent to hope for the next secular bull market to arrive sooner as a way to address shortfalls. The longer expectations take to adjust, the greater the gap to fill with an increasingly short time to fill it.