Stock Market Week: Lessons from the past warn of testing times for small investors

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The Independent Online
David Schwartz describes himself as a stock market historian. He is certainly not like the analysts, chartists, strategists or any other of the experts who inhabit the City.

So has the statistician who started studying the stock market to help him manage his own portfolio much to offer to the great new year debate about the future direction of shares?

Bulls, who had a nervous time as shares crashed on Thursday, must hope not. For the American born, self-made equities expert believes Footsie will end the year at, wait for it, 3,200 points. He also sees cracks appearing in New York with the Dow Jones Average down to 5,200.

Some City experts are inclined to dismiss Mr Schwartz, who likes to point out that he watches share markets from the scenic Cotswolds, surrounded by cows not computer terminals.

Yet his record is impressive and he has built a strong following, particularly among small investors.

Peering into some of the more remote corners of history he concludes 1997 offers "very poor prospects" for investors. He reads last year's inflation signs as heralding a bear market. And the up-coming election is another cause for Schwartz concern. "History shows", he says, "that shares often fall when the Prime Minister's rating is very low - like John Major's is at present".

In Mr Schwartz's view the message from the past "is there are very high odds of a large fall in London in 1997. At its low point look for a test of the 3,000 level on the FTSE 100 before recovery begins".

The Cotswold share guru arrived in this country at the start of 1987 with his English-born wife, Philipa. His stock market business, represented by Burleigh Publishing, evolved as he took the view that his historical research had produced enough material for a book on the market, aimed at private investors. Articles in various publications followed; so did more books and a quarterly investment letter.

Mr Schwartz, who is 56, has never worked in the investment industry in the US or here. He thinks his relatively recent conversion to the market, his freedom from the hurly-burly of the City and the fact he is a commentator not linked to a share dealing operation give him an edge and allow more independence.

He has been looking for a share slide for some time. In his September newsletter he said: "We have repeatedly warned investors in recent issues that the next big move for UK equities is down."

It was much the same theme in last month's missive. Said Mr Schwartz: "One could be forgiven for thinking UK investors are having a great year ... but under the surface things are not quite as good as the headlines suggest..."

He adds: "A bleak long-term picture is getting worse. Many long-running historical trends are sending a very clear message - that the UK stock market is at or very close to its high point for the bull market."

He is convinced New York is due for a fall. In the last 150 years, seven of the eight US presidents who were re-elected for a second term suffered large Wall Street declines in the first year of their follow-up term. The average decline represented 1,000 points on today's Dow Jones index.

The exception was President Reagan, who achieved a 26 per cent rally. But Mr Schwartz says Wall Street had already fallen and the market then was ripe for a rally.

On inflation he says in the 13 post-war elections the cost of living had risen in the following year on 10 occasions.

"It vividly makes the point that politicians find it difficult to act responsibly while running for re-election."

The City fears, he says, that higher inflation will lower shares.

Mr Schwartz is nervous about any incoming Labour government, as well as such investment yardsticks as the dividend-yield ratio. He frets about the longevity of the current bull market ("a downturn is overdue").

If he has got it right and a bear market looms it will be a particularly testing time for many private investors.

Many have yet to experience the trials and tribulations of sliding, even crashing shares. How many witnessed the 1987 meltdown? Even fewer would have endured the drip-drip of the long 1970s bear run.

To some smart and dedicated players it has been relatively easy to make money in recent years. The Schwartz scenario signals the end of such easy pickings.

It is not only the private investor, already having to contend with the unhelpful attitude of the Stock Exchange and other interested bodies, who will suffer.

Many professionals, from fund managers to stockbrokers, arrived after 1987. And those who witnessed the 1970s are, by nature and the upheaval of Big Bang, a dwindling band.

Although professionals will struggle to cope it is the private investor who will be more at risk if liquidity dries up and prices swing violently.

Much tighter settlement - T plus three is still a possibility - and the arrival of the computerised Crest system are fine for institutions but a headache for the private investor. Order-driven trading, due this year, is another influence which in the long run is unlikely to benefit the small man.

A bear run could also be a testing experience for some of the cut price, execution-only stockbrokers, competing for the attention of the private investor.

Although the country swings back to work today there is little evidence the company reporting schedule is back on song. Dixons is the only major expected to report this week. It offers six-month figures with around pounds 57m expected against pounds 37.5m. More important than the profits will be details of Christmas sales.