Revisiting the Great Crashes… And How They Made Sense

Just 75 years ago, over a span of two days… October 28, 1929 to October 29, 1929… the Dow Jones Industrial Index crashed — dropping 24% in only two days.

At the hope of not sounding too corny, after the crash of `29, the market started rebuilding itself. No, it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the U.S. suffered through the Great Depression as a result. But slowly, and surely, the stock market moved higher. Investors were able to find bargains after that bubble burst. (You may remember hearing about the famous words of John D. Rockefeller after the crash: “Over the past few days my son and I have started to buy some stocks.” The joke circulating at the time was, “Who the hell else had any money left?”)

On October 19, 1987, the market crashed again. In only one day the Dow lost 22.6%. And once more the market slowly rebuilt itself. Bargains were found amongst stocks, and investors seeking quality equities moved in to buy them. Despite the somber days following October 19, 1987, we enjoyed one of the greatest stock bull markets of this century — from 1987 to 1999.

Where am I going with all this? Here’s where…

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I prefer quick pain (like 1929 and 1987) to the slow, gradual, clawing pain we’ve experienced in the Dow stocks from 2000 to today. In the past five years, the stocks that make up the world’s most widely followed index have dropped 14%. If we take into account even the smallest bit of inflation, say 2% a year, the five-year loss is more like 25%.

But this is what really concerns me: After the tech bubble of 1999 burst, interest rates fell to their lowest level in 46 years. The Federal Funds Rate actually fell to 1%. Interest rates were much higher following the crashes of 1929 and 1987 — and those markets recovered!

What is the market telling us, if the lowest interest rates in over a generation haven’t been able to rally big-cap stocks to new highs? Yes, I understand there is little selling pressure and little buying pressure in the market, but those low rates should have caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to surpass its high of five years ago. But it didn’t happen… and only the market knows why. While we’ll find out why in the couple of years ahead of us, I believe the big-cap action is a bad omen for what is next to come.