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Stock Market Performance During the Great Depression

The quarter century sideways market that began in 1929 is a myth. Here’s why.

Many people point to the US stock market performance after the 1929 crash as evidence that stocks can go nowhere for decades.

The argument usually points to the chart below, which shows the Dow Jones Industrial Average failing to retake its August 1929 peak until November 1954. In other words, people make the argument that someone investing in US stocks at the 1929 peak would have had to wait until November 1954 just to break even.

This is false.

The above chart shows the commonly used Dow Jones Industrial Average – an index based on price-returns.

What people completely miss is that investors would have received dividend payments during this entire period. Below, I adjust market returns to include dividends.

According to the calculation below, when including reinvested dividends, an investment at the 1929 peak would have returned on average 5.58% per year ending November 1954. That’s equivalent to a cumulative total return of just under 300%.

While it’s true that the buy-and-hold investor would have ridden a financial rollercoaster along the way, even the worst market timer would have done OK if they simply invested a lump sum and did nothing.

Source: DQYDJ

Of course, it took time for dividends to compensate for price declines. It wasn’t until 1945 that investors started to experience a positive total return. That’s still a long time to wait – and still implicit evidence that stock markets can take a long time to recover.

However, the stagnation narrative is significantly undermined, as this shows it took far less than a quarter-century for the worst market timer to break even.

The above examples show a worst case scenario – someone who’s only decision was to invest at the peak of a stock market bubble and then sit on their hands. This isn’t a realistic scenario for most of us.

Most people invest periodically (i.e. not all at once) as they stash away savings over time. So the more realistic illustration would show how someone performed if they started investing in 1929 and added to their investment over time.

The following chart shows the portfolio value for someone who spread their investment over a 40 month period, starting at the end of 1929. In this example, the person invests a total of $20,000. As you can see, their account is positive (i.e. above $20,000) from the end of 1933 onward.

This more realistic scenario again shows the myth of secular stock market stagnation narrative is largely misleading.

Data from Robert Shiller