investing

How Stocks Could Rise 50% More From Here

For long-term stock market bulls, the sluggish economy of the Obama years is actually a plus.

Call me crazy, but I think the current bull market, which has already propelled stocks 160% from their March 2009 lows, has another three or four years to run. Stocks could rise another 50% from here.

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I present this less as a prediction than as a plausible scenario. If you're like the people I know, you probably think I've been spending time in a cave smoking something funny. We all know about the risks that could stomp on my rosy scenario. Europe could implode. Ditto China. A terrorist attack could derail growth. Without a super-easy Fed, the economy could wither. Dysfunction in Washington could wreck everything. (One note here: Many people would be more bullish if someone else were president. But investors should always check their politics at the door. Stocks have done wonderfully under Reagan, Clinton and Obama, and I don't know anyone who likes all three of them.)

Also, beware of the stopped-clock prognosticators who are living off one good call. Robert Prechter, who called the 1987 crash but whose calls since have been dreadful, predicts a bear market worse than anything in nearly 80 years. Harry Dent, who got the '90s right, said the Dow would hit 44,000 in 2008. (He missed by 35,000 points, which is hard to do.) Dent has since done a backflip and now says the market will crash. Desperate headline-seekers tend not to give good advice.

My contention is that the “new normal" (2% annual growth in gross domestic product since June 2009 and persistently high unemployment) will morph into the “normal normal, with growth of 3% to 4% and a steady decline in joblessness. For long-term bulls, the sluggish economy of the Obama years is actually a plus. The excesses often seen after a 160% advance are nowhere to be found. Inflation is slowing, not accelerating. The labor market is slack. And household debt is shrinking, not rising.

That last point is crucial. By the third quarter of 2012, Americans' household debt payments were 10.6% of after-tax income, the lowest since 1983. The debt-service load peaked at 14.1% in late 2007.

Low interest rates may be awful for savers, but they are great for borrowers and stock investors. And the benefits of today's near-record-low rates may persist even when rates inevitably rise (as they have already begun to do). Last year, my wife and I refinanced our mortgage to a fixed-rate, 20-year loan at 3.75%. That super-low rate will give us more money to spend and invest in the coming years.

Wealth effect. A strong stock market and the rebound in home prices mean that household wealth has increased dramatically. The pent-up demand for vehicles and homes is enormous. Economist Maury Harris, of UBS, says housing starts this year could reach 1.1 million and go to 1.35 million in 2014, up from 781,000 in 2012.

Four other factors buoy my optimism. First, the economy has held up respectably in the face of higher taxes and spending cuts. Second, the rise in health care costs has slowed significantly. The prospect of energy independence and the potential for an abundant supply of cheap natural gas to spark a new manufacturing revolution are enormously important. Finally, I think baby-boomers will put more money into stocks than anticipated as they desperately try to meet their retirement needs.

So how do you play this nirvana if it comes to pass? My picks to benefit from the housing recovery are Bank of America (symbol BAC) and Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC), which owns valuable properties in Honolulu, Houston and New York City. In the auto sector, I am betting on Ford (F), General Motors (GM) and parts maker Federal-Mogul (FDML). I own all of these stocks.

Columnist Andrew Feinberg manages a New York City-based hedge fund called CJA Partners.

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