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A Historical Cycle Bodes Ill for the Markets

January 6, 2012
A Historical Cycle Bodes Ill for the Markets

AT the turn of the last century, it was widely accepted that American stocks were virtually certain to be good long-term investments. Now, far fewer people are confident of that.

A major reason for the earlier confidence was that in the 15 years from the end of 1984 through the end of 1999, the total return of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was more than 740 percent, even after adjusting for inflation. That amounted to a compound annual real return of more than 15 percent.

At the end of 2011, by contrast, the 15-year return — from the end of 1996 — was just 3 percent. And most of those gains came in the first three years of the period. Since the end of 1999, the stock market has not come close to keeping up with inflation.

The first of the accompanying charts shows compound 15-year real returns on stock market investments from the period that ended in 1943 through the one that ended last month.

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