Investor Psychology

This Market Indicator Suggests a Continued Bull Market

There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for trading with borrowed money, despite low interest rates. That’s a contrarian bullish sign.

The current bull market, which started in early 2009, has been called “the most hated bull market in history.” It seems investors have been waiting in vain for that other shoe to drop only to see the market march higher with nary a correction.

Stocks climb a proverbial wall of worry, and negative sentiment among rank-and-file investors is actually a contrarian bullish sign. It is when sentiment gets one-sidedly bullish and investors throw caution to the wind that you know a major top is near.

But with the S&P 500 now sitting near all-time highs… and tripling in value from its 2009 crisis lows… is it really fair to call this rally “hated”?

Let’s take a look at investor trading on margin. When investors are feeling bullish, they are a lot more likely to trade aggressively… and to borrow money to do it.

Thinkstock

As you can see in the chart, investor margin debt as a percentage of market cap does indeed tend to surge leading into a major market top and tends to fall dramatically during a market decline. We saw investor margin debt jump from less than 1% of market cap to nearly 2% during the great 1990s tech bubble. And it had another major spike during the bull market of the mid 2000s.

Today, we certainly don’t see a lot of investor enthusiasm for margin trading, and margin debt is actually trending lower. We’re still at levels that are high by historical standards, but much of this can be explained by two factors:

  1. Ease of margin trading with discount online brokers
  2. Falling interest rates over the past 30 years…and particularly over the past 6 years.

Remember, the Fed has kept short-term lending rates at close to zero for six years now, so it’s natural that investors will borrow more aggressively on margin. “Free money” makes carry trades that wouldn’t be profitable under “normal” conditions worth doing. Seen in this context, today’s margin debt levels are far less impressive and certainly far less indicative of investor enthusiasm.

So, at least by this metric, our bull market today really is more unloved than hated, at least by the standards of recent major tops.

About the Author

Charles Lewis Sizemore

Chief Investment Officer, Sizemore Capital Managaement LLC

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA is the Chief Investment Officer of Sizemore Capital Management LLC, a registered investment advisor based in Dallas, Texas. Charles is a frequent guest on CNBC, Bloomberg TV and Fox Business News, has been quoted in Barron's Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post and is a frequent contributor to Yahoo Finance, Forbes Moneybuilder, GuruFocus, MarketWatch and InvestorPlace.com.

Most Popular

Senate Passes $3,000 Child Tax Credit for 2021
Coronavirus and Your Money

Senate Passes $3,000 Child Tax Credit for 2021

The provision would temporarily increase the child tax credit to $3,000 or $3,600 per child for most families and have 50% of it paid in advance by th…
March 6, 2021
Senate Passes Bill with More "Targeted" Stimulus Payments
Coronavirus and Your Money

Senate Passes Bill with More "Targeted" Stimulus Payments

The Senate finally passes the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill. But fewer people will get a third stimulus check under the Senate version than under th…
March 6, 2021
Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021

Recommended

What to Do with a Windfall with Markets at All-Time Highs
investing

What to Do with a Windfall with Markets at All-Time Highs

All at once or a little at a time? Follow this road map to decide how – and when – to invest a large sum.
March 3, 2021
Are You Gambling or Investing? Here’s How to Tell
investing

Are You Gambling or Investing? Here’s How to Tell

Gambling and investing are two very different things, but people sometimes get them mixed up. One’s good for a cheap thrill (if you’re lucky), but the…
March 2, 2021
Do I Have to Pay Taxes on Gains From Stocks?
Becoming an Investor

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on Gains From Stocks?

If you enjoyed stock market success in 2020, you might owe the IRS. Here's our quick, easy guide to paying taxes on your stock gains.
March 1, 2021
ESG Investing: You Can Align Your Investments with Your Values, But Should You?
investing

ESG Investing: You Can Align Your Investments with Your Values, But Should You?

Investing with environmental, social and governance values in mind has gained in popularity, but is it a solid way to grow your wealth?
March 1, 2021