Wall Street often resembles a blindfolded person looking in a darkened closet for a pair of black shoes that isn't there. With the Dow taking another battering in the past week, another round of futility is under way: the search for "capitulation."
There's a belief that the market can hit bottom only when vast numbers of investors finally capitulate, throwing in the towel and selling off the last of their stock portfolios. In theory, if you could spot this moment, you could make a killing buying at the bottom.
There are two problems here. First, capitulation is almost impossible to define. Second, even if you could get a positive ID on capitulation, that might not do you any good. Market lows aren't necessarily marked by tidal waves of frantic selling; just as frequently, stocks bottom out in a dull and lonely atmosphere as trading dries up and most investors no longer even care. Bear markets often end not in capitulation but stupefaction.
"The idea is, 'We'll know we've hit bottom when the fat lady capitulates,' " says finance professor Robert A. Schwartz of Baruch College at the City University of New York. "But she could just sputter instead, or capitulate more than once, or slowly slide around along the bottom." Warns Prof. Schwartz: "On the way down, you get a lot of faux capitulation. And how do you know, until after the fact, whether it is friend or faux?"
Oddly, even market pundits who believe in capitulation admit they can't define it. "Capitulation is a state of mind, without any specific definition," says Al Goldman, chief market strategist for Wachovia Securities. "You can't measure it; it's best identified in hindsight." Hugh A. Johnson, chief investment officer at Johnson Illington Advisors, says almost wistfully: "I wish I could quantify it for you so I could say, 'Here, this is capitulation.' But a lot of this is anecdotal. Talk to enough investors and you get an idea of whether we have capitulation."
Talk to them later, however, and you may get a different idea altogether. What seems like capitulation today will no longer qualify if the market goes even lower tomorrow. Mr. Goldman puts it best: "I think I'm right that we had capitulation on Oct. 10 [the day the Dow lost nearly 700 points]. But if we keep going down from here, then I would have to say that I was wrong and that it wasn't capitulation."
This is somewhat like insisting that your pet is a dog until you notice that it is meowing.
In truth, bear markets often end not in a crescendo of selling but a cloud of indifference. For example, take Dec. 6, 1974, a day that will long live in market infamy. The Dow closed at 577.60, down 45% from its levels in January 1973. Total trading volume was a tepid 15.5 million shares; a few days earlier, it had totaled only 7.4 million, tying the lowest level in more than three years. Lucien Hooper, one of the nation's leading security analysts, told The Wall Street Journal that day that the market was "just waiting the bad times out." Far from throwing in the towel, most investors weren't even at ringside.
"The most interesting thing about [the 1974 market bottom] was its dullness," veteran fund manager Ralph Wanger recalled to me. "It wasn't a crash, it was a mudslide. You came in, watched the market go down a few points and went home. The next day you went through the same thing all over again." And then, without a moment's warning, the bull woke up and took off. By Jan. 6, 1975, the market had shot up 10%, and a year after that the Dow had risen 54% from its 1974 low.
In short, bear markets sometimes end with a bang, sometimes with a whimper. You're more likely to see a unicorn in your backyard or a chimera in your kitchen than you are to spot an indisputable sign of market capitulation. The obsessive attention so many investors are paying to the huge swings in the Dow suggests that we may not have hit bottom yet; stupefaction seems not to have set in yet. What we can be quite certain of, however, is that stock markets around the world are already on sale. If you have cash to spare, put some to work. If you don't, save up until you do. But don't kid yourself into thinking that you will ever get a clear signal out of such an unclear indicator.