Trading Desk: How Long Can You “Stay The Course?”

The difference between optimists and pessimists on Wall Street (if there are any real pessimists) boils down to your time horizon. Optimists know that the future will ultimately be better than the past. Pessimists need convincing that they’ll live to see that happen.

Convincing the pessimists is where a lot of investment professionals actually spend the bulk of their time. They created the infamous phrase “stay the course.” It means “hang in there until the gloom clears.”

The problem with that, of course, is that nobody can hang in there forever. Everybody’s patience has a limit. With many of us, the limit comes with a price tag. You can’t stay the course beyond the point the cash runs out.

So with that in mind, I want to look out at the next few months and evaluate roughly when we might all be able to take a well-earned breath of relief, stop hanging in there and get back to earning money in the market again.

Today’s inflation number could have given us that relief, but it was clearly a bust. I’m not eagerly anticipating the market as a whole to move forward now before earnings season gets a chance to change the narrative.

That means hanging in there another few weeks if you’re a classic buy-and-hold index fund investor. Of course, if you have a trading mentality, you can squeeze a little upside out of the intervening time.

And if you trade high-volatility stocks or options, it’s business as usual. My options portfolios have kept humming along like normal in the last few weeks when the stocks have been plunging.

It’s hard for buy-and-hold investors to smile after a month when 95% of the S&P 500 lost money. You need a more opportunistic style to shave even a small gain out of that kind of market weather.

Earnings could give us what we need to get the market as a whole moving in the right direction again. I’m not especially optimistic, but it could happen.

If guidance is good, we all cheer. This was probably the worst quarter in terms of real (inflation-adjusted) earnings stagnation. After this, it gets better.

But if guidance points to continued deterioration ahead, we can forget the season. In that scenario, “stay the course” means we’ll need to wait until the end of October for a fresh read on inflation.

And if inflation remains hot, odds are good that the market is not going to come back before the end of the year. That means a cold Thanksgiving to go with a rapidly cooling economy.

I think we all knew it was going to be a relatively cold winter for the economy. Buckle up. Hunker down. We might need to “stay the course” for another couple of months before bright skies come.

Can you do that? I want you to be safe. Make sure you’re liquid enough to pay a few months of bills without liquidating a single position in your portfolio.

Every investor should have that kind of cash reservoir. Those who don’t are forced to sell good stocks into weakness, locking in a loss and cheating themselves out of the future recovery at the same time.

I’ve known a lot of hedge funds that had to liquidate great portfolios in order to make payroll or margin calls. We might see that happen. If you have cash when it happens, it’s a huge opportunity.

But either way, I don’t see a lot of instant gratification in the next two weeks. After that, if the market isn’t in a much better mood, it might take a month.

And if the bulls aren’t running the world a month from now, let’s see where the mood turns after the holidays. Patience might need to run another three months.

Next year will probably be a whole lot better . . . if nothing else, the year-over-year comparisons on inflation and earnings improve significantly. Investors will suddenly feel a lot more cheerful about buying in.

Three months. Maybe four. We’ve already survived nine months of a bear market. Those of us who’ve been in the market for a little while have survived multiple bear markets.

The future has to be better than the present. If not, stocks aren’t really for you. I know you still believe in the future. And I hope this gives you the confidence that you’re actually going to get there.

“Hang in there.” It’s more than a phrase. Sometimes the market doesn’t want us to buy or sell. It wants us to hold. Don’t make any moves until you see the real recovery. Trade around the volatility all you want, of course.