Wall Street is a business of measurement, and lately it's become focused on detailing several major milestones that gauge how far this market has come.
Here are a few that are, or will soon be, subject to plenty of chatter among investors in the slow days of deepest summer:
- Measured in the conventional way, this bull market in the coming weeks will become the longest ever recorded.
- September will mark a decade since the failure of Lehman Brothers touched off the market crash that accompanied the crescendo of the global financial crisis.
- Apple last week became the first U.S. company to reach $1 trillion in market capitalization.
These reflect some mix of calendar quirk and arbitrary statistical threshold, for sure. But the fact that they are getting attention also reveals a broader preoccupation with the distance traveled and the advancing age of this financial cycle, with an implicit suggestion that these signals are building to some culmination of this bull market rather than serving as mere markers along the way.
Assessing each of these milestones in turn, it leads to a more nuanced view of how far this cycle has traveled and where it might lead next.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch is among those noting that in less than three weeks, the current bull market will rank as the longest of all time, eclipsing the climb that spanned most of the 1990s. This ultimately will require that the Jan. 26 record high in the S&P 500 does not prove to be the ultimate peak for this bull phase.
But it also leans on a fairly simplistic and arguably unhelpful method for dating and classifying bull and bear markets: So long as the S&P fails to decline at least 20 percent from a high following at least a 20 percent gain, a bull market is considered ongoing.
This approach has the virtue of transparency and ease of use, but it obscures what many veteran investors view as important severe pullbacks since 2009 that reset market valuation and risk appetites.
Aside from the 15-percent-plus gut checks in 2010 and 2011, the nasty downturn of 2015-2016 led most global indexes into full-fledged bear markets, and most U.S. stocks lost more than 20 percent. While not a lasting bear market, this purge arguably turned back the clock somewhat in gauging the functional age of this bull.
And this has been an unusually long, drawn-out cycle – one that has gotten an unusual jolt of rapid corporate-profit growth nearly a decade after the last recession. So it's particularly hard to place it on the usual actuarial tables.