Press "Enter" to skip to content

Dow 5,000? Yes, It Could Happen


(Brett Ardens)  Don’t be surprised if stock markets stabilize or bounce back in the next couple of days. Markets are due at least a short-term rally after this week’s dramatic plunge. This usually happens after a sell-off, no matter what the next big move is going to be. It doesn’t mean anything.

But anyone who automatically assumes this is another easy “buying opportunity” is talking nonsense.

For the past couple of years, Wall Street’s perma-bulls have had it their way. They’ve been gloating openly as stocks went up and up and up, seemingly without pause.
It got to the point that those warning about valuations and danger signs had been mocked into silence — or were simply ignored.

Not now.

I don’t mean to be alarmist or to induce panic, but someone needs to tell the public that there is a plausible scenario in which the U.S. stock market now collapses by another 70% until the Dow Jones Industrial Average falls to about 5,000. The index tumbled more than 3% to 16,460 on Friday.

Dow 5,000? Really?

For 30 years, stock prices have been increasingly boosted by financial factors: collapsing interest rates and Federal Reserve manipulation, culminating most recently in ‘quantitative easing.’
I’m not predicting that will happen, but contrary to what the bulls tell you, it cannot be completely ruled out.

And even if that ranks as an outlier and a worst-case scenario, there are other, more likely scenarios where the Dow falls to somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000.

In other words, although this might be a buying opportunity, a serious reading of history suggests this week’s sell-off might also be the beginning.

Let me say on the record that I am not joining the perma-bears or extreme doom-mongers. I am simply pointing out that the perma-bulls have taken their own arguments way too far. The stock market is not doomed to collapse to oblivion, as some hysterics keep claiming. But it is not certain to keep going up by 10% a year, either. All those claiming that every sell-off is a buying opportunity, and that stocks “always outperform,” are lying to you.

Such a scenario can’t be completely ruled out

A true understanding of stock market history shows that Wall Street in the past has moved in long, long swings upwards and downwards, often taking years or even a generation or two. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the upward move that began in 1982 is one of them — and that the downward move that first began in 2000 has not ended.

As stock market historian Russell Napier points out in his book “Anatomy of the Bear,” on five occasions in the past 100 years — in 1921, 1932, 1949, 1974 and 1982 — those big downward moves have not ended until share valuations have fallen to just 30% of the replacement cost of company assets. That’s using a powerful, if little-known, economic metric known as Tobin’s q.
And, to cut to the chase, if Wall Street stocks followed the same path today that would take the Dow down to about 5,000, and the S&P 500 Index all the way down to around 600. (The S&P 500 slumped more than 3% to 1,971 on Friday.)


The “q” is a valuation that they don’t even mention in the training manuals for the official “financial planner” and financial-analyst exams. Your money manager has probably never heard of it. Or, if he has, he probably ranks it with astrology and the mystic rantings of Nostradamus.

But the “q” happens to have by far the most successful long-term track record of any stock market indicator.

It’s been better than the price-to-earnings ratio or quarterly earnings forecasts or economic growth rates or long-term interest rates or Federal Reserve minutes.

Independent analysts — such as professor Stephen Wright at London University and Andrew Smithers at Smithers & Co., a financial consultancy in London — have tracked it back over 100 years.

And in the past there has been no better guide for the long-term investor. It’s been even better than the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings measure, also known as the “Shiller PE” after Yale finance professor Robert Shiller (which also, incidentally, suggests U.S. stocks could plunge a long way from here).

The “q” looks at the net asset values of public companies and adjusts them for inflation. It makes some intuitive sense. Why would Widget Inc. be valued at $1 billion on the stock market if you could start the company from scratch for a lot less?

Right now, according to data from the U.S. Federal Reserve, the reading on the “q” is about 100%. (It was 106% at the last reading, on March 1, but since then the S&P 500 has fallen by about 6%.)

Since World War II, the average “q” reading has been about 70%. So if Wall Street tumbled just to its modern average valuation, that would take the Dow Jones Industrial Average down to about 12,000.

If we just look at the period 1949 to 1994 — in other words, before the gigantic, off-the-charts boom of the late 1990s — the historic average “q” reading for stocks was 57%. If the market falls to those levels, that would take the Dow to about 9,500.

And if the market fell to its historic bear market lows, namely 30% or so, that would mean a Dow of about 5,000.

Why might such a scenario happen? It’s not just about China, or Greece, or slowing earnings, or the “death cross” on Apple’s stock. It would be because, for the past 30 years, Wall Street stock prices have been increasingly boosted by financial factors: collapsing interest rates and Federal Reserve manipulation, culminating most recently in “quantitative easing.” But at some point, that game has to come to an end. When it does, it is possible — not certain, but possible — that valuation metrics could unwind all the way back down again.

Past performance, as they say on Wall Street, is no guarantee of future results. And that means there is absolutely no guarantee that share prices in the future will follow a similar path to the one seen in 1921, 1932, 1949, 1974 or 1982. I would consider that to be very much the outer range of possibilities.

The real reason to be worried right now isn’t that these scenarios are guaranteed or even likely. It’s that 99% of the people managing America’s money, probably including yours, assume that they are completely impossible. And no, they aren’t. Have you factored that into your plans?