Price Plateaus

October 20, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Occasionally the stock market plateaus for six to nine months. The competing market sentiments – positive and negative – that cause a price plateau usually turn in one direction or another. Rarely does this leveling period last for twelve months or more. When those indecisive conditions don’t resolve for a year, what happens next?

Let’s begin by looking at shorter duration plateaus which occur more frequently. The market gets a bit too exuberant or conflicting economic signals make it more difficult to predict the future. Some investors read the data and reach for risk; others read the same tea leaves and opt for safety.

In 1999, near the peak of the dot-com fever, prices plateaued for seven months before going onto new highs in 2000 . Again, the market paused for much of the year.  It was the end of the huge bull market of the 1990s.

In the beginning of 2004, investor indecision caused a leveling of price action after market sentiment had turned positive in 2003. The dot-com bust, the 2001 recession, the 9-11 tragedy, and the Enron and accounting scandals had combined to cut stock values in half by the spring of 2003. Investor optimism following the tax cut package of 2003 suffered when employment gains in late 2003 turned erratic. Investors were wary. Would this be a double-dip recession like the early 1980s? 

A relaxation of financial regulations helped spur more residential investment and the market continued upward. The erratic gains in employment were attributed to seasonal volatility in the construction industry. Many factors contributed to the complex international financial environment that spurred a boom in housing. In 2007, investors began to question market evaluations and prices plateaued for six months.

Two recent price stalls lasting more than twelve months seem to buck the trend of shorter-term plateaus. That there have been two in less than five years is concerning. In mid-2014, oil prices began a steep decline. Lower commodity input prices helped the profits of the broad market but by early 2015, investors grew worried that this decline was a reaction to a broad economic downturn. For 18 months, prices leveled. As voters went to the polls in early November 2016, prices were the same as in February 2015. Some voters chose an inexperienced Donald Trump as an alternative to Clinton 3.0 or Obama 3.0.

Shortly after the passage of tax reform in December 2017, investor optimism hit a peak and it has barely surpassed that high since then. The optimism of this year’s gains has only balanced the pessimism and losses of last year’s final quarter. What will happen after this? I don’t know. Investors need to think like fighters who stay balanced on their feet because they don’t know where the next punch is coming from.


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