What Should Investors Make of February's Volatility

Feb 06, 2018

After a strong January, with the S&P 500 up 5.7%, equities have reversed sharply so far in February, and those year-to-date gains have been lost.1 This follows an extended period of low volatility — the market hadn’t pulled back by 5% or more since June 2016,2 and investors in large-cap equities enjoyed a 22% return in 2017.3

On average, markets historically have pulled back by 5% three times in any given year.4 Since 1980, the S&P 500 has had an average intra-year decline from peak-trough of 13.8%, but the market rose in 29 out of 38 years.5 Last year, the peak-trough decline was just 3%, the smallest intra-year pullback since 1995.6

Welcome back to volatility — it's normal. 2017 was more the abnormal period. 

Perspective on February's Market Volatility

Meanwhile, economic and business fundamentals are quite strong. The U.S. economy is expected to grow around 3% this year,7 and unemployment is hovering at a low 4.1%.8 We have been hearing from corporations over these past couple of weeks, and the news is compelling.  So far, earnings in the fourth quarter are up 13.3% versus the fourth quarter of 2016; 82% of the companies are beating analysts' expectations, and they are providing robust outlooks.9 Earnings are now expected to rise almost 19% in 2018, up from an expected rise of less than 14% just a month ago.10

With the economic and corporate good news comes the concern that it is too good. Last Friday's jobs report, which showed job gains of 200,000 in January, also showed a gain in wages at an annual rate of 2.9%.11 Over the past several weeks, the 10-year Treasury yield has risen from 2.4% to 2.8%.12 As rates rise, they become more competitive with equities, and equity valuations can compress (i.e., price-to-earnings ratios can drop, which likely means equity prices can drop).

As markets now battle between strong business conditions on one side, and inflationary fears and rising interest rates on the other, volatility has picked up. It's been a while. We have to adjust — just getting back to normal volatility will feel pretty rough.

What to do?

We stick to our plan — staying well-diversified, keeping our investment choices simple and effective, and operating as efficiently as possible by keeping program costs low and tax liabilities well-managed and limited. Where we can harvest losses for tax purposes, we will.

Traders and trading strategies can overwhelm fundamentals over short periods of time, but ultimately markets reflect economic growth and corporate success. We will follow our long-term discipline — rebalance where appropriate and maintain high confidence in our planning and in our investment program.


John Bussel Headshot Photo
John Bussel
Principal, co-Chief Investment Officer, Regional Director
View Profile

  1. Fred Imbert, “S&P 500 snaps its longest streak ever without back-to-back 0.5 percent declines,” CNBC, January 30, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/30/sp-500-snaps-its-longest-streak-ever-without-back-to-back-0-point-5-percent-declines.html, accessed February 2018.
  2. Matt Egan, “This Is the Calmest Stock Market Rally in History,” CNN Money, January 22, 2018, http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/22/investing/stock-market-today-extreme-calm-pullback/index.html, accessed February 2018.
  3. Rafia Hasan, “Market Reflections for Fourth Quarter 2017,” OneBite, January 2018, https://onebiteblog.com/market-reflections-for-fourth-quarter-2017/, accessed February 2018.
  4. Sources for Data: FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
  5. Ibid, 4.
  6. Brad Sorensen, Jeffrey Kleintop, Liz Ann Sonders, “Schwab Market Perspective: Melt-up! Now What?,” January 26, 2018, https://www.schwab.com/resource-center/insights/content/market-perspective, accessed February 2018.
  7. Heather Long, “U.S. Economy to Grow 2.7% in 2018, Boosted by Trump Tax Overhaul,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/01/22/u-s-economy-to-grow-nearly-3-percent-in-2018-because-of-trump-tax-cuts-imf-says/?utm_term=.60cbff4de5be, accessed February 2018.
  8. Maggie McGrath, “Unemployment Rate Holds Steady At 4.1%, as U.S. Adds 148,000 Jobs in December,” Forbes, January 5, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2018/01/05/unemployment-rate-holds-steady-at-4-1-as-u-s-adds-148000-jobs-in-december/#19c00c4a37de, accessed February 2018.
  9. Sheraz Mian, “Earnings Estimates Going Higher,” Zacks Investment Research, Inc., February 2, 2018, https://www.zacks.com/commentary/147830/earnings-estimates-going-higher, accessed February 2018.
  10. Ibid, 5.
  11. Jeff Cox, “Job Growth Up 200,000 in January, Better Than Expectations, and Wages Up,” CNBC, February 2, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/02/nonfarm-payrolls-jan-2018.html, accessed February 2018.
  12. Sunny Oh, “In a Switch, Wall Street Analysts Undershoot 10-year Treasury Climb,” MarketWatch, February 5, 2018, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/in-a-switch-wall-street-analysts-undershoot-10-year-treasury-yield-climb-2018-02-05, accessed February 2018.

Hewins Financial Advisors, LLC d/b/a Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors, LLC (“Hewins”) is an investment advisor registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Hewins is a proud affiliate of Wipfli LLP. Information pertaining to Hewins’ advisory operations, services and fees is set forth in Hewins’ current Form ADV Part 2A brochure, copies of which are available upon request at no cost or at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov. The views expressed by the author are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Hewins or its affiliates. The information contained in any third-party resource cited herein is not owned or controlled by Hewins, and Hewins does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of any information that may be found in such resources. Links to any third-party resource are provided as a courtesy for reference only and are not intended to be, and do not act as, an endorsement by Hewins of the third party or any of its content or use of its content. The standard information provided in this blog is for general purposes only and should not be construed as, or used as a substitute for, financial, investment or other professional advice. If you have questions regarding your financial situation, you should consult your financial planner, investment advisor, attorney or other professional. Hewins does not provide tax, accounting or legal services.

Find an Advisor