America's Bull Run

Can we keep it going?

FE_PR_080114intro.jpg

Reagan's income-tax cuts slashed the top 70 percent rate by more than half.

By + More

What an amazing run. For a quarter century, from late 1982 through 2007, Americans enjoyed a financial and economic boom that was as powerful as it was unexpected. During that generational span, the economy more than doubled in size—rising from $5.2 trillion to $11.7 trillion, adjusted for inflation—as the stock market generated an incredible 2,300 percent total return. Downturns have been blessedly brief. Consider this: Since 1982, the economy has suffered two recessions, in 1990-91 and in 2001, for a total of 16 months. In the previous 25 years, the economy suffered six economic downturns for a painful total of 67 months.

No wonder this expansion has been called the "long boom." Actually, "superboom" is more like it. And talk about a pleasant surprise. Few people 25 years ago—optimist-in-chief Ronald Reagan being a notable exception—would have predicted that America was on the verge of such a terrific streak. "There was no reason for anybody to expect it," says longtime Wall Street veteran Hugh Johnson. "We had just come out of the 1970s with high inflation, and then we had a severe recession in the early 1980s. It was a very painful period."

Of course, one could make the case that things aren't so hot right now, either. While unemployment remains at a historically low level and the economy continues to grow—albeit slowly—concerns abound. The housing market is imploding, gas prices rising, the dollar sinking. Beyond those more immediate concerns, America faces aggressive economic competitors abroad in China and India and an apparent inability here at home to deal with obvious fiscal problems such as Social Security and healthcare. Why, it's almost enough to make you stuff your retirement dough in a mattress or bury a few gold bars beneath the deck out back.

Room to run. But don't. America has all the tools and capabilities to make 2008 mark the beginning of another sterling, 25-year run of prosperity and climbing stock markets. Another 2,000 percent gain for stocks? Well, probably not. The market was at such a depressed level when it bottomed in 1982 that stocks had plenty of space to soar. The price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 composite had shriveled to just 7; it's closer to 19 these days. And while the stock market's performance was primarily driven by corporate earnings growth on the back of the booming economy, "you also had that extra kick from just the revaluation of the P/E ratio," says Gus Sauter, the chief investment officer at Vanguard.

Today's investors should expect no such boost going forward. Still, Robert Doll, the global chief investment officer at BlackRock, expects the market to generate average annual returns in the "high single digits" over the next quarter century. Sure, that's less than the 13.6 percent annual average of the past 25 years, but it's still pretty darn compelling. "If you own equities over [the upcoming] 25-year period, you're going to have a higher return than the guy to your left, who owns bonds, and the guy to your right, who is in cash," Doll says.

But there are certainly no guarantees that stocks will do so well in coming years. Economic stagnation can stifle a stock market. In Japan, for instance, the Nikkei 225 stock index finished just shy of 39,000 in 1989 before beginning a long, downward trend that reflected the nation's economic woes. Right now, nearly two decades later, the Nikkei is sitting around 15,000.

The key, then, for America is to keep its economy growing as fast as possible without triggering inflation. The U.S. economy would grow to $23 trillion over the next quarter century if it expanded at a so-so 2.5 percent yearly pace. But if it grew at 3 percent, it would reach $26 trillion. That extra $3 trillion is like growing another Germany, with enough left over for a Saudi Arabia. Think of it: extra dough to pay down the national debt, fund a new social insurance system, or invest in energy independence. Worried about growing economic inequality? A bigger economy means more resources for education and worker training.