Finance

Everything Is Crazy and the Markets Aren’t Freaking Out

Ever since Brexit failed to break the bull, traders fear missing out more than losing.

 Illustration: Kurt Woerpel

At Credit Suisse Group AG’s prime brokerage desk in midtown Manhattan, the phone hardly seems to ring anymore. Its hedge fund clients don’t call about Donald Trump’s tweetstorms and the stock market or ask what to do when terrorists attack. And there was barely a whiff of panic when North Korea erupted in August. “Two rockets flew over the land mass of Japan and nothing happened,” says Mark Connors, Credit Suisse’s global head of risk advisory. “There were no calls. That’s absolutely crazy.”

Crazy maybe, but it’s become the norm on Wall Street. Whether it’s the threat of nuclear war, hurricanes, or Russian meddling, it seems nothing can unnerve investors bent on pushing the U.S. stock market higher and higher. Even Richard Thaler, who won a Nobel Prize last week for explaining how irrationality drives financial markets, said on Bloomberg Television he couldn’t understand why stocks keep going up now.

So what’s going on? After all, during most of the first 8½ years of the bull market, the mood was paradoxical. Although stocks rose, many investors scarred by the financial crisis acted as though they hated owning shares again, and every obstacle was framed as the next big meltdown (even as the underlying fundamentals remained strong). Now, everywhere you look—swelling stock valuations, hot sales of new cryptocurrencies, IPO shares with no voting rights—investors are embracing their speculative side. In the language of Wall Street, every day it’s “risk-on.”

Pundits are sounding alarms, but traders say the about-face in investors’ psyche is not without precedent and is about what you’d normally expect in the late stages of a long-lasting bull market. Sure, it’s an uncertain world out there, but fear invariably turns into greed, and the fear of missing out overshadows any anxiety about the next crash. That tends to quickly draw money back into the market every time it wobbles, despite legitimate worries about high valuations. “We certainly all joke about it: Buy the dip, that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do,” says Benjamin Dunn, president of the portfolio consulting practice at Alpha Theory, which works with money management firms. “Now you kind of have to do it. It’d almost be irresponsible not to.”

This year, the S&P 500 index has hit records on almost four dozen different occasions, with the single biggest drop from the latest record amounting to less than 3 percent. More than $3.2 trillion of market value has been added to U.S. equities, and volatility is at an all-time low. It’s easy to say it’s all about Trump and his promise of big tax cuts. His election has fueled some impressive gains (though perhaps not quite as impressive as he has often claimed and still far short of the best year for U.S. stocks during this current cycle). But for Credit Suisse’s Connors, the shift in market psychology can be traced back to a different signal event: Brexit.

After the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, $2.6 trillion was wiped off the value of equities worldwide in just three days. Many were calling it one of the most dramatic and shocking turns of events in modern British history. Among investors, the panic was palpable, and some were paralyzed with fear. But almost as quickly, the markets roared back and jolted investors out of their crisis-era fatalism. Since then, naysayers selling into any weakness have looked like suckers. In the aftermath of other post-crisis upheavals, “we got a lot of incoming client calls,” Connors said. “But that all ended with Brexit. Now, even though the events seem dire, volume is low and and reversals are sharp. People are looking through to things that keep them long. Buy-the-dip is in place.”

Ed Yardeni, the 67-year-old former chief economist for Deutsche Bank AG who now runs his own research firm in New York, was in Texas recently on an annual client visit. In hurricane-ravaged Houston, locals were still dealing with the aftermath of Harvey, and two clients couldn’t meet because of damaged buildings. Yet there was one thing on everyone’s mind. “They wanted to talk about the potential for a stock market melt-up,” he says. A melt-up is a last-gasp surge like the one in 1999, when the Nasdaq doubled—just before it crashed. Nothing like it has happened in this bull market. To the extent 2017 has a precedent, the current backdrop is closer to 1995 or 2013, when the S&P 500 gained 30 percent or more with barely a peep of turbulence.

The problem, according to Wedbush Securities Inc.’s Ian Winer, is that all the things underpinning the gains, from robust earnings and the Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy to the falling dollar and the retreat of sellers, has created a sense of invincibility. “Is the risk priced into the market appropriate to what the real risk is?” says Winer, the firm’s director of equities. “To me, it isn’t. People have grown more complacent and certainly more speculative, and it’s a little bit frightening.” One sign that investors are increasingly willing to pay more for less: Compared with the combined sales of all its companies, the S&P 500 is trading at its highest level since 2000.

Nevertheless, it’s far from obvious what will trigger the next downturn or when investors should get out. The hazards of market timing were illustrated by a Bank of America Corp. study last year, which showed that missing the very end of a bull market often means missing a quarter of its gains. What’s more, anyone who owned stocks just before they crashed in the worst bear market since the Great Depression would still have doubled their money as long as they had the fortitude—and enough of a financial cushion—not to bail.

For Vanguard Group Inc., whose trillions of dollars in low-cost and index-tracking funds are both credited and blamed for the current market mood—because so many retail investors have decided just to buy a diversified fund and forget about it—the new mindset is a sign of a job well done. “To see people not trading wildly on political news is optimistic,” says Fran Kinniry, a principal in Vanguard’s investment strategy group. “Investors are acting in a very positive way, how a professional investor should be investing. Have an asset allocation and rebalance it, and do your best to differentiate between the noise vs. reality.”

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