The Nifty Fifty appeared to rise up from the ocean; it was as though all of the U.S. but Nebraska had sunk into the sea. The two-tier market really consisted of one tier and a lot of rubble down below. What held the Nifty Fifty up? The same thing that held up tulip-bulb prices long ago in Holland – popular delusions and the madness of crowds. The delusion was that these companies were so good that it didn’t matter what you paid for them; their inexorable growth would bail you out.

– Forbes Magazine, 1977, The Nifty Fifty Revisited

Blue Chip Performance: 1973-1974
Du Pont -58.4%
Eastman Kodak -62.1%
Exxon -46.9%
Ford Motor -64.8%
General Electric -60.5%
General Motors -71.2%
Goodyear -63.0%
IBM -58.8%
McDonalds -72.4%
Mobil -59.8%
Motorola -54.3%
PepsiCo -67.0%
Philip Morris -50.3%
Polaroid -90.2%
Sears -66.2%
Sony -80.9%
Westinghouse -83.1%

We forget.

One of the striking things about bull markets is that they often end in confident exuberance, while simultaneously deteriorating from the inside. We’ve certainly observed this sort of selectivity during the past year. The market advance in 2019 fully recovered the market losses of late-2018, fueled by a wholesale reversal of Fed policy, hopes for a “phase one” trade deal, and as noted below, a bit of confusion about what actually constitutes “quantitative easing.”

Yet for all the bullish exuberance, speculative enthusiasm, and fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) we’ve observed among investors in recent weeks, and indeed, in the past two years, the fact is that a pullback of just 11% in the S&P 500 would place the total return of the S&P 500 Index behind the return on Treasury bills since the January 26, 2018 market high. Given current overextended extremes, the entire gain of the S&P 500 since early-2018 could be given up in a handful of trading sessions.

Recall, for example, that the S&P 500 lost 11% in the 15 sessions following the March 2000 peak, 12.5% in the 30 sessions following the September 2000 correction high, and over 10% in the month following the October 2007 market peak. Initial losses from overextended peaks are almost designed to provide limited opportunity for exit. That kind of initial decline is often followed by a “fast, furious and prone to failure” rally to clear short-term oversold conditions, followed by repeated declines to dramatically lower levels.

From our perspective, probably the most striking feature of the period since the January 2018 high is that except for a few brief whipsaws, market internals have failed to recruit the sort of “internal uniformity” that typically defines robust speculation. Instead, we continue to observe the sort of tepid participation and internal divergence that was characteristic of the final advances of the 2000 tech bubble and the 2007 mortgage bubble.

The fact is that a pullback of just 11% in the S&P 500 would place the total return of the S&P 500 Index behind the return on Treasury bills since the January 26, 2018 market high. Given current overextended extremes, the entire gain of the S&P 500 since early-2018 could be given up in a handful of trading sessions.