Stocktake: Could stocks actually close higher in 2020?

Investors may need to be patient and assume that further twists and turns lie ahead

 Stocks have never closed the year higher after being down by more than 30%. Photograph: Getty Images

Stocks have never closed the year higher after being down by more than 30%. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Just weeks after plunging into the fastest bear market in history, strategists are now asking: could the S&P 500 actually close higher in 2020? The extent of the rebound – the S&P 500 rallied as much as 30 per cent off its March 23rd lows and is now down only 14 per cent in 2020 – means investors are now debating a question that “seemed ridiculous” a few weeks ago, notes Ryan Detrick of LPL Research.

History indicates it remains unlikely as stocks have never closed the year higher after being down by more than 30 per cent. Of course, bulls will hope we get a repeat of 2009; the index was down 25 per cent by March only to soar higher over the remainder of the year. Still, stocks had been falling for 18 months in March 2009, resulting in selling exhaustion. 2020’s sell-off, in contrast, lasted only three weeks. The hope is the downturn will be brief. There is “no reason” why a V-shaped recovery can’t happen, argued St Louis Federal Reserve chairman James Bullard last week, although that is a minority opinion – only 15 per cent of professional investors expect a V-shaped recovery, according to Bank of America’s latest fund manager survey.

That seems appropriate: with no coronavirus vaccine on the horizon economies may have to put up with rolling shutdowns over the next 12 to 18 months. Paraphrasing Churchill, Morgan Stanley says we are not at the end or even the beginning of the end when it comes to the coronavirus, but perhaps the end of the beginning, so the “path to reopening the economy will likely take time”.

Markets have become more hopeful of late, but investors may need to be patient and assume that further twists and turns lie ahead.

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