A 100-year bear market?
Today's headlines confirm Prechter's dark predictions
By Paul B. Farrell, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 9:17 PM ET Oct. 13, 2004
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ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. (CBS.MW) -- Ten years ago Robert Prechter, a brilliant market technician and editor of the Elliott Wave Theorist newsletter, sent me a review copy of his book "At the Crest of the Wave: A Forecast of the Great Bear Market."
I've waited long enough. It's time to review it, along with the new two-volume work on his "New Science of Socionomics." Why now? Because, unfortunately for America, reality is rapidly catching up with Prechter's dark scenario ... whether we like it or not.
Let me explain: Back as early as 1978 Prechter predicted the beginning of the "raging bull market of the 1980s." Nobody believed him then either. Yet later he was named "Guru of the Decade" by the Financial News Network. He was a credible voice.
Then in his 1995 "At the Crest of the Wave," Prechter predicted the end of this raging bull. However, the market failed to cooperate with the guru. The Dow pushed through 4,000 for the first time. The bull continued roaring. The Information Technology Revolution took off. The Dow nearly tripled in five years.
Meanwhile, here was one of America's most respected market forecasters predicting that the market was going down, not up. He predicted a historic crash, with the Dow collapsing 90 percent to 400, and the world falling into a 100-year bear market. Worse yet for Prechter, Wall Street optimists poured fuel on the fire with book titles like Dow 36,000, Dow 100,000 and The Roaring 2000s. With near religious fervor, Americans embraced the New Economy's promise of everlasting global prosperity.
Then came the sobering realities of the new millennium: A collapse of the technology engine, a devastating bear market, out-of-control government debt, massive domestic problems, a worldwide energy crisis and an accelerating deadly war on terrorism.
Blind to the coming storm
Given this rapid, dramatic shift -- from the glowing promises of the '90s to the dark realities of today -- we felt forced to re-examine Prechter's predictions of a devastating market crash and a 100-year bear market.
Prechter's message never wavered: Recently he told me: "One thing I've repeated consistently is that the great bear market will take the DJIA at least below 1,000 and likely to below 400. Precedents for this severe a decline are the English stock prices in 1720-1722 and American stock prices in 1929-1932."
No, NO! Damn it, no red-blooded American, including me, wants to admit that this doomsday scenario is possible. Even if it is! Why? Our mindset: Optimism dominates the American spirit! Always has. Negativity this profound is against our nature, alien to our soul. We instinctively reject it, deny it, tune it out. Don't look, it'll go away. Right?
Wrong! While we could easily dismiss Prechter's predictions during the manic '90s, the truth is the world is becoming more dangerous, threatening and ominous every day. This sudden and dramatic shift suggests that while the timing of Prechter's predictions was off in the short-term, his core theories may still be deadly accurate: The world is racing headlong into a catastrophic market crash and a 100-year bear market.
Ahead of his time
Prechter is now looking like a genius who simply arrived ahead of his time. In 1978 he was four years early. In 1995 he was five years ahead of his time. This was even more evident when I reviewed his "New Science of Socionomics."
In this work Prechter applies the Elliott Wave principles to mass social behavior and forces us to step out of our quarterly earnings myopia to look ahead at the long-term, for decades and even centuries. This level of thinking is difficult if not impossible for investors today.
Prechter's work reminded us of the economics prize the Nobel committee awarded to psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton in 2002. Kahneman deals with relatively simple microeconomic ideas, stuff investors intuitively understand. Prechter's ideas are in a more complex macroeconomic arena. Both, however, undermine Wall Street's time-honored "rational man" theory: individual investors make irrational decisions.
The differences are stark: In contrast to Kahneman's simple approach, Prechter's Elliott Wave Theories are loaded with esoteric mathematics, Fibonacci ratios, Kondratieff cycles and robust fractals. Technicians love all this stuff and maybe someday even the Nobel committee will. But, unfortunately, most investors on Main Street and even Wall Street get turned off by all numbers and formulas technicians rely on.
So, investors reject Prechter warnings for three reasons: His methods are too esoteric for a mathematically challenged nation, his predictions too dark for America's culture of optimism and his timing was off -- he missed the tail end of the raging bull.
When Prechter's "At the Crest of the Wave" arrived back in 1995 I was publishing a financial newsletter. I dismissed the book for all three reasons. I now believe that was a big mistake. Today he makes sense, even if psychologically I do not want to believe him.
Reality catching up with dark theories
The world has gone through a historic shift in the past five years. And while the credibility he earned in the '80s would be intact if he had simply not jumped the gun and used 2000 as the start date of the great bear rather than 1995, there is, nevertheless, a chilling sense that his world view is unfolding on a daily basis with terrorist killings, oil over $50 a barrel, America's huge $51 trillion debt and independent predictions of a global cultural war that will last decades, eventually escalating to a nuclear holocaust.
Today I see Prechter as the ultimate contrarian in predicting a dark scenario -- a 100-year bear market -- at a time when America was gushing with the eternal promises of the '90s New Economy and Information Revolution. His work parallels Kahneman's Nobel effort.
But while Kahneman's work essentially confirms what we already know about the value of asset allocation, buy-and-hold and indexing strategies for individual investors, Prechter's "New Socionomics" model focuses on mass behavior that has a life of its own, creating rather than reacting to world events. In Prechter's model, individual investors may be controlled by "subjective, unconscious, pre-rational impulses to herd determine financial values," but markets are still "patterned and probabilistically predictable."
So where does that leave us? Marching headlong into a 100-year bear market says Prechter. And while his predictions may still be unacceptable to you and me, the harsh reality is that the facts seem to be rapidly catching up with his theories. And that restores his credibility.