Every day we read articles telling us what wonderful buying opportunities this or that stock offers. Very rarely are the stocks you see written about the ones that will make you money in my opinion. Far more often, I think they are the stocks that investors are losing money in and the authors write because they know investors are desperate to hear good news. Authors with huge followings make more money from their writings. That’s how the financial press operates.
Take for example, AT&T (T), which has been repeatedly touted as the investment of the century by dozens of writers here without ever justifying a single such recommendation, in my opinion. Fifteen authors have written about AT&T over the last month. Nine have recommended it as a buy or a strong buy. The rest call it a Hold. Only a single author has called it a sell.
AT&T performed the rare feat of dropping steadily during one of the greatest prolonged bull markets of the past 50 years.
AT&T Earned You Nothing Despite a Decade Long Great Bull Market
And before you tell me how much you loved your dividends, note that this chart is a chart of total return. It includes your high dividends, assuming also that they were reinvested. If you held onto the Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) shares spun off by AT&T, you are down even more as they have crashed by over 51%.
If you are a retiree living on those dividends, this is what the cash you invested in AT&T has turned into throughout a bull market where every dollar invested in an ETF that tracks the S&P 500 like The Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO), The SPDR S&P 500 Trust (SPY), or iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) grew into $1.56. (I only graph VOO in the graph below as the return of all three S&P 500 ETFs is almost identical.
AT&T Destroyed Your Investment Capital While S&P 500 ETFs Grew It
Investors Chased Yield Because There Was No Alternative
Much of the writers recommending stocks are still feeding the current obsession with high dividend yields. That’s because many retirees chased above-market yields like that of AT&T during the past decade because there was no safer alternative that could generate the income they wanted to earn from their modest portfolios.
It rarely worked out well, which was predictable. Recall the famous investing adage, attributed to Ray DeVoe,
More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.
But by now, after 13 years during which the Federal Reserved in a break with tradition kept its rates below the rate of inflation, a generation of retirees has been brainwashed into thinking that the answer to their income needs is to invest in risky, often obscure, high yield stocks and ETFs.
There is a whole industry now of authors who earn their money by pointing you to these investments – for a fee. And it’s a fee you have to keep paying, because otherwise you won’t ever get the message they give only to their paying followers that it is time to dump that risky high yield investment before it tanks. This is information that they never share in their free-to-the-public messaging.
Well, if you’ve fallen into the trap set by these writers, smarten up.
We are no longer in a bull market. No high yield stock or stock ETF is likely going to save you now. For that matter, no stock at all, no matter what you read about its great prospects is going to improve your financial position right now in my opinion.
When Momentum Turns Down Everything Gets Pulled Down With It
Bear markets provide wonderful buying opportunities. But only when they are near their bottom. This one is probably not. Investors’ delusion that this latest bear market was going to be another short-lived one like the ones we saw in 2018 or 2020 is slipping away. As I have written in several of my previous articles, inflation matching rates not seen since 1982 is changing the market in ways that very few younger investors can begin to puzzle out. The Fed has made it crystal clear that it won’t back down from its current policy of raising rates steeply until inflation nears its target rate of 2% a year. If you are investing money right now, you need to believe them.
Reality is just beginning to sink into the minds of the many investors who assumed that the Fed was bluffing–until their September 21 policy statement and the aggressive dot plot.
September 21 Federal Dot Plot
Given how much higher the near term dot plots have risen since the last two Fed meetings, it is very likely we will see the projections for 2024 and 2025 rising, too. In any event, the very lowest predicted rate is 2.25 – 3 years from now. A prolonged period of rates above 5% is very possible. Us oldsters remember when 5% was considered an insultingly low rate and 6% mortgages an unobtainable dream. It very well could happen again.
As a result of the shock administered by the latest Dot Plot, levels of the S&P 500 have already been breached that most pundits assured us were not going to fall. As I write the S&P 500 has dropped below 3700 and is well on its way towards reaching the June Low which was 3666.77.
The S&P 500 Heads for 3666
Many investors who only began investing during the long post-Financial Crisis bear market may not realize that when investors realize that a bear market is not going to magically go away and that it might be years until they see their investments return to their previous high, everything tanks. And everything can stay tanked for quite a while.
Nearly All Recent Recommended Great Buys Have Lost Investors Money
Here are charts showing you the performance of several stocks, besides AT&T, which many authors here on SA have recently insisted were great buys. Observe their performance over the past month. They include Microsoft (MSFT), Occidental Petroleum (OXY), Alphabet (GOOGL) (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Tesla (TSLA), and Palantir (PLTR). They are down, all of them, pulled down by the overall trend of the market.
Recently Recommended Stocks Have Declined
Bear Market Buying Opportunities Happen After The Market Has Bottomed Out
The great opportunities offered by a prolonged bear market are those that are bought when a company’s earnings are still growing robustly despite the carnage wreaking havoc on other companies. Those kinds of opportunities were available in the years after the Financial Crisis when even the best of the Dividend Aristocrats saw their P/E’s plummet to levels of single digits or barely higher despite their continued profitability. But they took a year or more to develop and you didn’t miss out if you were patient and waited until the trend began to rise again.
The black line on this graph shows you how Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) P/E ratio sank to 10.51 in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis of 2008. But notice, that it didn’t drop when the crisis began in 2008. It took months of investors realizing that the market was going to be in trouble for a long time for valuations to sink to the levels that generated so much profit for investors.
