As you read the newspaper or listen to the evening news, you hear a litany of reasons explaining our turbulent stock market: the economic recovery has stalled; earnings have disappointed; oil prices are high; deflation seems just around the corner. And to further complicate our nation’s economic situation, the threat of war with Iraq looms on the horizon. It makes a certain amount of sense that the market should be encountering instability as a result of these concerns. But they don’t adequately explain the sharp deterioration in confidence that has gripped not just our nation, but countries around the globe.

It is the combination of all of these factors which has led U.S. investors to what has become a crisis of confidence. Confidence is indeed depressed but the question is why has the result been so unusually harsh? Though our situation seems grim, we must remember that oil prices have been high in the past; the pace of economic growth, while somewhat disappointing, is still positive; deflation is under the control of the Fed; and earnings are up. But upon further inspection, one can see that our market seems to be falling into a cycle. The economy is weak because the market has drained consumer confidence. This crisis of confidence leads to lower market growth and this lower growth means fewer profits. This further drains consumer confidence, the economy weakens further and thus the cycle continues…

There is, however, a light at the end of this tunnel. The cycle can be broken when investors examine the facts and focus on the reality that the U.S. economy, for all the disappointments it’s delivered, is not in bad shape. GDP growth is positive and productivity is rising sharply. The unemployment rate remains near 6%; job growth is positive, if slow; consumer durables and housing are strong; and inflation and interest rates are low. It’s easy for us to lose sight of these fundamental supports when growth doesn’t necessarily meet expectations.

In the short-term, stray factors can influence stock prices and cause valuations to deviate from fair value. Sometimes these deviations can be rather large and last for quite some time, as we saw in the late ‘90s. But eventually the fundamental principles of capitalism will overcome, and the market will reflect a fair price that’s based on real earnings growth. In every market environment, good or bad, there are always opportunities and risks. A good investor will find some of the opportunities and avoid most of the risks. In 2003, most investors will once again be surprised by the market – missing the best opportunities. What will you do?

Published in Westlake Magazine – February 2003