There's no doubt that there are green shoots in the economy. The housing market, which brought on the crash, may finally be starting to recover. Housing stats bottomed in January, and it looks like the rate of decline of housing prices is slowing. Volumes are rising at MasterCard and appear more or less stable at Visa. And corporate earnings aren't as big a disaster as everyone thought they'd be.
But now is not the time to be complacent.
Unfortunately, there's been very little evidence of a solid recovery. Sure, the financial crisis seems to be past, and the economy didn't collapse. After the turmoil that followed Lehman's failure, the government's quick actions to shore up the financial sector have convinced people that the government won't let another big bank fail. Consequently, the sheer terror we experienced last fall has faded to mere paranoia.
But beyond that, it's unclear when the real economy will recover. America's Gross Domestic Product was plummeting, and it now seems to be flattening out, but that isn't a great indicator of a recovery. It's almost inevitable that, without a complete financial collapse, GDP won't keep shrinking for long. A big part of the decline in GDP has been from inventories, which have been plummeting since October last year. But, manufacturers eventually have to increase output, or they'll run out of widgets to sell, and that boosts GDP figures.
What's more, the government has been throwing money at the economy to try to reverse the vicious cycle of layoffs resulting in lower corporate sales, which is leading to more layoffs. This, too, props up GDP, so it's not really surprising that GDP seems to have bottomed.
But funding a recovery with huge government spending and massive debt is like using a defibrillator to treat a heart attack. It can work well in short doses, but it's completely unsustainable over the long term. Maybe General Motors, Ford, and Toyota aren't complaining about the 30 percent boost to car sales in August as a result of the Cash for Clunkers program. But does anyone really believe that demand will be sustained through the end of the year?
The government isn't the key to recovery. Neither are corporations. Consumer spending is what really matters, accounting for 70 percent of the GDP. But right now, consumers are acting as cheap as a Congressman who has to spend his own money.
Americans seem to have finally realized that taking on a third mortgage to buy a second 74-inch TV for the bathroom is not a sensible decision. Household debt, which has been steadily rising since the 1950s, has actually started to decline. And consumer confidence, while improving, only looks good when you compare it to the all-time lows it hit in February.
But why should consumers be confident? The unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, just off a 26-year high. As if that weren't bad enough, 1.3 million Americans could exhaust their unemployment benefits before the end of the year.
And you expect consumers to help the economy rebound? Good luck with that.
Insiders are nervous — according to TrimTabs, the ratio of insider selling to buying in August exceeded 30, the highest level since TrimTabs started measuring the statistic in 2004. Companies as diverse as General Electric, UnitedHealth Group, Google, and Sirius XM participated in the recent spate of insider selling.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal. The latter is a subsidiary of GE.)
But despite all these problems, it's still hard to form a firm conclusion. Employment is a lagging indicator — companies hire when they need workers, not because they think that there's a chance they'll need workers next year. And insiders, like other investors, may simply be taking advantage of the huge bounce since March. Maybe we just need to wait, and those green shoots will blossom. If everything looked bright and cheery, it would hardly be the Great Recession now, would it?
It's a very confusing environment in which to be an investor. If this is the start of a recovery, the market could still run another 50 percent before testing the old highs. So scaling back your portfolio doesn't make sense. But if this is just an economic head fake, do you really want to relive the last few months of 2008?
The solution is to focus on value stocks. Value investing really shines right now, because it provides the best of both worlds. If you can buy a stock for 50 percent of its fair value, you make a 100 percent return if the stock returns to more rational pricing. But, since stocks tend to gravitate toward a fair price, value stocks can also cushion your portfolio during a bear market. You can get the upside, with less downside risk.
Our Inside Value newsletter has illustrated these benefits nicely. Since 2004 — including the massive plunge last September to March — this newsletter's recommendations outperformed the market by over 5 percentage points per pick.