And note also that investors had years after that frightening 50% bear market occurred in which to make very profitable investments in JNJ and other high quality stocks whose valuations were severely depressed by the collapse of the entire market. There was no need to rush. In fact, if you rushed and bought in December of 2008, your investment suffered a 17% decline before it began to recover.
Johnson & Johnson’s Price, P/E and Dividends from 2009 to Now
The lesson you should take from this is that when the market turns really ugly, not “The Fed Will Fix This Sharp Decline Next Month” ugly, you should probably not rush to buy any stock, no matter how good its quality.
When you do buy stocks, you should be buying those high quality stocks whose prices give them P/E ratios well below their usual level.
Right now, that does not describe many quality dividend yielding stocks. Valuations are still very high for current earnings estimates. And those estimates may very well be revised downwards over the next two quarters if a true recession sets in.
Beware Investment “Experts” Telling You “Inflation’s Gonna Eat Your Money!”
Inflation is indeed going to eat your money. But it is also eating the value of every dollar you invest in a stock or ETF right now whose price is tanking. This increases the loss due to inflation alone. It also decreasing the buying power of every dividend you receive. Risky investments won’t save you. There is no escaping inflation’s ravages.
That’s why us old people have feared inflation all these years, despite the fearlessness of younger investors who believed that the Fed had solved the inflation problem. Inflation changes everything about how markets behave.
In Times Like This Short Treasuries And CDs Offer A Safe Haven
What we old people also learned was that in times of high inflation fixed income is the safest way to invest. Yes, at today’s rates you are still losing buying power to inflation, but you can earn a significant yield, one close to 4% right now and rising daily. And most importantly, you will get your money back, guaranteed, in a few months or years, depending on the term you select. Unlike the case with stock investments.
Bond Rates As I write on 9/23/2022
I present Vanguard’s bond rates as they are available to all without a need to sign into an account. I personally buy bonds at Schwab. Their interface makes it much clearer what you are going to pay to buy a bond and its real rate of return.
When you invest in short term treasuries or CDs you make it possible to preserve the money you currently have for the buying opportunities that will become available when investors capitulate and stop buying stocks on the dips. When the time comes that you can buy Microsoft at a P/E of 15 rather than today’s P/E of 25, it will be a very good buy. If it drops lower than that, as it did in 2008, it will be a far, far better buy. This is true of just about any stock you might consider buying today.
Microsoft Will Be A Good Buy Someday But Not Now
Should You Buy Bond ETFs Or Funds
Absolutely not. Bond funds don’t work the way many investors think they do. They buy and sell bonds so the investment, whatever its title might suggest, has no date when you can be sure you will get back the principal you invested.
Bond funds and ETFs were not available to investors during the last period of sustained inflation and climbing interest rates for a reason. They are a bad investment during a time of uncontrolled inflation. They only became popular after the great bond bull market began in the mid 1980s.
If you buy a bond ETF or fund, no matter what the stated maturity of the bonds it holds, you will lose money every time that the Fed or market forces raise rates. As the ETF’s NAV declines investors flee. And when investors sell out of bond funds, the funds have to sell their bonds, capturing losses. The longer the holding period, the more you will lose.
This has come as a very unpleasant surprise to investors who highly recommended bond ETFs like the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) the Vanguard Intermediate Term Bond ETF (BIV), or iShares 20 Plus Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT). Even investors who bought into recently launched ultra short bond funds like the Vanguard Ultra Short Bond ETF (VUSB) thinking that a short term bond fund would protect them have suffered loss of capital.
Total Return of Popular Bond Funds YTD
You will hear investors insisting that rising interest payments will make up for you NAV loss, eventually, but this is only true when rates stop rising, and the rate at which Bond ETFs and funds see their monthly payments rise is far slower than you might expect. The SEC yield will be far higher than the distribution yield for months if not years.
Brokerage Money Market Funds Are Another Option
Money market funds pay less than 3 month Treasuries right now, but their yields are climbing in lock step with 3 month Treasuries, albeit there is a lag of a month or so until they catch up. Putting your money into a money market fund gives you the ability to access your money at any time when a true buying opportunity presents itself in the market.
Bottom Line: Don’t Be The Greater Fool
When momentum is trending upward, as it has been over the past 12 years, people buy stocks at inflated valuations no matter what their growth prospects or dividend yield might be on the assumption that they can always unload their investment for more than they paid for it to “a greater fool.”
But when momentum turns down, the supply of fools becomes tight. Large investment banks and big investors who are sitting on large amounts of declining investments might begin to loudly promote the stocks they need to remove from their portfolios. Don’t fall into their trap.
There will be great buying opportunities when the smoke clears, but we are heading into a new kind of market that hasn’t been experienced by the past two generations of investors. The Fed has gotten its fingers burned keeping rates down for too long and in every speech given by every Fed speaker over the past month the message has been repeated that the Fed will not be reversing its policy for several years – at best.
So accept that you will lose some money to inflation. If you have been invested in the stock market over the past 13 years you made enough gains to cover those losses. You are just paying now for some of those Fed-Rate-related profits in the past.
Wait for the true buying opportunities that arise in a non-Fed-manipulated market when truly great companies go on sale at prices that correspond to excellent valuations. These are companies earning money from selling products and services to enthusiastic customers, not by paying dividends or manipulating the stock price with debt-funded buybacks.
But hold off from buying anything right now as the market careens downwards, because when the market gets going down fast it takes everything with it with no regard to its price, valuation, or quality.
If you must invest for some reason, be careful to invest only a small amount at monthly intervals to spread out the risk.