Slowly but surely, the world has been moving from compromise and coordination to name-calling and tribalism. We read news of impeachment inquiries, trade wars, mass demonstrations, accusations of treason, worsening geopolitical tensions, conspiracy theories, fake news, and Twitter curses, sometimes all in the same day. The current period will likely be studied closely by historians trying to make sense of the many seemingly irreconcilable conflicts that have surfaced.
As the S&P 500 Index reaches all-time highs, how can the 10-year Treasury bond yield simultaneously be declining towards all-time lows?
The S&P 500 Index generated a total return of ‐9.0% in December, which was the worst December return since 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. The quarterly return of the S&P 500 Index was ‐13.5%, representing the worst fourth quarter return since 2008, which was in the midst of the Financial Crisis. Outside of cash, there was no place to hide for investors in 2018, which was just the opposite of 2017 when nearly every asset class generated a nicely profitable return. Judging by the December decline in market prices, it appears that the wheels may be coming off the bus.
Famed investor Warren Buffett generated fantastic returns over the course of his life by following a specific strategy of making investments in deeply undervalued companies when nobody else was interested in them. In the example quoted above, Warren Buffett took advantage of an outstanding buying opportunity in South Korea, once again committing capital to investments that were unpopular while avoiding those investments that were popular.
“The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘this time it’s different.’” It’s different this time, and it’s also not different this time. It’s different this time because the credit-driven U.S. economy is burdened with a monumental level of financial obligations relative to GDP.
History often repeats itself; when the economy is persistently weak, populism and trade protectionism tend to rise.