Magazine article The Spectator

Ageing Bull

Magazine article The Spectator

Ageing Bull

Article excerpt

There were no fireworks, and not much champagne. Indeed, it wasn't an anniversary that many people noticed.

But on 9 March, the bull market in equities was five years old. It was on that day back in 2009 that the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the key global benchmark for stocks, edged down another 80 points to close at 6,547, its lowest level since 1997. Although no one knew at the time, that was the bottom, and it was to go no lower. From then onwards, the recovery was under way.

In London , our own low po in t came three days earlier, on 6 March 2009, when the FTSE100 index touched 3,530. There is an old saying among traders that 'nobody rings a bell at the bottom of the market'.

If they did, however, and you'd been lucky enough to hear it chime, you would have done very well. The Dow has since climbed all the way back to 16,000. The FTSE100 is bouncing around the 6,500 mark, and at the close of last year was getting close to 7,000.

You would have doubled or almost tripled your money simply by putting it into bluechip companies in two of the most developed markets in the world.

The trouble is, five years is a heck of a long run for a bull market. Take the Dow, for example. In the past century, the index has only chalked up five other rallies that lasted that long, and two of those rather worryingly came to a sorry end within a few days of the fifth anniversary. If it can just hang in there until April, this will be the fourth longest rally in history.

That is already taking it into elite company. The big daddy of bull markets was the huge run up in stock prices from 1990 to 2000, culminating in the dotcom bubble. That lasted for 117 months. Then there was the run from 1921 to 1929, which lasted 97 months, before it all came very messily unstuck. The rally after the second world war ran for 70 months from 1949 until 1956, and the bull market of the 1980s lasted, like this one, for 60 months, until the crash of 1987. So by any historical standards, this has already been an exceptionally long run.

The question is whether it is too long.

Are shares are now heading for a fall?

Once the market turns, the results can be very nasty indeed. The last bull market, for example, ended in October 2007, and from that point until the bottom was reached in 2009 the Dow lost 57 per cent of its value.

The problem is working out where we are right now. There are a lot of different ways of judging these things. Measured by sheer length, as we have seen, this is already a long bull market, and can't last much longer. Yet it hasn't been especially strong. You'd have done well if you bought in the spring of 2009, but not as well as in some earlier rallies. In the great rally of the 1990s, you would have quadrupled your money over a decade. …

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