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Domestic equity returns have surprised investors to the upside this year. The S&P 500 is up ~24% and the S&P has posted 26 new highs in 2019. Over the past 10 years, the S&P has recorded 233 new highs and a 481% cumulative return. The chart shows that many of the market highs were backloaded into the second half of the current recovery as economic growth and investor confidence increased. The S&P 500 did not reach its post-recession peak until 2013: four years after the financial crisis. During those four years, market volatility was elevated, but steadily decreasing.
2019’s market environment has been very different from 2009. The first contrast is valuations. In March 2009, the S&P 500 traded at 11.2 times forward earnings and today it trades at 19.2 times forward earnings, higher than its 10-year average of 16 times. Second, while market volatility on average has decreased by 50% since 2009, volatility (measured by the VIX index) — as shown by the orange diamond — remains elevated since 2017’s lows. Lastly, geopolitical risk has predominantly shifted from Europe and its sovereign debt crisis to the U.S.-China trade war, the latter of which is still not resolved. Luckily, U.S. businesses and especially U.S. consumers have proved resilient through these stressors. If the status quo continues into 2020, we can only hope for more of the same: positive equity returns albeit with higher market volatility and geopolitical risks.
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