Client Letter

An Excellent First Quarter for Stocks

The first quarter is in the books, and it was an excellent one for stocks. The S&P 500 index rode a resilient U.S. economy, easing inflation, rising corporate profits, and anticipation of summertime rate cuts from the Federal Reserve (Fed) to solid gains in March, the fifth straight winning month, and the best first quarter since 2019.
With stocks having done so well, it’s natural to think about selling. If you haven’t rebalanced in a while and hold more equities than targets, shifting some stocks into bonds or alternative investments may make sense. If your investing time horizon is long, the case for trimming equities is stronger because valuations matter more three to five years out.

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Markets Warming Up

As spring approaches, the weather is starting to warm up. For the stock market, the temperature has been rising for a while now. In fact, since December 2023, the S&P 500 has not experienced a pullback of even 2%. Strong starts to years tend to signal more gains ahead, so this calm market may not precede a storm. In fact, when the S&P 500 has been up in January and February, it has gained an average of 11% over the rest of the year and has been higher in 26 out of 28 cases.

Here’s some more good news. The market’s process of adjusting to fewer interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve (Fed) could be mostly over, with the Fed and the bond market generally aligned on the path of rates. Some upward pressure on yields is possible as this debate evolves and some components of inflation remain sticky, but with rate cuts forthcoming, there is a limit to how much higher rates will go. Stable interest rates can help support lofty stock valuations and reverse early-year losses in the bond market.

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Solid Start to 2024

Stocks are off to a solid start in 2024. January gains are particularly enjoyable because of the old adage from the Stock Trader’s Almanac, “As goes January, so goes the year.” Nearly 75 years of historical data shows that when the S&P 500 has risen in January, the average gain for the remainder of the year has been about 12%. This January, the S&P 500 was up 1.6%.

Stocks have also historically fared well after the broad index has reached a new all-time high, as the S&P 500 did last month for the first time in over two years. The average 12-month gain after a new high, with more than a 12-month wait between those highs, has been nearly 12%, with gains 13 out of 14 times.

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Important Lessons from 2023

Stocks defied the skeptics in a very unpredictable 2023. The Dow Jones finished at an all-time record high on December 28, and the S&P 500 came within a whisker of a fresh all-time high after the index rallied more than 20% for the year.

It wasn’t only stock investors who had plenty to cheer about. Bond portfolios, which struggled mightily along with stocks in 2022, staged a furious late-year rally. Bloomberg’s broad bond market benchmark returned a solid 5.5% for the year after being negative year to date as late as October.

Last year was especially gratifying given the pessimism at the outset. It also offers some important lessons for investors:

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A November to Remember 

Solid gains for both stocks and bonds gave investors a November to remember. As financial markets continue to defy skeptics, I’m reminded of a quote from Warren Buffett’s long-time partner and one of the greatest investors of our time, Charlie Munger, who passed away last week. “The world is full of foolish gamblers, and they will not do as well as the patient investors.” We couldn’t agree more at LPL Research. Patient investors have been rewarded in 2023 and will continue to be.

Increasing confidence in a soft landing for the U.S. economy has shifted the focus away from rate hikes and toward eventual cuts, helping to pull long-term interest rates down and encouraging market participants to pay higher prices for stocks relative to expected earnings.

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