Stuart Chaussee

2015 Market Outlook – Good times don’t always get better

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Many of the same market characteristics and behavior exhibited by investors at the height of our 2007  bubble in real estate and stocks are present today.

Risks increase as markets and valuations rise, since the projected returns, based on historical values and price trends, decline. As a bull market in stocks or real estate ages and prices rise, investors become more risk-friendly, looking for greater returns, even though history would suggest the opposite will occur. When investors are willing to accept more risk, as a result of perhaps recent positive performance, the rational investor should be skeptical of future returns continuing at the same pace. So, why would the unemotional, level-headed investor buy more of a stock or asset class as it becomes pricier and the projected returns decline? It doesn’t make sense, yet this is how most investors behave.

When investors have few worries and are complacent, often because recent returns have been steady and positive, (as has been the case of late), they develop a tolerance for risk and pay higher prices for assets. During periods of high valuations or bubbles, as price-to-earnings multiples rise, low or even negative projected returns become more likely. So, it’s critical to recognize when risks are elevated and projected returns look unattractive.

The degree of risk present in the market is determined by the behavior of the buyers and sellers. At extremes, greed and the possibility of easy profits encourages the herd to pile into investments. This is what pushes markets into dangerous bubble territory. It also stems from a belief that the good times will continue, indefinitely, and increased risk isn’t actually considered increased at the time it is assumed. The irrational investor doesn’t recognize that risks have actually increased as prices and multiples rise..

Where we stand today, I see many of the same market characteristics and behavior exhibited by investors that I saw at the height of our most recent bubble in real estate and stocks in 2007.We have low levels of skepticism and fear with many participants willing to take on higher risks with little awareness that the projected returns don’t warrant the risk assumed. This clearly has the makings of another bubble and one could argue we are already in one in the stock market. Currently, one sees few assets that investors are willing to sell, except at premium prices and buyers are increasingly willing to pay higher prices for an asset they were perhaps unwilling to buy at discounted prices a few years ago.

Most investors are unaware that their behavior causes market risk to rise and fall. Risks rise as investors accumulate more stocks and real estate and drive prices up. And, the opposite is true if they are unloading assets in a panic (bear-market behavior) the market actually becomes less risky as future returns look more attractive. The current increased confidence of the retail investor and even the professional fund manager should make the skeptical or contrarian observer worried as projected returns are reduced due to rising prices. And, the opposite is true too. If investors are of the mindset that “I won’t buy that at any price because it’s too risky,” there might be a great opportunity to profit for those who can recognize it.

A good investor can control risk, first and foremost, because he recognizes it exists and recognizes when it is elevated. However, since there are more good years than bad in the stock market, this recognition of risk may only become apparent in bad years (negative market returns). Risk control in anticipation of a bear market or correction is critical, and the objective of losing less than the market itself or other participants is a worthy pursuit. To not lose any money during these drawdowns would obviously be ideal.

Right now, given the strong bull-market returns we have seen over the past six years and with stock prices yet again pushing all-time high valuations (the cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratio is now 27), I believe it makes sense for all investors to recognize and control risk. Here are a handful of relatively conservative stocks for 2015 that may meet your objectives of moderate risk and growth potential with decent annual income too.

Top 2015 Picks for Risk-Adjusted Returns (low volatility and moderate gain potential):

Name                                   Symbol                % Current Yield                 Beta

Coca-Cola                           KO                       3.0                                        .70

General Mills                      GIS                       3.4                                        .60

Johnson & Johnson         JNJ                       2.6                                        .75

Microsoft                           MSFT                  2.6                                        .90

Procter & Gamble PG                        3.0                                        .60

At the time of publication, Stuart Chaussee and/or his clients held positions in Coca-Cola, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble. Holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell securities.

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