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As stocks rise, so does anxiety: Time to get out?

By Bernard Condon

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 10:34 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 10:34 a.m. MDT

Traders monitor stock prices at the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

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NEW YORK — Is it time to cash out of stocks?

The market has nearly tripled in a little over five years, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index closed above 2,000 for the first time on Tuesday. With each record, the temptation grows to take your winnings and flee.

Plenty of experts think stocks are about to drop. But many others offer compelling arguments for the rally to continue for years.

The bulls point to a strengthening U.S. economy. They also like that companies have plenty of money to keep buying back their own stock.

The bears argue that stocks already reflect years of future profit gains. They also note that many economies around the world are stumbling and that U.S. interest rates could rise soon.

Remember, though, that even the best investors find it nearly impossible to time the market to catch the lows and highs.

The bull and bear cases in detail:

BULL CASE

A STRONGER ECONOMY

Four of the past five bull markets have ended with investors selling in a recession, or bailing out because they anticipated one. The odds of a downturn anytime soon? Not very high, at least based on the latest economic reports and forecasts.

The U.S. economy is expected to grow 1.5 percent this year, then 3.4 percent in 2015, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates released Wednesday. One reason is companies are hiring at the fastest pace in eight years.

"This recovery will last several more years," says Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management.

Analysts expect earnings from companies in the S&P 500 to rise 8 percent this year, then 12 percent in 2015, according to S&P Capital IQ.

LOW INTEREST RATES

Interest rates are low, and that's been great for stocks. They help lower borrowing costs for consumers and businesses. They also hold down interest payments on bonds, making stocks look more attractive by comparison.

Many investors expect the Federal Reserve to start raising short-term rates in the middle of next year. If the Fed keeps the hikes small, the stock market might shrug it off.

That's what happened in the last round of Fed hikes, in 2004. The S&P 500 gained 9 percent that year.

Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, notes that the short-term rates that helped drag stocks down at the end of the last seven bull markets were all higher than 4 percent. With the Fed holding those rates near zero, it could take many hikes for borrowing costs to rise enough to cause damage.

BUYBACK BOOM

One of the biggest forces in the stock rally so far is companies buying back their own shares. Companies in the S&P 500 have spent $1.9 trillion on buybacks since the bull market began in March 2009, according to Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

By creating more demand for stocks, buybacks have kept prices rising even as others sell. Mutual funds, investment brokers, foreigners and pension funds have been net sellers of stocks over most of the last five years, according to the Fed.

Companies have pulled back sharply from their near-record buying in the first quarter, but their buybacks are still pushing up prices. And companies in the S&P 500 still have more than $1.1 trillion in cash, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

BEAR CASE

STOCKS NOT CHEAP

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