Markets Q&A: Stocks stabilize, but can investors relax?

Is it safe to come out now?

The stock market has found firmer footing following its breathtaking drop earlier this month, when the S&P 500 lost 10.2 percent in just nine days. Stocks climbed Wednesday for the fourth straight day, and the S&P 500 has trimmed its loss to 6.1 percent from its record high, set on Jan. 26.

But investors have seen this playbook before. In past recoveries, it has sometimes taken months or more for momentum to fully turn around. And in a sign of how edgy markets remain, stock prices around the world quivered immediately following a report on U.S. inflation, which was higher than economists expected. The S&P 500 fell sharply when trading opened, before climbing as the day progressed.

Here's a look at what history shows about past corrections, and what market watchers are expecting going forward.

Q: How bad was this market drop?

A: Drops of 10 percent or more for stocks are regular occurrences but the speed with which this last correction struck was unusual. Only 19 times since World War II has the S&P 500 lost at least 10 percent in 10 days or fewer, according to strategists at UBS.

Besides this month's sell-off, those rapid retreats include a drop in August 2015 sparked by worries about slowing economic growth for China and a plunge in August 2011 after the U.S. credit rating got downgraded from AAA and worries about Europe's debt crisis were near their peak.

Q: What happened after the last such corrections?

A: Months of muddling along.

In August 2015, the S&P 500 lost 11.1 percent in six days. That was followed by two straight days of big gains, each at least 2.4 percent, a sign that the worst could be over.

But stocks ended up bobbing higher and lower for months. The market recovered all its losses by November, only to fall back into correction territory again by the ensuing January. It took 15 months for the index to climb 5 percent above where it was when the August 2015 slide began.

After the 2011 correction, where the S&P 500 at one point fell 11.2 percent in three days, it took nearly three months for the index to claw back all those losses.

Q: So, is this most recent correction all over?

A: In truth, no one knows. But many market pros say that they're confident the stock market will recover and eventually reach new heights. They don't see this as another market catastrophe like the Great Recession.

"I think the big one will come at some point, but typically to get a sustained drawdown you have to have a recession," said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network. "We're not looking like we'll have one of those for at least six months."

Plus, corporate earnings are going up. Seventy percent of the companies in the S&P 500 index have reported how much they earned in the last three months of 2017, and they're on pace to show growth of nearly 15 percent from a year earlier, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Q: What could trip things up?

A: The threat of higher inflation — and of the Federal Reserve jacking up interest rates quickly in response — is what triggered this most recent sell-off.

Those worries resurfaced on Wednesday after a report showed that consumer prices rose 0.5 percent last month from December. More troubling is that inflation rose faster than economists expected even after ignoring food and energy prices, which are notoriously jumpy. The report pushed Treasury yields higher and initially weighed on stock markets around the world.

If inflation proves to be higher than the market expects, it could trigger another sell-off in bonds that carries over into the stock market.

The markets will be watching new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell when he delivers a report on monetary policy to the House of Representatives on Feb. 28, and when he holds a scheduled press conference following the Fed's next policy-making meeting on March 21.

Q: Before this month's drop, analysts were saying the stock market was expensive. Is it cheap now?

A: It's cheaper, but not necessarily cheap.

Analysts look at several measures to gauge how expensive stocks are, and many of these measures are lower than they were a couple weeks ago but still above their long-term averages.

The S&P 500 trades at 16.8 times its expected earnings over the coming 12 months, for example. That's a more attractive price-earnings ratio than the 18.6 it sported when the index set its record on Jan. 26. But it remains more expensive than its median of 14.8 over the last 15 years.

"Back in 2009, I knew that it couldn't go much lower because I'd never in my life seen valuations as good as they were, but we're not at that point yet," said David Brown, chief market strategist at Sabrient Systems.

Q: Is everyone optimistic?

A: No. Some skeptics say they would feel more comfortable if stocks had fallen enough to clearly qualify as "cheap."

And while most economists are confident the economy will keep growing in 2018, some investors are warning about the years following.

"The risks of a recession in the next 18-24 months are rising," hedge fund titan Ray Dalio wrote in a recent post on LinkedIn, as the Federal Reserve feels more pressure to raise interest rates when wages are rising and a growing economy is getting more stimulus.

"While most market players are focusing on the strong 2018, we are focusing more on 2019 and 2020."