The individual investor is pessimistic. Here is what that means for the market
The percentage of investors feeling bearish about the stock market is reaching levels last seen during the Great Recession, according to a weekly survey from the American Association of Individual Investors. That negative sentiment could mean that an opportunity is around the corner. Just over three-fifths, or 60.87%, of the approximately 300 investors surveyed reported feeling “bearish,” or that prices will go down, about the market in the seven-day period ending Sept. 22. It’s the fifth time the percentage of bearish respondents that broke a 60% threshold since data began being collected in 1987. The last two times were in October 2008 and March 2009, as the US dealt with the collapse of the housing market and its ripple effects across the economy. Before that, the percentage of bearish investors hitting this level at two points in 1990. In those scenarios, strong returns for the S&P 500 followed a year later. A glimmer of hope — for those who are patient The survey tracks what is considered a contrary indicator. A high number of bearish investors, for example, means that many have already sold. This may signal to market observers that stocks could bounce back with little likelihood of further sell-offs as it has historically during periods with high shares of bears. The latest survey period captured the tail end of a tough week for the markets, as skittish investors pushed major indexes down and brought the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite to their worst week since June. “This doesn’t mean stocks will necessarily bottom today and rally,” said Ryan Detrick, the chief market strategist at Carson Group. “But we feel comfortable in saying a year from now stocks will likely be a good deal higher, and this period will have been an opportunity for savvy investors.” To be sure, market observers say investors should remember that this is only one piece of data. Willie Delwiche, an investment strategist at All Star Charts, said this moment is unique because he has not seen the correlation between sentiment and action — a connection he said has dissipated since the pandemic began. “People are saying one thing and doing something else because of the circumstances in this environment,” Delwiche said. “Those contrarian signals work best when you have both of those lining up at the same time.” Equity exposure remains high. Delwiche said this period is unique because it typically bears other considerations to invest, but alternatives such as bonds also feel unappealing. Investors currently have higher levels of equity exposure than they did in past periods when this sentiment has prompted a bounce, he said. “It makes it feel less like an extreme and more like a bad mood that investors might be experiencing right now,” he said. The percentage of investors feeling bearish in this seven-day period is about double that of an average week, in which about 30% of those surveyed would report thinking prices would go down. About 18% of the participants said they feel bullish, while 21% said they feel neutral. The share of bullish investors ranks among the 20 lowest weeks in the survey’s history, according to the AAII. The latest Investors Intelligence survey of financial newsletter editors showed the percentage of bulls at 30%, down from 32.4% last week. In mid-June, when the S&P 500 reached its bear market low, the number of bulls was just 26.5%. Readings below 30% “suggest high cash positions and thus lowered risk for longs for contrarians,” according to the investment service. The number of bears rose to 31.4% from 28.2% last week, Investors Intelligence found. — CNBC’s Scott Schnipper contributed to this report.