S&P 500 tops 2000 as slow, steady gains continue for Wall Street

The S&P 500 rose to a new record Monday, crossing 2000 for the first time in a broad rally in which financials and biotech stocks led the market. With the S&P 500's new milestone, Wall Street continues one of its longest bull runs. 

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The S&P 500 topped 2,000 for the first time in its history in morning trading Monday, Aug. 25, 2014.

The S&P 500 rose to a new record on Monday, crossing 2,000 for the first time in a broad rally in which financials and biotechnology stocks led the market.

All 10 primary S&P 500 sectors were higher on the day, and more than two-thirds of stocks traded on both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq were higher on the day.

The benchmark S&P hit a new intraday record shortly after opening, and pierced 2000 for the first time within the first hour of trading amid corporate merger activity and growing hopes for more monetary stimulus in European markets.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 104.68 points or 0.62 percent, to 17,105.9, the S&P 500 gained 11.64 points or 0.59 percent, to 2000.04 and the Nasdaq Composite added 27.75 points or 0.61 percent, to 4,566.30. 

The S&P 500 milestone is jus the latest in a series of new highs for a bull market that is now well into its sixth year. As Schuyler Velasco wrote in a Monitor cover story earlier this month, this bull run has been characterized by slow, broad-based growth and a lack of enthusiastic support from financial pundits: 

The current run-up in stocks has certainly been impressive. It began in March 2009, just two months after Barack Obama was first sworn in as president and just as “Slumdog Millionaire” was winning the Oscar for best picture.

According to Ari Wald, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., August will mark the 64th month (5.3 years) of the bull market. It has become the fourth longest run without what economists call a “major correction” – a dip of 20 percent or more in value – in 85 years, since before the Great Depression. The longest bull market, in the 1990s, lasted more than 10 years. The market climbed for more than seven years in the 1950s and 6.2 years in the 1970s. Another notable bull run, in the Roaring ’20s, stretched over almost nine years and then plunged 90 percent in the crash that began in 1929. The current run-up, although steady, hasn’t been as strong as some of its recent predecessors. The bull market from 1982 to 1987 rose 229 percent, while the prolonged 1990s climb increased 582 percent. Through July 30, the current bull market is up 191 percent.

What this market hasn’t shown in strength, however, it has made up for in resilience. It has survived the lingering financial crisis in Europe and an anemic recovery in the United States. It has pushed on despite the Arab Spring, wars in Syria and Afghanistan, new bloodshed in Iraq, and Russian forays into Ukraine. 

One reason for its longevity is simply what it followed: A sustained period of growth often trails a deep economic downturn. “We were coming out of the worst recession in 75 years, so it isn’t difficult to believe we were going to go this long,” says Chuck Self, chief investment officer at 
 iSectors, a quantitative modeling service for financial advisers based in Appleton, Wis. 

Even more than with stock rallies of the past, Federal Reserve policy in the wake of the Great Recession has played a major part with this surge, with the Fed buying up bonds and keeping interest rates at historic lows. Many analysts say quantitative easing drove up the price of stocks and bonds, making the yields on bonds less attractive and forcing more investors into the equity market. The Dow regained all of the wealth it lost during the recession early last year. 

Unlike the ’90s bull market, when tech stocks led the charge, this bull market has also been broad-based. “For the first few years, it was a typical cyclical recovery: Industrials and financials all performed,” Mr. Self notes. “Now, we’re on the phase where more value stocks like energy, health care, and utilities are performing. In that sense, the bull market is more sustainable because there hasn’t been one sector driving it.”

Debate swirls in the canyons of Wall Street about how long the market rise will last. Almost hourly, some analyst is predicting an imminent correction. Some economists think the loose Federal Reserve monetary police has artificially propped up the market and will lead to a sharp downturn. Others think the market is just overvalued and due for a conventional pullback. 

Not everyone is pessimistic, though. Mr. Wald, for one, believes price levels in this bull market are more in line with their actual values. “In the ’90s, p/e ratios [a company’s share price compared to its per share earnings] were phenomenally high, in the 100s for tech stocks,” he says. “Now they’re more like 15 or 16, so even though the market is hitting new price highs, it’s being supported by better earnings.” He thinks the bull market could continue for another four to five years. 

The gain in US stock this year has outpaced those of other world markets and hard assets like gold, making it among the top investment options of 2014. 

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